When a player is out for extended time with an injury, no news is generally good news. For most of last season, updates on Nerlens Noel came in several small, Zapruder like snippets from practice, but he was otherwise off the radar. Two years ago, 76ers fans dealt with the opposite, tracking Andrew Bynum as he bowled and salsa danced his way into infamy.
Keith Pompey's recent report on Joel Embiid -- which Derek Bodner expressed concern about here -- trends closer toward our old pal Andrew than anything we've seen from Noel since he became a Sixer. Derek's questions on mental makeup are legitimate; psychology is a treacherous field for trained professionals, and most of the people gathering intel on Embiid's mind do not qualify as such. There's a possibility that he never maximizes his gifts because he is not driven to do so.
Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, it's probably worth considering some context.
Embiid is a basketball genius. After being plucked out of obscurity in Cameroon, he failed to make much of a first impression on his high school teammates, according to Jason King's profile of the center from two Decembers ago:
The first time Kansas center Joel Embiid played basketball on U.S. soil, his high school teammates laughed.
A guard's pass hit Embiid in the stomach. He tripped and fell coming off a screen, and the ball bounced off his foot when he was simply trying to dribble past a defender.
Three years later, the converted volleyball and soccer player was widely considered the best -- or close to the best -- prospect in a ballyhooed draft class before a foot injury dinged his draft stock. He was unleashing Dream Shakes and putting up per-40 stats that had teams salivating at drafting him.
When geniuses are identified in educational settings, modern practice is to place them in an environment with less restrictions, allowing them to maximize their abilities in a journey of self-discovery. Without the ability to play basketball currently, Embiid is Jimi Hendrix sans axe.
In more concrete terms, imagine being so gifted (physically and mentally) that you're able to surpass people who have spent the majority of their lives building toward success in a field. Andrew Wiggins, son of a former pro and Embiid's closest competition on draft boards, grew up with a basketball beside his bed. Yet Embiid overshadowed him at Kansas, because in the college world there is no answer for an athletic, seven-foot man with feathery touch.
At this point in his athletic career, there has been nary a challenge facing Embiid. He is closer to King Arthur -- the boy who casually pulled sword from stone -- than a real person. Leading into the draft and following his arrival, there were signs that he hasn't necessarily taken basketball or life in general that seriously. It doesn't have to be an indictment -- he hasn't had to!
The more interesting question to me than "Is he immature?" is this -- how will Embiid react to frustration and failure, a hurdle he hasn't had to clear often at lower levels of competition? When he finally plays NBA minutes, it will be one of his first opportunities to spar with giants of his caliber. He will get pushed around, hit in the mouth and not always be the largest, most physically dominant person on the floor. If he is not diligent with his approach to the game, he will get abused by grown men who understand what it takes to make it in the league.
There's a downside to being so good, so quickly. You aren't dealing with a typical incentive structure when handling a person who went from unable to catch a pass to dunking the shit out of everything in two years. When you're capable of quantum leaps, incremental gains -- or in this case, losses -- can seem trivial. The hope is always that players "get it" from day one, but drawing the best out of different personalities is a major reason why coaches earn checks.
Despite his prowess, Embiid is not above a core part of his job, not even close. Explaining things away by saying "Wait until he plays!" is an oversimplification, and he's paid handsomely with the expectation that he'll dedicate himself as a professional when he can't play. I do think, however, it's worth considering what it means for basketball to be taken away from him.
It's easy to take for granted because we are on the fringes of his existence, but taking basketball away from Embiid removes the sole reason he's in America to begin with. He is away from his home, away from the family that suffered tragic loss during his absence, and for all intents and purposes "away" from the game that is one of the sources of joy and comfort in his life. Many people can't get through something as small as a breakup without Ben & Jerry's and an indefinite period of self-loathing. Yet here we are, yelling about a 20-year old transplant handling losing the things he loves poorly.
Consider one last anecdote, again from King's profile on Embiid, about how Embiid reacted to criticism from Kansas coach Bill Self:
"You looked like a jackass out there," Self said. "I don't know about you, Joel. Your attitude stinks. You're soft. I don't know if I can coach you, Joel. Maybe you should just take your ass back to Cameroon."
Embiid said he left Allen Fieldhouse in tears. And he was still rattled nearly 24 hours later when [Kansas assistant Norm] Roberts found him on the practice court.
Ever since that day, Embiid has operated with the kind of intensity that Self demands. He's one of the Jayhawks' most competitive players at practice-"I got you, 'Mari!" Embiid screamed after dunking over teammate Jamari Traylor during a recent workout-but he's also the most attentive.
"He's been unbelievable as far as listening goes," Self said. "We never have to tell him something twice."
That picture of Embiid -- sobbing over criticism, going hard in practice and absorbing everything around him -- is the identity we've heard about far more often than one of laziness. It's the identity I choose to believe in until he's proven he no longer deserves benefit of the doubt.