This column was originally published in The Inkwell and on its website.
Kansas Jayhawks basketball star freshman Andrew Wiggins has not been the best player in the nation, or on his team this year. He hasn’t even been the best freshman on his team. That honor goes to seven-foot center Joel Embiid. The weirdest part about all of that is how much we care.
Wiggins, at 18 years old and in his first year of college basketball, hasn’t played at a LeBron James level this year and somehow that makes his season a disappointment. The Canadian native shouldn’t even be playing for Kansas right now, because he originally was classified as the top prospect for the 2014 recruiting class until he reclassified himself as part of the 2013 class, in October of 2012. As part of the 2013 class, Wiggins went on to win the Naismith Prep Player of the Year, Gatorade Player of the Year and Mr. Basketball USA. YouTube highlight films exploded with Wiggins flying through the air and showing a smooth stroke from the outside. In October 2013, Sports Illustrated put him on the cover, comparing him to Wilt Chamberlain, and he’s been the consensus No. 1 draft pick since his senior year of high school.
The tables have turned in Kansas, with Embiid taking over as the new option for the top pick in the draft, with his rare combination of size and raw athleticism. What makes the story of Embiid rising over his heralded teammate is his limited basketball experience. Embiid, hailing from Cameroon, has only played basketball for two and a half years. That’s right. While stars such as Wiggins have been playing the best AAU basketball talent since they put their first pair of Nikes on their feet, Embiid barely knows the game.
For most of Embiid’s youth, he played soccer and volleyball, which comes out on the court with smooth footwork and athleticism. He’s already been compared to Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, and is quite the interesting one-and-done candidate.
Embiid was quoted by ESPN saying, “I want to be great, I want to be the best at my position one day. I’m trying to learn everything. All of the great big men went to college at least two or three years.” The quote is admirable, as Embiid clearly has the determination to reach his potential, but his draft stock may never be higher and the green may be too hard to turn down after just one season in Kansas.
Before Wiggins declared himself as part of the 2013 class, Duke freshman Jabari Parker was the original top recruit. Parker is the same height as Wiggins, but much thicker and more polished at this point. The ceiling versus production argument has always been pitted against Parker and Wiggins. Currently, Parker is averaging roughly three more points and two more rebounds per game than Wiggins. Parker looks like a Carmelo Anthony-like player with the ability to shoot from all over the court and post-up on the block.
The “Big Three” of freshmen in college basketball are Embiid, Wiggins and Parker, with Kentucky’s Julius Randle right behind. Freshmen have ruled college basketball this season, and the 2014 draft class is considered one of the deepest of all-time if all the suspected players declare for the draft.
In ESPN draft expert Chad Ford’s latest NBA mock draft (Jan. 23), Ford has 16 freshmen — including foreign players who would be college freshmen — taking up the 30 slots of the first round. The mock draft has Embiid, Wiggins and Parker as the first three selections, with Randle going fifth.
The biggest men on campus at the basketball powerhouse schools of Duke, Kansas and Kentucky are 18 and 19 year old freshmen. They are the stars of the school, and the most scrutinized at the same time. This is the problem with one-and-done players. With everyone knowing they are going into the draft after one season, fans and the media expect greatness and championships by just throwing them into the fire of college basketball.
Embiid’s comments of possibly coming back to Kansas after this season shows how much the sport has changed. For every person that believes in the values of college basketball and staying in school for three to four years, there are an equal amount of supporters for young athletes making a living for themselves and their families.
The days of the eventual Hall of Fame player dominating college basketball as a junior or senior like Larry Bird did his junior year are dead. Now, the biggest men on campus are still little with their maturity of the game.