By Jeff Borzello | College Basketball Recruiting Blogger
Eighteen months ago, Joel Embiid had never played basketball.
He was in his native Cameroon, and despite standing over 7-feet tall, Embiid and basketball were never a match.
Fast-forward to this summer, and Embiid (No. 34 in the video above) has emerged as one of the most talked-about big men on the recruiting landscape.
"He's got untapped potential, when he figures it all out," one Division I assistant coach said. "In two years, he's going to be really good for somebody."
He's 7-1, knows how to run the floor and is already effective on the defensive end. Embiid's offensive game isn't there yet, but his ceiling is what has colleges intrigued.
"He's a high-major kid," said an assistant coach who has watched Embiid multiple times. "He has lots of upside, good timing, good hands."
Embiid began playing at one of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's basketball camps in Cameroon. Mbah a Moute, a fellow Cameroon native who is now playing with the Milwaukee Bucks, found Embiid and encouraged him to attend Montverde Academy (Fla.), where he attended high school.
In November, Embiid came over from Africa to Montverde, where he played under legendary high school coach Kevin Boyle for five months.
"We didn't cover a lot of things, but he helped me a lot," Embiid said of Boyle. "Coach Kevin Boyle loves me, he helps me."
Because he was playing behind Clemson signee Landry Nnoko -- another Cameroon native -- at Montverde, Embiid played sparingly during the regular season. People who attended practices immediately noticed his aggressiveness and rapid improvement; Embiid simply needed more playing time. He did show flashes at the National High School Invitational in March, but it was his performance on the AAU circuit that truly opened some eyes.
At the Adidas Invitational in Indianapolis in July, there were nonstop whispers about the big man for Florida Elite -- no, not Chris Walker -- and why very few people had seen him play or even heard of him.
When one of his games ended, a media hoard swarmed around Embiid -- and this was after a fairly unproductive game. The intrigue with the big man does not come with consistent points and rebounds at this point in his development; everyone is curious about what Embiid looks like down the road, a couple of years from now.
For someone who has only been playing for a year and a half, Embiid knows how to operate in the post, in terms of getting position and turning to the basket. While some might see that as effective training, Embiid is actually self-taught when it comes to back-to-the-basket moves.
"He learned his foot skills by watching videotapes of Hakeem Olajuwon," said Jeff Simmons, Embiid's AAU coach with Florida Elite. "He taught himself. His footwork is outstanding."
More importantly, Embiid is interested in working on his game and continuing to get better. He pointed out that he is solid in the post, but can certainly improve his post moves. Embiid also said that he wants to expand his offensive game to include more perimeter skills.
"I can play center now," Embiid said. "But I want to be a forward."
Simmons said the basketball transformation Embiid has undergone since he first saw Embiid play is like night and day. He said Embiid was understandably raw in the early stages, and while he still is not refined, he's slowly getting there.
"He's still learning the sport," Simmons said.
Florida and UCLA were both on Embiid early, and he took a trip to Gainesville in early March. His connection with the Bruins lies with Mbah a Moute, who is close with Embiid and attended UCLA before being drafted by the Bucks.
Louisville, Virginia, Texas and Georgia Tech are also expressing interest, while Embiid mentioned that he received letters from Mississippi State, Ole Miss, South Florida, DePaul, VCU, Temple and Butler.
The scary part is that the heavy interest from colleges will only increase as more and more coaches see him throughout his high school season (which, according to sources, is not likely to be at Montverde).
"He's special," Simmons said. "He's going to be good."
If Embiid's development over the past 18 months is any indication, that could be an understatement.