He made his NBA debut almost a year ago. The atmosphere was electric. You could feel something special in the making. I was there with my cousins Mike and Pat. The game had everything. It was Russell Westbrook’s first game without Kevin Durant following a dramatic summer. It had a doctor flip off Westbrook with not just one, but two middle fingers. And then there was Joel Embiid.
Embiid, the bruising, enthralling seven-foot-two center from Africa, made a nifty turnaround jumper in Andre Roberson’s face for the first two points of his career. It didn’t matter the 76ers lost the game.
It didn’t matter Embiid turned the ball over four times. It didn’t matter Embiid missed 10 shots. The only thing that matter was Embiid played a real NBA basketball game, and he flashed the potential so many in Philadelphia desperately needed him to flash.
I’m like everyone else. Something I see in person seems larger than it actually is. Watching Embiid play basketball wasn’t one of those occurrences, and he wasn’t even that good. He hadn’t even scratched the surface. Surely over the 31 games Embiid played during his rookie season, he improved and improved. Picking up nuances faster than Pete Wheeler rounding the bases at Steele Stadium. Embiid turned the ball over at a high rate but that had to do with his unusually high usage rate. Embiid knocked down jumpers, head faked into drives from the top of the key like a 6-3 guard and effectively handled an abnormal amount of double-teams. He blocked a Kyle Lowry shot to seal a win against Toronto, used his volleyball knowledge to maneuver away from defenders and his ability to read defenses was momentous. He saw things nobody else could possibly see while anchoring the best defensive unit in the NBA during January.
Thinking back on the moments that made January the best month in 76ers recent history. He had five blocks in a win over Milwaukee, he dropped 32 points against the Rockets and he grabbed 14 rebounds during TJ McConnell’s game winner against the Knicks. In the month, Embiid averaged 23.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.6 blocks in 26.7 minutes per game. His season averages of 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks have been duplicated by 13 other players within their first five years of their careers in NBA history, and Embiid only averaged 25 minutes a game.
Embiid had until October 16, one day before the 2017-2018 season kicks off, to sign a rookie extension. In a bit of a surprise, he officially signed the $148 million extension Tuesday. He’s playing Wednesday night when Philly takes on the Brooklyn Nets in Long Island, his very first appearance of the preseason. (It’s not a coincidence he signed his contract before appearing in a preseason game). There’s a risk with Embiid. If you’re unaware, he’s only played 31 games in the three years he has been in the NBA. (Seriously, you might not have known such a fact without every single news publication mentioning it). It remains unclear the details in the extension Embiid signed. This is what Zach Lowe reported shortly after Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news:
Nobody disagrees that when healthy Embiid is a max NBA player. It’s clear as day the impact Embiid has on the either side of the court. The problem, however, lies in how many games Embiid will actually play as a professional. It’s why the details behind Embiid’s “max contract” are so fascinating. How much money is really guaranteed? How will this impact the 76ers moving forward in terms of signing free agents? Some argue why Philly didn’t just wait it out, allowing Embiid to be a restricted free agent in July 2018. A prove that you’re healthy for a year sorta wait and see. Even if Embiid plays 55+ games this year, proving he can stay relatively healthy this year, doesn’t mean the future problems go away. Embiid’s long-term health will remain at the forefront of Philadelphia’s future. He’s the most important player on the roster, and nobody would be surprised if he’s the best player in basketball at one point in his career. Embiid’s a generational talent, and despite his inability to have availability he’s worth the risk.
A week heading into the 2014 NBA Draft, I remember thinking Jabari Parker would be a 76er. The notion of Andrew Wiggins was still a possibility, but it appeared more likely than not Parker would be general manager Sam Hinkie’s selection following his first season at the position. Then Embiid got hurt, forcing Cleveland to select Wiggins first overall and changing the 76ers forever. Hinkie could’ve selected Dante Exum, or Aaron Gordon. I’m fairly sure I threw out the name Noah Vonleh as a possibility. Hinkie didn’t listen to anyone. He chose Embiid, because he represented the best potential of anyone in the draft.
The ensuing two years that followed the June night were miserable, culminating with a 10-win performance that costed Hinkie his job. The future remains a mystery unlike any team in recent memory. Greg Oden’s name gets mentioned in the same sentence as Embiid. His inability to be available has become the butt of far too many jokes. Embiid signing this extension doesn’t eliminate questions of his health, rather it enhances those questions. No matter what Embiid does on the court, in the pit of Philadelphia’s stomachs will be the hint of doubt. With every hard fall. With every nose dive into the stands. With every waking game. But that’s just how things will be.
October 20 Embiid will play his first game in Philadelphia since January 27 as Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics visit the 76ers. It’s Ben Simmons’ home opener. Markelle Fultz, too. But that doesn’t matter as much as having Embiid back. Just watch him play. Feel how special of a player the Caneroonian is.