Joel Embiid’s long path to the NBA is well-documented. Believed to be the top-prospect of the 2014 draft, his injury concerns caused him to drop ever-so-slightly to the Philadelphia 76ers.
After missing the first two seasons of his career, those concerns appeared to be legitimate. Since playing in his first game in 2016, however, Embiid is now one of the league’s best big men, and while injury concerns remain, his place in the league is secure.
While injuries may have put his career in limbo, something far more serious almost ended it before it could even begin.
What happened to Joel Embiid?
It wasn’t an injury or a major life event that caused Joel Embiid to question his future in the game. Instead, it was an unfortunate battle with embarrassment after his Kansas teammate Tarik Black showed off his hops in practice. Embiid wrote about this experience in a piece for The Players Tribune.
“My very first scrimmage at Kansas,” Embiid wrote. “I got dunked on so hard by Tarik Black that I almost quit. Tarik dunked on me so hard that I was looking at plane tickets home. This guy was a senior. He was a grown man. I didn’t know what was going on. He got his own rebound and dunked over me so hard that everything went in slow motion.”
Adding to the embarrassment, Embiid said was the ball bouncing off of the top of his head while the entire women’s basketball team looked on from the bleachers. Always one to add a little humor to a situation, it’s hard to know whether Embiid was seriously contemplating basketball mortality. He even claims that he went to coach Bill Self’s office to retire.
While there certainly is humor in Joel Embiid’s recounting of the situation, his humiliation may not have been a joke. He was, after all, a Cameroonian teenager still acclimating himself to America.
Discovering the game
According to Joel Embiid, his interest in basketball began in 2010 when he was 15 years old and 6’9″ tall. Already used to using his height in volleyball, it wasn’t until he saw a video of Hakeem Olajuwon that he considered playing basketball. Not long after, he attended basketball camp given by fellow countryman Luc Mbah a Moute.
One thing led to another, and Embiid was attending the NBA‘s annual Basketball Without Borders camp, a camp that is saved for the continent’s most promising up-and-comers. Although he didn’t make the all-camp team, the experience was vital to his future in the sport.
“I wasn’t as good as all the guys,” he told NBA.com. “I didn’t know how to shoot, the mechanics, how to handle the ball. It’s just a testament to all the work I put in. I still have a long way to go. I can be so much better. I know Africans, we all start basketball late. This is where it all started for me.”
The next year, Embiid had worked on his game enough to secure a scholarship to an American high school.
According to Joel Embiid, his passage to America was a risk. There were no guarantees of a college career, let alone one in the NBA. His parents reluctantly allowed him to pursue his dreams, however, and it eventually paid off.
He started at the Montverde Academy, where he barely played as a junior in high school. The next year, however, he was playing at the Rock School, in AAU, and eventually got enough attention to play in Kansas.
Embiid has a reputation as a fun-loving goof, but it is easy to forget the sacrifices he made to get to where he is. With a little hard work, the occasional help from others, and even the occasional posterization from a teammate, he carved his path into the NBA.
He shows no signs of slowing down, either, and the NBA’s increasing embrace of international players is giving more opportunities to people like Embiid.