Joel Embiid, the Sixers’ biggest star, is healthy and ready to ratchet up his game
On a 76ers team of emerging stars, Joel Embiid is the biggest and best. Still only 24, he has potential that seems limitless.
Make no mistake: The 76ers are Joel Embiid's team.
That's why he has a five-year, $146.5 million contract extension despite having yet to play a full season.
Like Embiid, 6-foot-10 point guard Ben Simmons is a generational player. But there's no denying that Embiid is the alpha dog of the Sixers.
As a result, every opposing team's scouting report begins with trying to find a way to contain the 7-foot-2, rock-solid post player. That task is expected to be tougher. Embiid, an NBA All-Star Game starter last season, is the best that he's ever been. It has a lot to do with not having any summer or preseason workout restrictions for the first time since being picked third overall in the 2014 draft.
That means Embiid won't have a minutes restriction Tuesday night as he had in the team's previous two season openers. The Sixers will kick-start one of their most anticipated seasons in recent decades against the Boston Celtics at 8 p.m. in TD Garden. The game will be televised by TNT.
"I kind of count this as my rookie season, because I'm coming in healthy," said Embiid, who finally enters the season on a level playing field with other players in terms of health. "For the first time ever, I got a chance to work on my basketball skills, which I feel like I've already gotten so much better with the help of the coaches and my trainer, Drew [Hanlen]."
Determined to become this season's league MVP, the 24-year-old realizes that he still needs to work on his weaknesses, such as shot selection and ballhandling.
It's no secret that Embiid has the ability to dominate and foul out opponents when he's in the paint. However, he also has had a tendency to turn the ball over against double teams or while dribbling too much. Embiid had 10 regular-season games with at least seven turnovers last season. He had a season-worst nine on March 19 against the Charlotte Hornets. For his career, Embiid averages 3.7 turnovers a game.
His being one of the most versatile big men in the game also leads to poor shot selection.
He can turn and face up. Embiid has an 18-foot "rocket-space isolation spot" on the floor, coach Brett Brown said, from which he routinely sticks jumpers. The Sixers also have had some success when he shoots wide-open three-pointers while trailing on fast breaks.
But sometimes, he settles too much for ill-timed three-pointers.
This preseason was a prime example. Despite dominating in the paint, he had stretches in which he kept chucking up three-pointers, making just 2 of 18 (11 percent). Embiid missed all nine of his attempts in the final two preseason games.
So the Sixers want him to incorporate more of what they call "bully ball" into his game this season. To them, "bully ball" — getting the ball in the paint and attacking the rim — will yield more free-throw attempts for Embiid.
"I'm still learning," he said. "You know I started playing basketball seven years ago. There's still a lot to learn, adapting to double teams and playing through contact, which I'm going to do more of this year.
"Occasionally, if I'm wide open, I'm going to take a three-pointer."
The team's expectation is that Embiid will be a dominant force this season, and it's hard to believe that many outside the organization will disagree.
Embiid showed last season that he's a big-game player who excels on the national stage. The second-team all-NBA selection averaged 22.9 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.76 blocks in 63 regular-season games. He also finished sixth in the league in defensive rating (99.7), an analytics statistic that measures a player's ability to prevent the other team from scoring.
His most memorable performance came during a 115-109 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in November. He had career highs of 46 points and seven blocks to go with seven assists at the Staples Center. Embiid also had career bests in made field goals (14), made free throws (16), and free-throw attempts (19). He added 15 rebounds and what at the time was a season-low two turnovers.
This game was a prime example of what he's capable of doing when he takes care of the ball and stays in the paint. Embiid attempted just three three-pointers, making two of them.
"His size and ball skills are amazing," Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "His strength in the post and around the basket are very difficult to deal with, and he's a long-range shooter that can drive the ball.
"He has all the skills that the future '5' men in the NBA will have. He's really, really good."
But Embiid also has been really, really injury-prone.
Embiid missed 19 games last season because of rest or ailments. His most prominent injury was the orbital bone fracture near his left eye that he suffered against the New York Knicks in late March. That injury sidelined him for the final eight regular-season games and first two games in the opening-round playoff series against the Miami Heat.
He also missed his first two seasons after foot surgeries. He was on a minutes restriction and unable to play on back-on-back days during the 2016-17 season. That campaign concluded in March 2017 with knee surgery, which prohibited him from working out that summer. Embiid began last season with a minutes restriction, and he was prohibited by the coaches to play on consecutive nights.
With the injuries behind him, it's easy to marvel at his potential.
"The way he competes, the ways he wants to grow, the way he wants to get better, it's just uncanny with the skills that he has and that size that he has," Sixers general manager Elton Brand said.
Brand would know, having played at a high level for 17 seasons before retiring with the Sixers before last season. He was promoted to GM on Sept. 18 after serving as vice president of basketball operations and general manager of team's G League team, the Delaware Blue Coats.
Embiid joked on media day about dunking on the 39-year-old during a practice after Brand came out of a short retirement to join the team in January 2016.
"When he made the joke about dunking on me two years ago, I thought [back then]: all-time great," Brand said. "The strength, the size, the touch. Like he could be an all-time great for sure."