The longest stable stretch of Joel Embiid's life as a basketball player has been the stretch when he could not play basketball. It is easy to forget this because so many people - the 76ers, their fans, anyone curious about what Embiid could and would do once he was healthy - have been waiting so long to see him play. That wait, that preoccupation with the skills that Embiid might display on the court, has overshadowed everything else about him, including and especially how little basketball he has played in his life, how close he came to not being a Sixer at all, and how his past might affect his future.
On Monday, one day before training camp began and he participated in his first official NBA practice - minimally, because he was fighting the flu - Embiid revealed that he had doubts about leaving the University of Kansas and declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft in 2014, after his freshman season. In fact, he said, he was planning to return to Kansas for his sophomore year until his friend and mentor Luc Mbah a Moute and other NBA players persuaded him to turn pro.
"I was going to stay," he said.
Such indecisiveness is common among elite college basketball players who are weighing whether to enter the draft. If they're able to put aside the money that the NCAA and the television networks and their coaches make on their backs - money that, per the NCAA's commitment to "amateurism," is never supposed to line the players' own pockets - they have it pretty good. They get a free education. They get friendships. They get to hone their games. They get to travel the country and play on national TV.
They're the big men on their campuses - in the case of Embiid, now 7-foot-2, that's a literal characterization - and those campuses can be comfy cocoons. Often, these athletes do what Embiid did. They get advice. They see the NBA rookie wage scale, which this season for the draft's top-10 picks reportedly runs from $2.1 million to $4.9 million. And the indecision vanishes.
Embiid, though, seems to have been more earnest in his ambivalence over choosing college or the NBA. His background is the reason. A native of Cameroon, he lived there until he was 17, when he was invited to a basketball camp just because he was tall; he had never played the sport before. He showed such potential that later that year he moved to Florida so he could attend Montverde Academy, a high school basketball power. After spending his junior year there, he transferred to the Rock School in Gainesville for his senior year, then went on to Kansas. There, his rise into a pro prospect was so sudden and swift that it shocked even him, and it stoked his self-doubt.
"Basketball-wise, I thought I wasn't ready because I came out of nowhere," he said. "Leaving on my own, becoming a man, I thought I couldn't do it."
He broke the navicular bone in his right foot just before the 2014 draft, when the Sixers selected him with the No. 3 pick - that, after suffering a stress fracture in his back late in his season at Kansas. The broken bone and the surgeries it required have kept him on the sideline since. His younger brother Arthur died in October 2014 in an accident. Think about that time line: From 2011 through 2015, Embiid lived on two continents, in three states, and in four cities, and over those four years he saw his mother and father only when they buried his brother. All of that, and he is still just 22. No wonder the kid craved stability. No wonder he considered staying at Kansas, perhaps just to cultivate some.
"We did think it was a decision that could go either way because of his injuries and also because he was very young in the game," Kansas coach Bill Self said in an email. "There is no guarantee that if he would have stayed he would have not been injured at a later time. Considering his injuries and everything, I think it was a wise choice."
It was wiser still for another reason: It gave him time to grow up. That first year with the Sixers, Embiid did his share of acting out. He chugged those sugary Shirley Temples as if he were trying to win a prize. The team sent him home from a road trip because his behavior had grown so petulant.
"I've made mistakes in the past," he said, "and now I'm a much better man." Everyone asks now, rightly, whether Embiid's foot will hold up, even with all the limitations the Sixers plan to place on him. But they are closer to knowing whether he can handle the mental and emotional rigors of the NBA.
"He is a 7-foot-2 young kid, all balled up, can't play, trying to figure it out - 'What does this mean?' - trying to be a professional with rehabilitation and recovery, and sometimes frustrations got the better of him," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "I think he sees the world a little bit differently in relation to taking things far more seriously professionally. And so yes, I do. I see a more mature Joel Embiid."
It is not surprising that he does. For the first time in a long time, most of the things in Embiid's life are stable. If his right foot is, too, finally, Joel Embiid will look back on those days of worry when he thought that he wasn't ready to play in the NBA, and he will laugh.