Joel Embiid, The Unknown

There has always been that little bit of despair. In 2014, a broken foot caused Joel Embiid to fall to No. 3 in the draft. A blessing to Philadelphia, of course. But a major question lingered.

Will he be healthy?

Embiid did everything right this season. You saw a more driven, in shape player. He took his game to a new level—incorporating swift face-up moves, which complemented his bruising interior skill perfectly. The ultimate mismatch for opponents.

He became the player everybody hoped he’d be—and he did it consistently.

That’s the thing about an oft-injured player. There are flashes that leave you in awe and speechless.

If he only stays healthy. If he only keeps in shape.

Mark Jackson, during Philadelphia’s Game 3 overwhelming win over Toronto two postseasons ago said, and I’m paraphrasing here—“If he stays healthy, he’ll be one of the best big men ever.”

That level of player.

This week, Embiid fell hard, like he’s done so many times before. He’s never been one to fall with grace.  

And now we wait. Will the swelling be manageable? The team says he’s day-to-day, which could mean anything. As others have pointed out, that’s how they described Embiid in early 2017—his rookie season. He then had season-ending surgery a week later.

Embiid has been through everything. His back. His foot. Both of his knees. His face, too. He’s played 55 percent of Philadelphia’s games since he’s been drafted. He’ll never lead the league in minutes played, which is OK if he plays each postseason.

But deep down, it’s what we all fear. It’s why we collectively gasp whenever he hits the hardwood.  His lumbering body. It’s why you can never get too comfortable.

We wait. Like we’ve done before. We hope that he’ll be back. Like he’s done before.

Sunday afternoon the Eastern Conference semifinals begin. Sure, Philadelphia could win against Atlanta without Embiid, but it wouldn’t be easy by any stretch. Embiid should only play if there’s no real risk to cause further damage.

Last night, Philadelphia won without its franchise cornerstone.

Its other star played well. Simmons has always been a point of contention, and it’ll be fascinating to see how he plays if Embiid misses most of the second round series.

The lack of a true center that fits with Simmons is glaring. It’s the one area where Daryl Morey missed the mark while constructing this team. Yes, Dwight Howard is more than serviceable, but he’s a poor fit alongside Simmons—which means you’re stuck with starting Mike Scott, or another wing like Philadelphia did Wednesday night.

Atlanta is much better than Washington. The Hawks have shooting. They have size, too.

George Hill will be a big factor. Tyrese Maxey needs to contribute, too. Atlanta will be more difficult to score against than the turnstile that was Washington.

Doubt certainly exists. We’ve seen this before. During the Raptors series, Embiid nearly missed Game 4 due to an illness. His inability to be healthy appears and re-appears—reality no matter how much you feel for him.

But with doubt and despair, there’s a flicker. And that’s more than enough.

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