From So-Called Bust to Sho’Nuf Beast: The Rise of Joel Embiid


An overall healthy Joel Embiid has been a gift from the basketball gods for long-suffering Philadelphia 76ers fans.

With an extraordinary blend of raw power, versatility and charisma, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid has resurrected the center position in the NBA.

Two foot surgeries put the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft on ice for two seasons, raising questions about his durability and causing many skeptics to utter the “B-word”. Through it all, Embiid has endured the doubters, setbacks, uncertainty and even tragedy on his way to becoming the NBA’s fiercest young lion.

On this night, any questions about Joel Embiid’s desire were emphatically dismissed.

On November 23rd, the Philadelphia 76ers were locked at 91 in what would be a double-overtime loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. During a timeout, Sixers center Joel Embiid was informed he had met the minute restriction set by the team and would sit out the rest of the game. On this night Embiid had been an anchor in the Sixers front court with 12 points 11 boards and 3 blocks.

In a moment of frustration Embiid kicked a bench chair with his left foot — an injury to the navicular bone in his right foot, followed by two surgeries sidelined him for two seasons — before watching from the bench as the Sixers fell to the Grizzlies 104-99.

Embiid’s imploring to the coaching staff and reaction were indicative of a young man hellbent on proving himself worthy to an organization and fan base that despite a two-year layoff his fire and passion for the game had not diminished. The four-year “Process” implemented by former GM turned cult icon Sam Hinkie has been frustrating for everyone involved. A franchise-crippling task which began in part due to the failed acquisition of former Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum. One of the NBA’s cornerstone franchises was stripped to its core, modestly filling seats on nights when ownership chose to march out players from its once glorious past. Whether it was trading Michael Carter-Williams after winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2013 or swapping players for picks at an unprecedented rate hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, none of this was going to stop the Sixers from hitting rock bottom.

The entire 2013 season was a wash for No. 6 overall pick Nerlens Noel, acquired in a draft day trade with the New Orleans Pelicans for point guard Jrue Holiday. Noel was still on the mend from knee surgery from a torn ACL during a game in December while still at Kentucky. Meanwhile, the Sixers’ brass was making unconventional preparations to land the possible centerpiece of their franchise. There was no shame in Hinkie’s quest to land Kansas Jayhawks freshman Andrew Wiggins as the Sixers finishing 19-63. The 6’8″ Canadian-born swing-man was tagged as a can’t miss prospect and a great compliment to Noel.

Remember when the look on Joel Embiid’s face supposedly said it all after he was selected by Philly?

Life as an NBA bottom-feeder has never guaranteed the No. 1 overall selection as the 15-win Milwaukee Bucks and 19-win Sixers found out. The Cleveland Cavaliers were winners of 33 games and a tenth place finish in the Eastern Conference, so chances of nabbing Wiggins seemed highly unlikely. With a new collective bargaining agreement kicking in, followed by rumors of then-Miami Heat forward LeBron James returning to Cleveland via free agency the seemingly impossible happened. The Cavaliers won the NBA Lottery for the third time in four years and for the second year in a row — selecting Wiggins first overall. Lightning struck twice as James returned to Cleveland and Wiggins was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves for All-Star forward Kevin Love.

Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Joel Embiid was chosen by the Sixers with the third overall pick after the Bucks took Duke guard Jabari Parker second overall.

The Sixers left the draft with more questions than answers, the most important being when would Embiid be ready to play? He missed the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments with a stress fracture in his back. It was later discovered the navicular bone in his right foot was broken and required surgery — which took place six days before the draft.

In October of 2014, it was determined Embiid would miss the entire 2014-15 season as he recovered from surgery.

Three years of organized basketball took Joel Embiid from Yaounde, Cameroon with aspirations of being a soccer goalie to a top five collegiate program at the University of Kansas to a lottery selection in the NBA . Prior to his back injury, Embiid had moved ahead of Wiggins and Parker as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

The disappointment of missing his rookie season had barely set in before Embiid received news from Cameroon that his brother Arthur was killed in a car crash. During Embiid’s period of mourning, Sixers coach Brett Brown and GM Sam Hinkie made the trip to Cameroon to visit with their newest team member and his family — a gesture Embiid and his family have not forgotten.

