CHARLOTTE – Joel Embiid, one of the best young players in the NBA, will probably walk around the Spectrum Center on Sunday soaking in everything.
After all, it will be his second trip to an All-Star Game, in this third season of playing in actual games after being sidelined for two seasons with two foot surgeries. It’s a monumental accomplishment and the second of many trips that are sure to follow.
It will be special – especially for a 24-year-old Cameroonian who is still a relative novice to the sport.
“My story is different than everybody else’s,” Embiid said. “You [are] starting to play basketball at the age of 16 and not really knowing where you are going, especially when I came to the [United] States.”
Embiid didn’t speak English or have family members to lean on when he arrived in America with a goal of becoming a professional basketball player. Thin and extremely raw, Embiid failed to get playing time at Montverde Academy (Fla.).
“So, it was hard,” he said. “But all the love I’ve been able to get here and everywhere else, especially in Philadelphia, has made me feel welcome.
“I really appreciate it. But it’s been an amazing experience.”
Amazing might be an understatement.
Embiid has come a long way from being a skinny junior with very limited skills at Montverde, who transferred to The Rock School, in Gainesville, Fla., for his senior year to get playing time.
These days, he’s the best center in basketball, arguably the biggest sports personality on social media, and most importantly for folks in Philadelphia, one of their favorite adopted sons.
Embiid and Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz are the biggest sports personalities in the city. Folks can argue for days about who is bigger. But you can’t deny the relationship he shares with Philadelphia.
Fans appreciate his energy, grit, brashness, and skill set. All those attributes work well in the blue collar city that prides itself in work ethic.
“It’s been a perfect fit, especially with my social media presence,” Embiid said. “The love that I get, the support that I get, it’s been amazing.”
The center would probably have a larger national presence if he was playing in New York or Los Angeles, due to the two being America’s top media markets. However, he’s an example of how social media has helped boost someone’s national popularity and make them beloved in other cities.
Embiid has 1.5 million followers on Twitter and was a social media star even before playing in his first NBA game back on Oct. 26, 2016.
“When you talk about social media, Joel Embiid has created a following so the people in Philly can fall in love with him,” Portland Trail Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard said. “We all have that luxury now that we can act a certain way or be a certain person on the court. People don’t have to just be a fan of how many points you scored. Now they are getting to see the human side. ... The person.”
Embiid and Ben Simmons are the first Sixers teammates named All-Stars in the same season since Allen Iverson and Dikembe Mutombo in 2002.
You won’t get to see the duo teaming up with each other in the game, though.
Milwaukee Bucks power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo selected both players for Team Giannis in the All-Star draft. He traded the 2018 Rookie of the Year to Team LeBron so Simmons could play with his close friend James, the Los Angeles Lakers forward.
While Simmons will be chumming with James, Embiid’s interaction with Team Giannis teammate Russell Westbrook will receive a lot of attention. Team Giannis acquired Westbrook in the trade for Simmons with Antetokounmpo wanting the pair on the same team as a way to help repair their relationship.
The disdain that Embiid and the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard have for each other is real and fun to watch. Watching the All-Stars, who play different positions, go at one another has been must-see TV.
Things got testy between the two late in the fourth quarter of the Thunder’s recent 117-115 victory on Jan. 19 at Wells Fargo Center.
Embiid fouled the 2017 league MVP while contesting a layup and fell on the point guard as they both went to the ground. Westbrook, after getting up, took exception and walked toward the big man. After being held back and walking away, Westbrook made a pair of foul shots to give OKC an 108-104 lead.
Embiid was asked Saturday about Antetokounmpo trying to fix the relationship with Westbrook.
“I mean, I don’t care,” he said.
Westbrook responded, “Next question, champ” to being asked if he could get along with Embiid.
Time will tell what happens.
Both are competitive players who want to win. Embiid’s competitiveness is part of what makes him beloved in Philadelphia. And that doesn’t go unnoticed by his peers.
“He’s a big personality,” San Antonio Spurs All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge said. “He’s a big-time player. So they’ve embraced that, and they’re winning. So that always makes things better.”