LAWRENCE, Kan. – Thursday might as well have been Joel Embiid Day at the University of Kansas.
It sure felt like that inside Allen Fieldhouse during the 76ers practice. At least 30 media members waited in the hallway, while the Sixers participated in an hour-long private portion of practice. Others, including Kansas coach Bill Self, Jayhawks assistants, and players, trickled in during the open portion of the workout. So did KU students.
They were all on hand to see the towering center, who played at Kansas during the 2013-14 season.
The Sixers practiced here because they’re facing the Miami Heat in Friday’s preseason finale at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. The game and Thursday’s practice was a homecoming for Embiid.
The Sixers have said his status for Friday’s game is unknown. They better not tell that to Embiid,
“I’m playing,” he said. “I’m definitely playing. I’m back in Kansas. Of course, I got to play.”
If Thursday was an indication, fans will be ecstatic over Embiid.
There were “oohs” and “ahhs” after he delivered a powerful dunk in transition. After practice, one student yelled from the bleachers, “Trust the process!” Embiid responded with a “Trust it.” Another student shouted, “I love you.”
And before he exited the gym, the 23-year-old took several selfies with students who had made their way down to the court. One of the students, rocking an Eagles jersey, was from Philadelphia.
“I don’t know if anyone knows this story, but I actually decided to stay because I love this place so much,” Embiid said about the time after his freshman season. “But I was kind of pushed to leave” for the NBA. “But I love this place so much.”
Part of the reason is that Embiid blossomed into an elite basketball player during his lone season at Kansas. He said he wouldn’t have been the third pick in the draft without coming here. That’s why Embiid was overjoyed to practice in the fieldhouse.
“I’m really thankful,” he said.
Wanting to take in the campus, Embiid opted not to ride the team bus to practice. He walked from the team hotel to the fieldhouse.
Embiid, who’s determined to earn a degree, said the walk gave a feel for what it’s like to be a college student again. And he loved it.
At 7-foot-2 and 285-pounds, Embiid didn’t go unnoticed. He heard chants of “Trust the process!”
At the fieldhouse, he briefly saw Self in his basketball office. Since the coach was on the phone, Embiid met up with his former coach for a longer chat after practice.
But before doing that, Embiid said something that teammates J.J. Redick and Jahlil Okafor — both Duke products – would debate him about.
“The fans here are amazing, playing in this crowd,” he said. “I always tell my teammates. We got some Duke teammates that think they got the best arena.
“But I always tell them, ‘You never been here. Sixteen thousand people just cheering like it’s insane. You can’t even hear.’ ”
Embiid used teammate Jacob Pullen to validate his claim. Pullen played at Kansas State, a Big 12 rival of Kansas.
“He told me he’s been to Duke, too,” Embiid said, “and he thinks this [is] the best arena in all sports.”
This trip also enabled the 23-year-old to spend time with his sister, Muriel, a student at Kansas. The native of Cameroon said that the Jayhawks coaches, their wives, and his friends in Lawrence have supported his sister, who is thousands of miles from home.
It was obvious that KU will always be a special place for Joel.
“To me it feels like [I left] yesterday,” he said.
Markelle Fultz did side work during Thursday’s practice and was questionable for Friday.