JOEL EMBIID celebrated his 22nd birthday on Wednesday. While his professional basketball career hasn't exactly progressed the way many had hoped, you can't stop Father Time.
What does 22 mean for the 7-2, 265-pounder who has had to undergo two foot surgeries since getting drafted by the 76ers with the third overall pick in June 2014? It is hopeful for Sixers fans that the biggest piece to the rebuilding project is still just an NBA infant. Coach Brett Brown has said in the past that big men don't usually hit their prime until their mid- to-late 20s.
In Embiid, like Shayne Gostisbehere of the Flyers, Mikael Franco of the Phillies and Fletcher Cox of the Eagles, fans have someone they can truly pin their hopes to. Perhaps the most fun aspect to watch in the final 15 games for the Sixers will be Embiid's pregame workouts, where he practices baby hooks in the lane with the fluidity of a skilled veteran; shoots mid-range jumpers with the look of a small forward; and steps out to the three-point line and makes shots with remarkable consistency, all with a form that is textbook.
He has grown two inches since being drafted. He has added weight that has now transformed into muscle. Look at pictures of him from his lone season at Kansas to now, and it is like comparing David Banner to The Incredible Hulk.
So while the Sixers continue to pile up losses - Tuesday's 131-114 blowout to the Brooklyn Nets dropped them to 9-58 - and with rookie Jahlil Okafor sidelined for the rest of the season with a torn meniscus, what is there really to look forward to in the final 15 games? Well, nothing. And that's why Embiid's name keeps coming up - by Brown, fans and anyone else with a rooting interest in the team. See, he has been anointed the savior, without having even played a game in the NBA.
The talk is how Okafor will fit on the floor with Embiid; of how Nerlens Noel and Embiid may be able to fit more smoothly together than Okafor and Noel have this season. Embiid this. Embiid that.
While all the signs of him working out by himself have been encouraging, and though general manager Sam Hinkie beams when he talks about the kind of force Embiid was when he was playing against competition after last season and before his second surgery, there is still plenty of room for apprehension.
Twenty-two means that Embiid starting playing the game of basketball less than six years ago. He played one season at Montverde Academy in Montverde, Fla., before transferring to play his senior season at The Rock School in Gainesville, Fla. In his lone season at Montverde, Embiid didn't play much as Clemson recruit Landry Nnoko was getting most of the playing time. He did lead The Rock School to a state championship as a senior, while averaging 13 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.
Then there was the one year at Kansas, where Embiid didn't start the first eight games of the season. He did play in 28 contests, before getting shut down with a stress fracture in his back. He was good enough there to be deemed the best player in the 2014 draft, but a closer look shows his struggles and his inexperience.
Consider that while in Kansas, Embiid never scored more than 18 points. He only averaged 23 minutes because of his propensity for getting in foul trouble. He committed four or more fouls in 15 of the 28 games he played and fouled out four times.
So, over the past five years, Embiid has played two seasons of high school, an injury-shortened year in college and absolutely no organized, competitive basketball since March 1, 2014, when he scored 13 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in 29 minutes against Oklahoma State.
And now the hopes of this franchise are riding on his ever-broadening shoulders.
This isn't to say Embiid may not turn out to be everything most believe he can be - an athletic big man who can dominate down low, step outside to shoot jumpers and perhaps create space for Okafor, and be an above-average rim defender. Probably none of those things will happen next year, though. It will just be too early.
Brown already has talked of Embiid not participating in summer leagues or playing in back-to-back games next season. If we've learned anything over the past three seasons it's that patience is an organization virtue. That would probably mean Embiid being eased into his first professional season. It also would mean the progress so many envision will take some time.
Watching Embiid's pregame workouts keeps fans, coaches and other members of the organization sane. He looks that good. But to think he'll be the savior next season just isn't realistic. Just like everything else surrounding this team, it's going to take time.