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For Sixers' Joel Embiid, a breakthrough summer ahead?

Aside from getting an A-list free agent, a healthy and in-shape Embiid is the Sixers' best bet to challenge the Celtics for Eastern Conference supremacy next season.

Sixers center Joel Embiid played 71 games (regular season and playoffs combined) and was dominant at times.
Sixers center Joel Embiid played 71 games (regular season and playoffs combined) and was dominant at times.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

CHICAGO — As much as we praise Joel Embiid, the 76ers center could have been better.

He knows it. The Sixers know it.

That's scary when you consider the success Embiid had this season. The 24-year-old became the first Sixer selected to start in an NBA All-Star Game since Allen Iverson in 2010. He's a finalist for the league's defensive player of the year. And he is arguably the league's best center.

But Embiid wasn't in shape, turned the ball over at a high rate, and, once again, dealt with injuries.

"Just to get to the level that I want to be … I have a lot of stuff to work on," he said last week at a news conference after his exit interview.

Embiid expressed his desire to become the league MVP next season.  He is also determined to play in more games than the career-high 71 (regular season and playoffs combined) he participated in this season.

That's why Embiid is excited about this summer. It will mark the first time since being drafted third overall in 2014 that he won't have offseason training restrictions. He missed his first two seasons because of two foot surgeries and then had season-ending knee surgery in March 2017, which prohibited him from working out last summer.

"I feel like next year is definitely going to be a type of MVP season for me," he said. "But it starts with my body. And the skills.  I love being in the gym. I don't feel like taking any time off.

"So we are going to see how the summer goes."

Embiid was noticeably fatigued during key stretches this season, especially in the Eastern Conference semifinal series against Boston. That's why conditioning is a major priority for him this summer. So is slimming down to an ideal playing weight of 270 pounds. Embiid said he was at 281 this season.

Aside from getting an A-list free agent such as LeBron James, a healthy and in-shape Embiid is the Sixers' best bet to challenge the Celtics next season for Eastern Conference supremacy. The Sixers signed him to a  five-year, $146 million maximum extension that will kick in next season. The contract is essentially guaranteed, but it protects the team financially should he suffer specific serious injuries.

Embiid would receive his full pay by playing a minimum of 1,650 regular-season minutes in three consecutive seasons during his extension, or three out of four years including this season. He played 1,912 minutes in this past regular season.  As you can see, he has a financial reason to work on his body and stay healthy.

He missed 21 games this 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 on March 28. That injury sidelined him for the final eight regular-season games and the first two games of the opening-round playoff series against Miami. Wearing a protective mask, he returned to the court April 19 for Game 3 of the Heat series.

"I played with the eye," he said, "and it's still not 100 percent. My right shoulder was hurting quite a bit [in the playoffs]. My elbow was hurting pretty bad, too."

Yet he was still a force in the postseason. Embiid averaged 21.4 points, 12.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.8 blocks in eight postseason games. He finished with seven straight double-doubles. The negatives: He was out of shape, he made just 60 of 138 shots (43.5 percent), and he averaged 3.6 turnovers.

All this came after he showed in the regular season that he's a big-game player who excels on the national stage.

He averaged 22.9 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.76 blocks in 63 games this season. He and Milwaukee all-star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo were the league's only players to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists in a minimum of 50 games played.

Embiid's presence made the Sixers a better defensive team. He finished sixth in the league with a 99.7 defensive rating.

So the tools are there. He just needs to put in the work this offseason and remain healthy.

"His whole future is his body," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "That's not going to surprise anybody. How does he master diet? How does he master his strength and conditioning? How does he master rehab, prehab, all of the things you know equal health?"

Brown praised his franchise player for being able to overcome his injuries this season — specifically, playing at a high level in the playoffs while wearing a mask with a visor. He wants Embiid to continue to be a prominent voice and an emerging leader in the locker room.

The coach believes Embiid's health will allow him to take his post game to a different level.

"When you zoom in on development in the summer, his ability to navigate post play – turn and face back down, pass out – that world he's got to own," Brown said. "He really has to own that. I believe that he will."