Joel Embiid returns to KU for 76ers practice, says he didn’t want to leave

By Gary Bedore gbedore@kcstar.com

A group of University of Kansas students leaned over a railing on the second floor of Allen Fieldhouse while trying to eavesdrop on a mass media interview session with fourth-year Philadelphia 76ers and former KU center Joel Embiid.

“Trust the process,” one of the fans screeched at Embiid, who without hesitation looked skyward from court level and replied, “Trust it,” with a big grin.

Those same fans raced down the steps to pose for selfies with the 7-foot, 285-pound Embiid, who was the last Sixers player to leave the fieldhouse after hoisting about 100 three-pointers to conclude a two-hour team practice on Thursday afternoon — a brisk workout held in advance of Friday’s NBA preseason game against the Miami Heat at 7:30 p.m. in the Sprint Center.

Embiid — who has had three injury-plagued seasons in the NBA after his one-and-done season at KU in 2013-14 — says he loves to hear fans chant his signature saying, “Trust the Process,” wherever he goes.

He was startled when KU students serenaded him with the words on a brisk walk on campus Thursday morning.

 

“I was supposed to take the bus with the team (to Lawrence from a Kansas City hotel where the Sixers arrived in the early morning hours following an exhibition game in New York). I wanted to walk around, and I walked around all the way to the fieldhouse,” added Embiid, who had a driver deposit him on campus a healthy stroll from Allen.

“I’ve still got three more years (of college) left. I definitely am going to come back and finish school. I just wanted to come back today and get the feel for it. I loved it,” Embiid added of getting the vibe of being a college student again.

 

Embiid — who scored 22 points and grabbed seven rebounds against Brooklyn in his first exhibition game of the season on Wednesday, his first game played since last March’s knee surgery — visited with Kansas coach Bill Self immediately after arriving at Allen Fieldhouse on Thursday morning.

Embiid then spoke with some of the current players including sophomore big man Udoka Azubuike.

After practice, feeling the KU love, he revealed, to 20 or so media members, some breaking news of sorts involving his college days.

“When I was here — I don’t think anybody knows the story‚ I actually decided to stay (a second year) because I love this place so much, but I was kind of pushed to leave,” Embiid said.

“I love this place so much. Anytime I get the chance to come back I am going to do that. Stepping on this floor … this is kind of where it started for me. Without coming to this place, I don’t think I would have been the third pick (in 2014 NBA Draft). I don’t think I would have been there for the 76ers. I am thankful.”

Pressed to reveal the person or persons who “pushed him to leave” KU, Embiid said “I’m not going to say. It was a tough choice. I’ve still got a lot of love for Kansas. Every time I get a chance to represent, I always do.”

Embiid — who has been all over the news since signing a five-year, $148 million extension to his rookie contract on Monday — said he’s looking forward to playing on Friday night at Sprint Center before what figures to be a pro-Sixers/pro-Embiid crowd.

“I am playing. I’m back in Kansas. Of course I’ve got to play,” said Embiid. He indicated his body which has allowed him to play just 31 NBA games in three seasons, “feels great. Honestly I was actually surprised at what I did yesterday (vs. Brooklyn).”

He put on quite a show on Thursday at Allen Fieldhouse in front of several KU players and coaches who watched the workout, including Azubuike, Charlie Moore and Marcus Garrett. Embiid after participating in a team scrimmage situation, held his own personal shooting workout for a good 20 minutes before meeting the media and his fans.

He said his Sixer teammates appeared to have fun working out in Embiid’s historic college arena.

“We’ve got some Duke teammates who think they’ve got the best arena. I always tell them, ‘You’ve never been here — 16,000 people just cheering like it’s insane,’” Embiid said. “You can’t even hear. I talked to Jacob (Pullen, former K-State guard now with the Sixers). He told me he’s been to Duke, too. He thinks this is the best arena in all sports.”

Embiid said he jokes with Pullen a lot.

“Obviously we are 1,000 times better than them,” Embiid said of Pullen’s Wildcats. “Anytime I get a chance to take a jab at them I always do.”

Embiid obviously has come a long ways since his KU days, striking it rich in the league in this his fourth season removed from Lawrence.

“I played my first pickup game at KU and I got dunked on. I was getting dominated all over the place. After that pickup game I went up to coach’s office. I basically told him I wanted to redshirt. He was, ‘Are you kidding me? You are going to be the No. 1 pick in the draft in two years.’ He was talking about (being No 1 pick) after my sophomore year,” Embiid said in a recent ESPN interview.

Self — who said he remembers Embiid as a “sponge” during a promising freshman season in which Embiid averaged 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game before suffering a back injury that kept him from playing in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments — recalls that heart-to-heart meeting with Embiid very well.

“I said, ‘No, Jo, you don’t need to redshirt. You are going to be the No. 1 pick in the draft in a couple years,’” Self told The Star.

“No,” Self said, asked if Embiid believed the coach about his draft stock. “He didn’t think he was good enough. That was from one pickup game. A lot of freshmen feel that way.”

Though KU big-man coach Norm Roberts said Embiid during that freshman year exhibited, “great hands, great touch, good footwork and could run,” the young center from Cameroon just didn’t see the NBA in his immediate future.

Remember he was just 19 and had played basketball just four years when he arrived to play high school ball in Florida.

“Thinking back to what Coach Self told me, at that time he kind of looked crazy. Looking back with how much I got better that year I could see what he was saying to me,” the 23-year-old Embiid said.

KU assistant Roberts said the Jayhawk coaches pretty much knew they were going to lose Embiid to the draft after he erupted for 16 points with nine rebounds, five blocks (and seven turnovers) while playing 28 minutes in a 77-70 win over Iowa State in January in Ames.

“We all love him,” Self said. “Nine months or 10 months is obviously all the time you get with one-and-done guys. He was a pleasure to be around.”

“Like coach says he was a sponge. He was great,” said Roberts, who gave Embiid a big hug upon seeing him on Thursday. “He did it (emerging as top player worthy of such a big contract). Now he just has to stay healthy. If he stays healthy, he’ll be the best center in pro basketball, no doubt.”

Yes, staying healthy is key for Embiid, who showed flashes of his skills on Thursday in Lawrence.

“I feel like I’m still behind. I’ve got to stay healthy. When I catch up, I think I have a great shot pushing the team and making the playoffs,” Embiid said.


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