SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Before he became The Process, Joel Embiid was just a lanky 7-footer from Cameroon who arrived at Montverde Academy in Florida to play for coach Kevin Boyle.
Embiid came to Montverde for the 2011-12 season after being discovered in Cameroon by NBA player and Montverde alum Luc Mbah a Moute, a native of that central African nation who met Embiid at one of his basketball camps.
But Boyle's roster was so loaded during his first season at the school—it included big men Dakari Johnson (who went on to Kentucky and the Oklahoma City Thunder) and Landry Nnoko (Clemson)—and Embiid was so raw that the kid was soon placed on the JV team. When the other Montverde players began laughing and giving Embiid a hard time, Boyle told them: "You guys need to really understand how good this kid is. Someday you'll all be asking him for a loan."
After Embiid signed a five-year, $148 million extension with the Philadelphia 76ers in October, and then was named an NBA All-Star starter Thursday, Boyle's words proved prophetic.
A high-energy, fast-talking 54-year old from Clark, New Jersey, Boyle has coached eight first-round NBA draft picks, including two No. 1 overall picks in Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons, two No. 2s in D'Angelo Russell and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and a No. 3 in Embiid, though he only spent that one season at Montverde.
Boyle's current star, 6'7" Canadian wing R.J. Barrett, is the projected No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft.
"He's had that credibility all along," Russell said of Boyle. "And guys keep gravitating toward that Montverde program."
Boyle has built quite a coterie of NBA alums with whom he remains in touch. On Oct. 11, he went to the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island to see a preseason game between the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers—Russell against Simmons and Embiid. After the game, the proud coach took a photo flanked by the three lottery picks.
Boyle regularly texts with Russell and Simmons, and he speaks to Simmons' dad, David, often. Boyle plans to visit with Simmons and Embiid when the Sixers host the Knicks on Feb. 12 after Montverde—undefeated and No. 1 in the USA Today poll—plays an event in Boyle's home state of New Jersey.
"Those guys are on the road so much with people coming at them all of the time—it's hard for them," said Kelly Boyle, Kevin's wife and the president and director of the Kevin Boyle Basketball Camp. "They need someone to trust and who will give them advice or advocate for them. They have that in Kevin. I think they know that."
For Russell, who is only 21, Boyle has been a key mentor as he's transitioned to the NBA. "I talk to him all the time," Russell said.
Boyle was already nationally known when, in 2011, he came to Montverde from storied St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey, after leading that program to five state Tournament of Champions titles, often battling with his archrival, St. Anthony's coach Bob Hurley.
By then Boyle had already coached Irving and Kidd-Gilchrist, as well as players like Al Harrington, Shaheen Holloway, Corey Fisher, Mike Nardi, Grant Billmeier and Derrick Caracter. Many of those players are now honored, along with Boyle, with banners in the gym at The Patrick School, the new incarnation after St. Pat's closed in 2012 because of financial reasons. Irving and Nike recently funded a massive renovation of the gym, locker room and player lounge.
"A lot of great players have played here," Patrick School coach and former Boyle lieutenant Chris Chavannes said in early January. "They're not even aware of the fact that their names are raised up there. The person who started this all was Kevin Boyle. So I'll always be forever grateful not only to Kyrie and all the alumni who played here but to Kevin Boyle, who started the program. We will never, ever forget that."
But Montverde offered too much for Boyle to turn down: a six-figure salary at a private school housed on a lush campus just west of Orlando. Boyle moved Kelly and the youngest of their three children, Brendan, who was given tuition at Montverde for his final two years of high school and now coaches with the Montverde Academy Center for Basketball Development. Boyle was able to keep working for Nike and making additional money running camps around the world for The Swoosh. He has run clinics and camps in China, Russia, Italy, United Arab Emirates, and Greece, with camps in Germany and Brazil scheduled for this year.
Boyle attracted players to Monteverde that first year in part because HBO aired a documentary called Prayer for a Perfect Season. It showcased St. Patrick's 2010-11 team and Boyle's no-nonsense disciplinary approach. After seeing Boyle shouting at his staff and players in the film room to motivate them, Antonio Russell, D'Angelo's dad, enrolled his son in the school and told Boyle to do whatever it took to make him a better player.
Russell remembers the Ohio State coaching staff coming to see him practice before he had committed to the Buckeyes. He'll never forget the scolding Boyle gave him that day, "ripping me in front of everybody, telling me I was soft and I couldn't play at the next level, all of that."
