On Tuesday night, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid will take the court against the Boston Celtics for the first game of the new NBA season. At 24, Embiid is already an NBA All-Star, with a huge social media presence (2.9 million Instagram followers) and the hype befitting a player who experts have pegged as a potential league MVP.
Perhaps even more impressive than Embiid's stardom is the fact that he's achieved it all in a sport that he didn't even play until he was 15 — less than a decade ago. What's more, Embiid had a seriously steep learning curve once he started playing basketball.
"I didn't know what I was doing," Embiid says in an essay he wrote for The Players' Tribune about his early attempts at the game.
Born in Cameroon, Embiid grew up playing sports like soccer and volleyball. "Nobody in Cameroon plays basketball. You can play volleyball," Embiid writes his father told him when he first expressed an interest in basketball after catching some of the 2009 NBA Finals on television.
Embiid, who was 15 at the time, was inspired by great players like Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard.
"The way they moved, and the athleticism, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world," Embiid writes. "I had that moment like, 'I just wanna do that.'"
Embiid started playing pickup basketball on a local court near his house. He'd even yell "Kobe!" with every shot he hoisted.
"Imagine it. I'm out there shooting bricks, yelling out 'Kobe,' on a busted hoop in Cameroon. Seven years later, I was playing Kobe," Embiid says of his surprising rise from unknown to a first-round NBA draft pick in 2014.
Embiid's prowess on the court might not have screamed "future all-star" at that point, but his size — he was already 6-foot-10-inches at 16 — did help him stand out. At 16, he was invited to a local basketball camp run by fellow Cameroon native and NBA player Luc Mbah a Moute. Embiid writes that his incredible height was the "only reason" he scored an invitation to the camp. And he almost didn't go because he was worried about embarrassing himself against more experienced athletes.
"I was so nervous that I didn't even show up the first day," Embiid says. "The second day, I showed up, they put me in the game and I dunked on somebody."
Embiid was "still terrible," he writes, but he thinks adrenaline helped him forget about his nerves long enough to make an impression at the basketball camp. From that brief performance, Embiid landed a spot in Basketball Without Borders, an instructional camp run by the NBA in countries around the world. After competing at that four-day camp in South Africa, Embiid was offered a scholarship to play basketball at Montverde Academy, a private school in Florida.
When he arrived at the Florida high school — a school with alums who include Mbah a Moute as well as Embiid's 76ers teammate, Ben Simmons — Embiid still struggled to adjust, both on and off the court. Embiid spoke very little English at the time and he'd only been playing competitive basketball for a matter of months.
"At the beginning it was kind of difficult for me, because it was so physical," Embiid told the Sporting News in 2014.
"I went to the practice on the first day, and I was so bad that the coach kicked me out of the gym," Embiid wrote in The Players' Tribune. "I didn't know what I was doing. I was so skinny, so soft. But the worst part was that all my own teammates were seriously pointing and laughing at me, like the a----- kids in the movies about high school."
Embiid went back to his room and cried, he says, and briefly thought about quitting. Instead, he let the experience inspire him to get better. His height and raw athleticism made him an attractive basketball player, but he vowed to "work and work" in the gym in order to improve his skills to become a more complete player.
To do that, Embiid turned to YouTube. He started searching for instructional videos using terms like "how to shoot three-pointers." The videos he learned his shooting form from were "just random people shooting threes with perfect form," he explains.
"I'd just try to imitate how they shot the ball, and I started being able to compete," he says.
And, it wasn't the first time Embiid had found success by emulating basketball players he saw on video. In addition to first falling in love with basketball by watching Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, Embiid says his first basketball coach at the camp in Cameroon gave him a DVD with highlights of Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon (another African-born NBA star, from Nigeria) in order to teach him how to best play the center position.
"He told me to watch it every day," Embiid told the Sporting News. "After practice, after every practice, I'd watch every move [Olajuwon] did — and I'd just keep doing that. I just fell in love with his game, his footwork, how he moves. I was so proud — I wanted to be like him, because he's African, moved from Nigeria to the U.S. I just felt if I had the chance to come here, I would try to do the same thing."
Embiid's improved play came through on the court. After a year at Monteverde, he transferred to The Rock School, another private high school in Florida for his senior year. That year, Embiid committed to play college basketball at the University of Kansas. After a year in Kansas, the 76ers drafted Embiid third overall in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Today, Embiid is a bonafide star on the court, having led the 76ers to the second round of the 2018 NBA playoffs. And, he's overcome his initial cultural disconnect to attract a legion of online followers with his entertaining social media posts, which can include everything from him trying to land a date with Rihanna to professing his love for non-alcoholic mixed drinks.
Meanwhile, Embiid says he owes his success to the fact that he never gave up, even when it seemed like his basketball skills would never measure up — a fortitude he says came from his parents.
"The only thing that kept me going was the way that I was raised by my parents," he wrote in August. "They always told us to keep working, no matter what."
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