Joel Embiid is one of many examples of African players who were late bloomers when it comes to basketball. The most famous story is Hakeem who started playing as a teenager and then became one of the best players of his era. Embiid’s basketball beginnings are the same, and he has the potential to leave a mark as deep as Hakeem did.
Joel started with soccer and volleyball, his primary sport as a kid. He was 16 when Mbah a Moute had a basketball camp he attended – that was his first contact with organized basketball (or almost any basketball).
In a conversation with Steph Curry, Embiid explained how he was terrible at basketball when he started. Clumpsy with the ball, couldn’t dribble, was very skinny so he would get pushed around on the court. Still, Joel was selected to go to Montverde Academy in Philadelphia.
He felt overmatched and out of his place there. In Africa, he wasn’t the only kid that had little contact with basketball. In Philly, it was a different story. The other kids would push him around and make fun of him, so Joel got in his fair share of fights (via “5 minutes from home” with Steph Curry):
I used to get into fights a lot, guys would push me all over the place & used to make fun of me because I couldn’t catch the ball and couldn’t speak English. … Coach Boyle at Montverde Academy, this one time he kicked me out of practice, he stayed back and then he told everybody “Keep making fun of him. In 3/4 years ya’ll gonna be asking him for a loan“
The way they treated him made him tougher and persistent in getting better and showing everyone he belongs with the elite. This sheds light on Embiid we see all around the league, enjoying when opposing fans boo him and often provoking more of it.
Coach Boyle was right and if any of the guys from the team call Embiid, they would probably get the Rihanna treatment.