At that moment, Russell said he was ready to quit, "ready to go back to a public school instead of a boarding school. I told my dad I was ready to go." He told his father he didn't think Boyle wanted him at Montverde.
But his father's support of Boyle and conviction that Montverde was the place for D'Angelo never wavered, and he stayed put.
Barrett's family was also drawn to Boyle's hard-driving ways.
Like Embiid, Barrett came to Montverde because of a connection to the school. Canadian Christopher Egi had played for Boyle before going on to Harvard. So in September 2015, Rowan Barrett, R.J.'s father, who starred at St. John's before an overseas pro career, took a visit with R.J. to check it out.
The school "was as good as any that I'd seen," said Rowan, now the executive vice president of Canada Basketball. "Academically, everything kind of checked off...And then on the court, [they were] clearly defensive-minded, disciplined, grinding, getting better. Constantly, daily. And when I looked at all the athletes that [Boyle] had in the gym, I thought, 'He's going to get better. My son is going to get better here.'
"And R.J. was adamant. He was like: 'I don't want to see any more schools. This is it.'"
But Barrett didn't start out on the Montverde varsity team after arriving in 2015 as a freshman. The team, like the one with Embiid, was already stacked.
"'Look, you're going to be No. 15 on this team,'" Rowan recalled Boyle telling R.J. "'If you're OK with that, then you can play.'"
"Yeah, that was kind of a signal that I wasn't ready," R.J. said.
Boyle initially placed him on the school's second-tier team that is coached by Kevin Boyle Jr., Kevin and Kelly's middle child. It was only after Barrett went off for 35 points that Boyle Sr. elevated him to the varsity.
"I said, 'We're going to have to use this guy,'" Boyle cracked.
Last summer, Barrett opted to reclassify to the class of 2018 from his original class of 2019. In November, he announced he would attend Duke, his longtime favorite school, over the likes of Kentucky and Oregon. He said Duke reminded him of Montverde. This year he's been on a tear, leading Montverde to tournament titles in China, Hawaii and South Carolina while winning Most Valuable Player trophies at every stop along the way.
Yet Boyle continues to get after Barrett in practice to motivate him. About six weeks ago, Boyle stopped a practice five minutes in and began yelling and screaming at the team because he felt it wasn't prepared, even though Barrett had arrived 20 minutes early. The whole tirade was aimed at R.J.
"He's definitely helping me to grow as a leader," Barrett said. "That's been the main focus for me this year. Just try to lead the team as best as I can."
Like Embiid—and Irving and Kidd-Gilchrist and Simmons and Russell—Barrett is headed to the NBA in 2019, possibly as the No. 1 pick.
If that were to happen, Boyle would have three No. 1 picks since 2011.
Barrett has seen the video of Embiid playing JV and thinks it's funny.
But he sees a similarity in how Boyle, the fiery coach, helped both he and Embiid prepare for their futures by working them so hard.
"Yeah, kind of," he said. "Humble beginnings came from Canada, came here and just realized that I had to work hard."
Boyle sees a comparison, too.
"It's not impossible [Embiid] is the league MVP one day," Boyle said. "But he was just new to basketball. We could all see with his work ethic and his intellect, that he was going to end up excelling at some point. He kept working at it, and he was coachable."
For all his accomplishments—including three straight Dick's Sporting Goods High School Nationals titles with the 6'10" Simmons leading the way and Montverde being named Team of the Decade by USA Today—Boyle has never moved on to the college ranks. He interviewed with Monmouth and St. Peter's and was briefly mentioned before Rutgers hired Steve Pikiell in 2016.
At Monteverde, he's making too much money and has too good of a situation to take a low-level college job. But because he's never coached college at all, he's also not perceived as qualified to jump directly to a mid- or high-major-type job. (It should be noted that Boyle's friend and onetime New Jersey high school rival Dan Hurley jumped straight from St. Benedict's Prep to coaching at Wagner and is now at Rhode Island, where has the Rams in first place in the Atlantic 10.)
Barrett is hardly the last pro Boyle will coach. Balsa Koprivica, a 7'1", 240-pound Serbian who played on that country's gold medal-winning team at the FIBA Europe Under-18 Championships last summer, recently arrived at Monteverde. Like Embiid and Barrett before him, he has to wait his turn. He's on the varsity squad but has played limited minutes.
"Yeah, he's gonna be a pro," Boyle said with a smile. "He's just new to the team, and he's got to fit in, too, without killing the chemistry and without killing his relationship with the players. He still has to work for things and fix a few things."
Just the latest in a long line for the kingmaker, Kevin Boyle.