It looks as if backup center Jahlil Okafor is the odd man out of the big man numbers game in Philly.

In June of 2015, it was revealed the healing process of Embiid’s foot was going slower than anticipated thus dimming the center’s chances of playing for the second consecutive season. Duke center Jahlil Okafor was chosen with the third pick after Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell was taken by the Los Angeles Lakers.

A front court with Embiid and Noel seemed workable, add in another talented big in Okafor and there was suddenly a logjam which needed to be addressed. However, there was no immediate rush as Embiid was ruled out for the season while Noel and Okafor complimented each other well. To this day the Sixers are juggling who between Okafor and Noel will stay with the team.

The arrival of Ben Simmons has only heightened expectations in Philadelphia.

As the 2015-16 season wore on, two developments in the Sixers camp kept fans hopeful that change was imminent. One was the 10-72 record for the 2015-16 season and increasing possibility of finally acquiring the consensus No.1 overall pick in the form of LSU freshman Ben Simmons — a 6’10” forward with the skill set of a point guard — regarded as a once in a generation player.

Work! Work! Work! Work! Work!

The second was the stunning progress of Joel Embiid as he moved from the bench to the court with encouraging snippets of his workouts.

Most noticeable about Embiid was the glaring difference in his physique from when he was at Kansas. He packed 25-30 lbs of mostly muscle onto his 7’0″ frame. During workouts his movements were fluid and deliberate. In addition to his power game, he displayed a consistent outside touch which only increased hopes of what he could do offensively. Embiid displayed a repertoire of low post footwork and touch not seen in Philly since the late great Moses Malone.

Sixers fans were giddy with anticipation and relief at the sight of the workouts. There was hope that for the first time in a generation there was a legitimate low post threat in Philly. Images of Embiid working on his drop step stomped out the lingering ghosts of Jeff Ruland and Andrew Bynum. Suddenly, whispers of Embiid being the next Sam Bowie or Greg Oden were drowned out by gasps of awe and shouts of approval. Embiid was ready and the only thing holding him back was the Sixers brass who chose to temper their sky-high enthusiasm with extreme caution.

In the wake of Embiid’s clean bill of health, the Sixers winning the Draft Lottery and selecting Ben Simmons this past June the worst seemed to be over and the words of ousted GM Sam Hinkie began to resonate throughout the organization and the City of Philadelphia.

“Trust the process.”

Ben Simmons has been better than advertised.

As Embiid continued to fine tune his game for the preseason opener (He was held out of Summer League play), all eyes were on Ben Simmons as he took center stage in the Orlando and Las Vegas summer leagues, respectively. The No. 1 overall pick did not disappoint as his ability to find teammates on the run, standing still or in traffic was as good, if not better than advertised. Sixers fans breathed a deep sigh of relief as word spread leading up to, during and after the draft that Simmons was closer to the unfocused player we’d seen in his final weeks at LSU as opposed to the young man who drew more gasps and shrieks in the preseason than a Wes Craven thriller. Mix this in with Embiid’s progress and the three-plus season run of “A Nightmare on Broad Street” was drawing to a close.

If it looked as if things were going too good for the Sixers, it’s because they were.

On September 30th during the Sixers final training camp practice, Simmons broke the fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot. Although his prognosis was set for three to four months Simmons’ NBA debut will more than likely not occur until after the All-Star break if at all this season.

Again, all eyes were on Joel Embiid.

Embiid is turning his critics into crickets one game at a time.

Embiid made it through the preseason unscathed averaging 10 points 5 rebounds and one block per game. After playing with a 12 minute restriction for the early part of the exhibitions, he topped out at 18 minutes heading into the regular season. Embiid was in tune defensively from the outset — which was what he wanted to establish early in those games. Offensively, he dazzled with an array of post moves and even displayed a mid/long-range game, leaving the most stout critics tight-lipped.

