Joel Embiid is done for this season. It’s easy to get frustrated. After all, Embiid was the guy. He was the guy the 76ers drafted after winning 19 games. He was supposed to be Hakeem Olajuwon or Tim Duncan; he was going to be a 10-time All Star and help Philadelphia win 50 games for much of his career. It’s easy to say Embiid’s a bust. That he won’t ever live up to his expectations. Why didn’t Philadelphia just trade down or pick a guard? Why did they chance on a guy with major health concerns?
Philadelphia took a chance that June night. That chance hasn’t paid off yet, but it hasn’t flaked, either. Who really knows how Joel Embiid will bounce back? People have written him off. People have used him as a scapegoat to say Sam Hinkie’s plan won’t work. The first surgery didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean the second won’t, either. I’m not getting into hypotheticals. I don’t know what would have happened if Philadelphia took Dante Exum, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart or traded their 10th pick, along with the third pick, for Andrew Wiggins. It doesn’t matter. Right now, Philadelphia has Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Tony Wroten, what looks like three solid NBA 3-point shooters (Stauskas, Covington and Hollis Thompson), a nice rotational wing (Grant), the rights to Dario Saric, as many as four first-round picks in 2015 and cap space. They don’t have a point guard. They don’t have a game-changing wing. Their best asset is Okafor, who looks like a guy who’ll give you 20-10 for much of his career. Okafor looks like the man that Embiid was supposed to be. Okafor hasn’t had a history of injuries. He struggled at times on defense and shooting free throws last season, but he has all of the intangibles to be a fantastic post weapon. He’ll open things up for Covington, Stauskas and Thompson from the perimeter. He’ll also create things for slashing cutters. Okafor is the now. He can play this season. He can compete for Rookie of the Year. He can work with Brett Brown to improve his game for fans to see this season. It’s easy to get excited about Okafor because he’s playing. It’s easy to get frustrated about Embiid because he’s not playing for another season.
Last season, I was excited for June more than any other month. Philadelphia lost their first 17 games. They had Michael Carter-Williams, but the more and more he played, the more and more it showed he wasn’t the guy to build around. Noel made it exciting. He showed flashes of defensive dominance. He finished in the top in the NBA in steals and blocks. Other than Noel, Grant and Covington had some memorable moments, but that was that. I’m more than excited for this year’s games. I think everyone should be excited to see how good Okafor can be. I’m anxious to see if Noel can play heavy minutes at the 4 on the offensive end. Sure, I can’t wait to see whom Philly can add with their four first-round picks in June 2016, but for the first time since Jrue Holliday, I don’t want to simulate the season. I care more about the regular season than the lottery and NBA Draft.
Don’t get me wrong. June 2016 will be another important month for Sam Hinkie, Brett Brown and Philadelphia’s fans. Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram and Ben Simmons highlight very talented wings the 76ers hope to add. If all goes well with Embiid, he’ll join one or two top-10 picks in NBA Summer League. And that’s an exciting thing to think about.
There is reason to be excited about this season. Stauskas shot 43.6 percent from 3 over the last two months of the season, and he’s playing in a system that begs people to shoot threes. He’ll start at shooting guard. Although they didn’t win many games when Tony Wroten played, Wroten will be back, joining Noel as the only two players with an average PER of 15. The former first-round pick showcased his playmaking ability in the 30 games he played before tearing his ACL. Defenses might have to be honest against Philadelphia, especially if NBA Summer League’s any indication of how teams will defend Okafor. He’ll demand double-teams at times, which only opens the floor for shooters or guys like Wroten that can create their own offense.
Embiid isn’t playing this year. He can’t be the guy that so many experts pinned him as this year. He can’t showcase his offensive post moves, or his defensive potential. Not for at least one more season. But that’s fine by me. The most important thing is for Embiid to be healthy, and if that means another surgery and rehab period that that’s what it means. They never said it would be easy. Embiid was a risk. He did have injury issues. But he’s not finished. He’s not a bust. He doesn’t need to be another 7-foot statistic.