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Sielski: Why watching made Wentz and Embiid better

It would seem impossible at first to find any shared characteristics between a 6-foot-5 quarterback from North Dakota who uses his spare time to bow-hunt bucks and a 7-foot-2 center from Cameroon who uses Twitter to trash-talk his teammates about PlayStation soccer.

It would seem impossible at first to find any shared characteristics between a 6-foot-5 quarterback from North Dakota who uses his spare time to bow-hunt bucks and a 7-foot-2 center from Cameroon who uses Twitter to trash-talk his teammates about PlayStation soccer.

But as all of us are learning, there is more to both Carson Wentz and Joel Embiid than the eye can see. Broadly speaking, they are generating excitement around here in similar ways, for similar reasons. From the available evidence, they appear to be prodigies, and for the moment, the optimism about each one's future - Wentz with the Eagles, Embiid with the 76ers - is boundless.

What's funny about this optimism, of course, is that the available evidence for it is scant. Wentz has played three games for the Eagles. Embiid has participated in three practices for the Sixers. Wentz didn't become a starting quarterback at any level of football until his senior year of high school. Embiid didn't touch a basketball until he was 17. And maybe the most striking aspect of their rises into the prospective saviors of Philadelphia sports is that each of them suffered a relatively severe injury that should have set back his development. At least, one would have thought the injuries would be setbacks.

Wentz missed three preseason games because of two fractured ribs, and Embiid sat out two full seasons because of a broken bone in his right foot. Yet Wentz has toyed with the Browns, the Bears, and the Steelers, and whenever you ask someone who has witnessed Embiid's progress, How good can he be if he stays healthy?, the most common response is a soft Whoa and a gradual widening of the eyes. How can these guys be so promising - and in Wentz's case, so gobsmackingly fantastic so far - if they've spent so little time playing and so much time watching?

Maybe it's because they've spent so much time watching. Richard Hass, a cognitive psychologist at Philadelphia University, said in a recent phone interview that Wentz's and Embiid's performances and potential get to the heart of questions that psychological and neurological researchers have long been trying to answer: What is the source of expertise? What is the best way to become great at something? "Learning to outperform your peers consistently has a lot to do with practice," Hass said. "The debate is, what does practice mean?"

In professional sports, there often is no debate. The conventional assumption is that, for an inexperienced player to improve, he or she must participate fully in practices or games - that there's no way to simulate adequately what a quarterback will face from an opposing pass rush or what a low-post player will face from defenders of comparable size, strength, skill, and intelligence. But for Wentz and Embiid, the lip service that coaches and athletes pay to getting mental reps may actually be more than just a throwaway cliche.

"There are parts of the brain - and the science is emerging on this - that are called mirror neurons," Hass said, "that seem to be able to track and simulate action. What Wentz may be able to do and Joel may be able to do is sort of imagine themselves in the game while they're watching it."

That is, Wentz and Embiid might be better equipped to take the lessons and information they glean from watching game film or reading a playbook and apply them to actual competition. Hass, for instance, cited Wentz's comfort with sauntering up to the line of scrimmage, surveying the defense, and calling an audible as "something that is typical of experts. It's akin to a chess player having the ability to use limited information to quickly identify incomplete patterns and make accurate predictions about them."

The stories about Wentz's obsessive study habits already are trending toward the apocryphal. Per Eagles coach Doug Pederson, he watches film like Peyton Manning. Per Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews, he watches film the morning of a game. Per the New York Post, he watches film during a dinner date with his girlfriend. (There are as yet no documented examples of Wentz's poring over all-22 video while in a darkened movie theater, which means watching film while watching a film might be a bridge too far even for him.)

Embiid, too, is compulsive in this regard. A person familiar with Embiid's work habits said recently that there was just one player on the Sixers roster last season, maybe two, who watched more NBA basketball than Embiid did. On Monday, Embiid even said that he doesn't care to watch college basketball anymore because the players generally don't space themselves on the court in a fundamentally sound and aesthetically pleasing alignment.

"It just drives me crazy," he said. "Since I've been in the league, I feel like, 'They don't know how to play.' "

That's a rather haughty thing for someone who still hasn't suited up in an official NBA game to say, but it does speak to how much Embiid loves basketball, just as Wentz's daily 5 a.m. arrival time at the NovaCare Complex speaks to his passion for football. It's rare to find that love of a particular sport in a person who is physically gifted enough to excel in or even dominate that sport. It's rarer still to find it in two professional athletes in the same city at the same time. For once, maybe Philadelphia is just that lucky.