In his regular season debut against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Embiid posted 20 points, with 7 boards and 2 blocked shots in 22 minutes of action. Besides the impressive stat line, Embiid was more than willing to mix it up with physical veteran big men Enes Kanter and Steven Adams. The Sixers dropped their first seven games with Embiid playing in five of them. In the Sixers first regular season win against the Indiana Pacers, Embiid led the Sixers with a then-career high 25 points, to go with 7 rebounds and two blocked shots.

Embiid has won NBA Rookie of the Month honors for the months of October/November 2016, December 2016 and January 2017.

Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins came away impressed in his first meeting with Embiid.

In his first meeting against the World Champion Cleveland Cavaliers, Embiid put up 22 points, 6 boards and 4 blocks. Facing Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans, he posted 14 points and 4 blocks and in a much-hyped showdown with DeMarcus Cousins, the rookie finished with 25 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks.

Prior to Embiid’s last game before being placed on the injured list with a left knee contusion, he learned that he was not among the reserves selected for the Eastern Conference All-Star roster despite his impressive numbers. Depending on who you ask, the problem was more about the number of games and minutes in which he played. Not to be outdone, Embiid scorched the Rockets for 32 points, 7 boards, 4 assists and two blocks, including an emphatic left-handed dunk on Rockets center Nene Hilario to open the contest — more than likely with the All-Star snub on his mind.

The Sixers finished the month of January with a 9-5 record, winning 8 of 10 games in a two-week stretch.

Through the Sixers first 41 games, Embiid has suited up for 31 contests, averaging 20 points, close to 8 rebounds, 2 assists and nearly three blocks in 25 minutes of action. Embiid is scoring at a rate higher than any rookie since Wilt Chamberlain and his 36-minute per game totals are 28 points, 11 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals. Not bad for a player many had already anointed as the next great bust. The coaching staff has remained diligent in monitoring Embiid’s minutes as well as not playing him in back to back games. Though this approach has frustrated fans, Embiid’s foot has been a non-issue and the days off have not slowed his production.

The latter is Embiid’s response to comments made by an unimpressed Shaquille O’Neal. 

Joel Embiid the person is just as captivating off the court as he is on it. Whether it’s holding court on Twitter by politicking to get a date with a five-star celebrity (presumably Rihanna) if he makes the All-Star team or professing his love for Shirley Temples (The drink), Embiid has become one of the most sought after athletes on social media. Many traditionalists scoff at the idea of athletes on social media because it can be a distraction, but at 22 years old, Embiid does it all in stride and hasn’t allowed one to affect the other.

As for his detractors — now pointing to his recent knee injury to roll out the “injury prone” tag — they’ve grown more silent with each performance. You’ll still come across the occasional, “He’ll be great…if he stays healthy.” back-handed endorsements from people quick to dub him the next Greg Oden or Hasheem Thabeet.

What know-it-alls and self-anointed pundits fail to notice is athletes take mental notes of who says what — no matter how many times they say they otherwise. Embiid’s heard the whispers, read the jokes and prognostications for an injury-filled career, gathered those stones and built a rock solid foundation. Some of those stones came when he wasn’t sure if he ever was going to play again, let alone be a factor against the best players in the world. He did it in the wake of tragically losing his brother — with whom he’ll never share his dream. Whether it’s 25 minutes a game or 65 games played in his rookie campaign, his smile, the outrageous comments and Tweets are a part of the joy he feels to simply play in the NBA after a long, painful journey. Bringing respect and dominance back to the center position in a guard-driven league is his mission.

In taking on that process Joel Embiid has come a lot further than many thought and are willing to give him credit for.

2 Responses to “From So-Called Bust to Sho’Nuf Beast: The Rise of Joel Embiid”

  1. Cel says:

    I have missed this writing! I didnt know half the info you provided, I give Emblid credit for coming this far despite all hes gone through. Props for the article. Is he staying?

  2. DN says:

    He’s been through a lot but hung in there. I know things are getting better and turning around for him. I also think those guys going over for his brothers funeral is not something he will ever forget. Thanks Ron.