The argument in favor of Joel Embiid as the No. 1 pick in next June's NBA draft has always been that the ultra-talented Kansas 7-footer has more upside than any other prospect in college basketball.
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg went one step further after Embiid delivered 16 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in a 77-70 victory over the Cyclones on Monday night. Hoiberg told reporters after the game, "I think Embiid’s the best player in the country."
"You see him play tonight?" Hoiberg continued. "That’s why. He’s huge and he’s got great length. He can shoot, and he’s got incredible footwork, and he’s been playing the game for about two years (three)."
Calling Embiid the nation's best player today is probably hyperbole given that he averages a modest 10.9 points per game, he can be turnover prone and he struggles to stay out of foul trouble. Nonetheless, the Cameroonian 7-footer continues to progress at a rapid enough rate in all phases of the game that it's certainly not a stretch to discuss whether he is the best prospect in college basketball.
A native of Cameroon who grew up playing soccer and volleyball, Embiid didn't participate in organized basketball until the summer before his junior season of high school when ex-UCLA star Luc Richard Mbah a Moute discovered him at a camp. In the two-plus years since that point, Embiid has transformed himself from a backup on his first U.S. high school team to a coveted Division I recruit to an NBA prospect threatening to eclipse teammate Andrew Wiggins as the next No. 1 pick.
The graceful footwork in the post that has NBA scouts salivating was on display in the second half on Monday night, as was Embiid's intimidating shot blocking prowess and impressive court vision. In one 45-second stretch, Embiid threw a cross-court pass out of a double team to a cutting teammate for a layup, blocked a shot at the other end and twice spun away from double teams in the post for artful baskets.
Dealing with double teams is still a work in progress for Embiid, as evidenced by his seven turnovers against Iowa State. He also is still learning not to retaliate when opponents are physical with him, a problem that led to an ejection for flagrant foul against Kansas State and a technical foul against the Cyclones.
Still, that 45-second stretch against Iowa State alone showed both Embiid's potential and how far he has come since San Diego State flummoxed him just eight days earlier with aggressive double teams in the post.
Despite Hoiberg's praise, Embiid probably isn't the best player in college basketball today and he probably won't achieve that by the end of the season either. Nonetheless, his rapid development is a big reason Kansas could still emerge as college basketball's best team by March and why Embiid has a chance to be this draft class' best player not too far in the distant future.