Joel Embiid plays his first real professional basketball game tonight. Philadelphia will probably lose because they happen to be the first victims of the Russell Westbrook revenge tour, but just having No. 21 on the court in a game that counts will be wonderful to see. It’s been 970 days since Embiid played a game that actually mattered. Embiid flashed potential all throughout the stupidly long preseason. He made his presence felt every time he touched the ball. Oklahoma City, who will lead the NBA in offensive rebounds again, present a challenging first test for Embiid. Billy Donovan had two mammoth big men in Enes Kanter and Steven Adams that made life difficult for the Spurs and Warriors last postseason. Adams has feasted this preseason, averaging 14 points and seven rebounds in only 19 minutes a game. Watching Embiid try and battle for position against other seven-footers will be intriguing to watch.
It’s no secret Philadelphia has struggled defending guards since trading Jrue Holiday. Michael Carter-Williams might have put up lofty steal numbers, but not many rookies handle on-ball defense that well. Sergio Rodriguez isn’t a good defender, and he’ll have to guard Russell Westbrook sometimes tonight. And that’s a major problem for Philadelphia. Westbrook had a triple-double in 21 minutes against the 76ers in 2014. It’ll be fascinating to watch Westbrook play full piss-off mood for an entire season. Westbrook still has talent around him, but since the Thunder do such a good job on the glass, it wouldn’t be surprising if Coach Donovan instructs Westbrook and Victor Oladipo to just attack the basket as often as possible. The Thunder might not be very good this year. It’s hard to predict where they’ll finish in the top-heavy West. Things can break their way, especially if Oladipo plays greatly better than he did in Orlando last year. Adams has quickly risen to the ranks of best NBA centers, and that’s shocking since 11 teams passed on him during one of the worst drafts in recent memory, including Philadelphia (basically twice). Seriously, teams would only take Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo over Adams.
The two-man game Westbrook and Adams showcased last postseason was remarkable, and that’s a reason why so many hype the Thunder this year. The problem with Oklahoma City, similar to Philadelphia, is who will make outside shots. Kyle Singler, Anthony Morrow and Ersan Ilyasova had success during preseason from deep. Singler is a guy who had vale with Detroit two seasons ago, but forgot how to make plays once Oklahoma City Thunder acquired him. Morrow has a reputation of one of the best outside shooters in the NBA, but doesn’t really do much of anything else. Ilyasova has immediate value, and if he’s able to shoot 38 percent from three, and not play terrible defense, he’ll be a solid contributor moving forward.
Head coach Brett Brown hasn’t finalized the starting line-up yet, but it’s expected to be Rodriguez, Gerald Henderson, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Embiid. Henderson played restricted minutes this preseason, and he didn’t play well during those minutes. Philly’s offense didn’t function like a normal offense during parts of the preseason, posting the second worst points per possession rate in the NBA, but that happens when the team didn’t truly have an experienced playmaker on the court and force fed Embiid the ball. Things won’t get any easier once the regular season begins, which is a reason why Brown has to start Rodriguez. He needs someone who can breakdown a defender at any time, no matter how awful he plays defense. The offense didn’t look fluid throughout the preseason, but more reps together and for Saric and Embiid just better understanding NBA basketball will help tremendously. Henderson should be better once the regular season begins, too. The preseason can be tricky since it’s mainly to get players back into shape. Just because Henderson couldn’t find his rhythm shouldn’t indicate he’ll have difficulties early this season. It’s actually imperative Philadelphia wins an early game after not winning in October or November the past two seasons, and with six of their first eight games at home they’ll have opportunities to do so.
It’s finally Embiid’s debut. The night many speculate would never happen. He won’t have it easy against the Thunder big men, but at least he’ll be out there.