By Jamal Murphy
Joel Embiid has obvious star written all over him. On the court, he seemingly has it all and can do it all. At 7-feet, 250 pounds, he’s a rim protector, rebounder, shooter, passer, crafty low-post scorer and all that good stuff.
Off the court he’s a personality. Witty, funny, smart and gregarious. So much so that he has become a social media darling, particularly on Twitter.
But, all of the above will mean nothing if Embiid doesn’t display all of these talents for longer stretches of time. Like, an entire NBA season. Or, even two-thirds of one.
Embiid was drafted in 2014, third overall, but missed the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons due to a bone fracture in his foot and subsequent complications. He has played a total of 31 games in his career, all last season. He showed glimpses of greatness, averaging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in those 31 games. He shot 47% from the field, including 37% from three-point range, but again, in just 31 games. His 2016-17 season was cut short in February due to a torn meniscus in his left knee. He was the ultimate tease.
Of course, you cannot blame Embiid for his injuries. They happen. No one has accused him of not working hard or not wanting to be on the floor. But it does make you wonder whether stardom is in the cards for him.
Fair or not, this is likely the season that determines Embiid’s career path. The stars are aligned for the big man to either seize the opportunity — body willing — or go down as just another “what could have been” player. The 76ers, after being one of the NBA’s doormats for multiple years, finally have a team that could make some noise this year, if, that is, Embiid can stick around for most of it.
Philadelphia now has a true point guard in the 6’10″ Ben Simmons (sounds strange, I know), a future star at shooting guard in number one overall pick Markelle Fultz, and many pieces, both young and old, that could make up a formidable squad in the Eastern conference.
But it all hinges on the centerpiece, Embiid, to live up to the lofty expectations of him and now to his freshly signed five-year, $148 million contract extension, reportedly littered with injury clauses that would protect the 76ers from what hopefully isn’t the inevitable.
Wednesday night in Embiid’s first NBA game action since February, he showed once again that as long as he’s on the court, he’s worth the money and the praise. In 15 minutes of action, Embiid recorded 22 points and seven rebounds and was 14-18 from the free throw line, in a 133-114 preseason victory over the Brooklyn Nets in Long Island.
After the game, Embiid talked about how it felt to be back on the court and his goals for the upcoming season. “It felt great,” he said. “I just wanted to give my team energy. I’m glad I’m back.”
His teammates and coach were glad, too. The 76ers were 0-3 in the preseason coming into Wednesday’s game, but they blitzed the now 3-1 Nets with a 133-point performance, highlighted by Embiid’s polished low-post moves, soft touch, and vocal leadership. He even endured a couple semi-hard falls and was no worse for the wear, which may have been the most positive sign of the night.
Philadelphia head coach, Brett Brown, would like to see fewer of those falls. “He doesn’t know any other way to play, he plays hard, he plays with reckless abandon,” Brown said of Embiid after the game. “I hope he plays — in his mind — slower than I thought he was going to tonight. He was okay, but it still tilts on reckless. And I think, with time playing, that reckless abandon can be more tempered. It can be perhaps better thought through, when you’re not on this ridiculous ‘you’re in, you’re out, you’re in, you’re out’-type of format.”
Staying injury free is, of course, on Embiid’s mind, as well. When I asked what his goals for this season are and whether staying healthy was the main one, he admitted it was. “Last year [my goal] was stay healthy, this year same thing,” he said. “I think everything is going to take care of itself as long as I stay healthy. I think I can help the team in a big way.”
There is absolutely no doubt about that, and Embiid is optimistic that this season will be different.
“We worked all summer on the way I land [from jumping], the way I play,” Embiid said in reference to thinking about and avoiding injury.
He also agrees with his coach that getting out from under the dreaded minutes restriction will have a positive impact. “I think last year also had a lot to do with minute restrictions. I knew that I had a period of time I had to be on the court, so I was playing so hard. So, this year, I think a big factor will be to take off the minute restrictions so I can just play, so I don’t have to push myself as much. I think that will be a big difference.”
That sounds like a good thing for everyone: more minutes in which Embiid can produce, more minutes for his team to reap the benefits, and more minutes for the fans to appreciate his immense talent.
If it all works as planned, Philadelphia will have something special. If not, it will go down as one of sports’ greatest disappointments.
Jamal Murphy is a contributor to CBS Local. He writes extensively about college basketball, the NBA and other sports, often focusing on the intersection of sports and social justice/awareness. Listen to Jamal on the Bill Rhoden On Sports podcast (iTunes & Soundcloud) that he cohosts with legendary sports columnist, Bill Rhoden. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @Blacketologist.