A coach gave Joel Embiid a DVD of Hakeem Olajuwon three years ago, when Embiid was first learning to play basketball in his native Cameroon. All it did was change his life.
Young Joel liked that Olajuwon, a native of Nigeria, was also an African, and that he had gone on to a Hall of Fame NBA career. But something else caught Embiid’s eye as he watched highlights of The Dream in his heyday with the Houston Rockets.
“Just the way he moves,” Embiid said on a conference call with reporters Monday, four days after the Sixers made him the third pick in the NBA draft. “It’s kind of like he’s dancing.”
Certainly Embiid likes to dance himself -- “Sometimes I’ll be just walking down the street,” he said, “and I’ll boogie my shoulders” -- but this was like nothing he had ever seen. Head-and-shoulder fakes. Up-and-under moves. And, of course, the patented Dream Shake, wherein Olajuwon swayed his shoulders back and forth, then slithered past the bewildered lummox guarding him in the post.
The 7-foot, 250-pound Embiid devoured the DVD, watched it again and again. And he still takes in YouTube videos of The Dream, still tries to mimic every move of a guy he has come to regard as his idol.
Call it Dancing With a Star, then. And understand that it helped Embiid, a one-time wallflower, attract the eye of every NBA suitor.
Understand further that the transformation has been a rapid one.
Before he picked up basketball in early ’11, he played volleyball and soccer. That summer he was discovered at a camp in Cameroon by Luc Mbah a Moute, now of the Minnesota Timberwolves and the only other native of that nation now in the NBA. In the fall Embiid came to the States, but was only a JV at a Florida high school. The next season he moved on to another Florida high school, and was good enough to catch the attention of major college powers.
He spent a year at Kansas, and might very well have been the top pick in the draft, were it not for the stress fracture he suffered in his right foot. As it was, the Sixers scooped him up at No. 3, and believe he can be a critical part of their rebuilding efforts.
“This is crazy,” he said of his unlikely rise. “I still can’t believe it. … For me, it’s just an example to show people anything is possible. That’s the message I want to send to everybody: Anything’s possible.”
The 20-year-old Embiid was refreshingly earnest during Monday’s call, expressing appreciation that the Sixers took him so early in the draft, even after his injury.
“I’m not going to disappoint them,” he said.
He also said his back injury, suffered late in the season at Kansas, is no longer an issue. That he has been recuperating from his foot surgery in California, but plans to come to Philadelphia next week, and looks forward to eating his first cheesesteak (see story).
“It’s going to be a great fit for me,” he said of the city.
He fully expected to redshirt last season at Kansas, and didn’t begin to regard himself as NBA material until he made his first start, on Dec. 10 at Florida (a game in which Embiid managed six points and six rebounds in a 67-61 loss). Four days later he notched 16 of his 18 points in the second half of a home victory over New Mexico. He also recalled it being the first time he executed the Dream Shake in a game.
“That’s when I realized that, ‘Oh, maybe I have a chance to get in the NBA,’” he said.
He wound up averaging 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 23.1 minutes a night for the Jayhawks. He is regarded as unspoiled, as guy with no bad habits to unlearn, as someone with limitless potential.
But there is, of course, that giant asterisk about his health. Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie said last week that Embiid’s recovery will take from five to eight months, though the team is expected to hold him out all season, as it did with Nerlens Noel last year.
In the meantime, Embiid plans to work on every aspect of his game.
“I want to be the kind of player who can do everything,” he said.
Like Olajuwon, in other words.
Embiid has yet to meet his idol, though he did speak with him on the phone some two weeks before the draft.
“When he was talking to me I was just excited,” he said. “I was just laughing the whole time. … I don’t even remember what he said.”
Embiid hopes to get together with Olajuwon someday soon, perhaps to work out.
“I obviously want to have the same career like he had -- you know, Hall of Famer,” he said. “He makes me want to work harder. I’m going to do everything I can to have a great career, stay healthy and just take care of myself and do some damage in the NBA.”
As he said, anything’s possible.