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Joel Embiid’s ‘amazing’ journey has him on path to be one of the NBA’s all-time greats

From injuries to nearly quitting to a tragic loss, Embiid has endured to break through as one of the NBA's best.

Sixers center Joel Embiid against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Feb. 11 in Philadelphia.
Sixers center Joel Embiid against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Feb. 11 in Philadelphia.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

CLEVELAND — Joel Embiid says his life is like a movie.

It’s a movie with a main character who hails from Cameroon. He didn’t take up basketball until the age of 16, then moved to America to hone his skills only to consider walking away from the sport. But after staying the course, he becomes a five-time NBA All-Star starter and the face of the 76ers franchise.

“It’s amazing,” Embiid, who turns 28 next month, said after finishing with 36 points and 10 rebounds in Sunday night’s NBA All-Star Game. “I always said it, everything just happens so fast. Year after year. If you want to grow through the timeline of everything happening in my life, whether it’s 10, 11 years ago, really starting to play basketball, and within three years making it to the league.

“Obviously, my first few years, there was a chance that I could never play basketball ever in the NBA [due to health issues]. And all of a sudden, getting the chance to get on the court and try to show what I can do and trying to help us win.”

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It’s a blessing, one Embiid will never take for granted. He still comes out every season motivated to prove he belongs on this stage. Each season, Embiid looks to add to his game and make improvements to his body.

He’s shown no signs of the player whose NBA career was in question for two seasons after being drafted third by the Sixers in 2014.

Embiid is rubbing elbows with and has the respect of future Hall of Famers LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant. He’s also a transcendent center, one who’s part Shaquille O’Neal, part Hakeem Olajuwon, and part Kobe Bryant. The Sixers haven’t had a player of Embiid’s stature since Hall of Famer Allen Iverson. And he’s on pace to end his career as the wealthiest player in franchise history after signing a four-year, $196 million supermax extension last summer. The deal locks up Embiid through the 2026-27 season and includes a player option in the final season.

This comes after he signed a five-year, $146.5 million maximum salary contract extension in October 2017.

Embiid never envisioned receiving a max extension followed by a supermax when he arrived in America back in 2011.

Back then, Embiid was about 100 pounds lighter than his current listed weight of 280 pounds. He was a high school junior at Montverde (Fla.) Academy, playing on the junior varsity team.

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He played in only in three of the first six seasons in which he was involved with organized basketball due to an inability to stay healthy.

Embiid had a stress fracture in his back that kept him out of the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments during his lone season at Kansas in 2013-14. He then missed his first two NBA seasons because of two surgeries to repair the navicular bone in his right foot. During that first season, he experienced tragedy when his younger brother Arthur died in a car accident in Cameroon. (Embiid named his son Arthur in his honor.)

“You look back at my first year after the surgery,” Embiid said. “Obviously, I lost my brother at that time, too. Going back to Cameroon, I really wanted to stop playing basketball and really retire because at that point you just had surgery, and everybody is talking about you’re not going to make it or you’re never going to play in the league, and, obviously, the loss of my brother was big. I wanted to give up. I almost did. It was hard.

“Then the second year you’ve got to get another surgery. That basically you miss two years in a row, and all these stories coming out every single day.”

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Many of the stories during that first season regarded his work ethic being questioned by some inside the organization. And a blowup with former assistant strength and conditioning coach James Davis is one of the reasons he was sent home during the team’s West Coast road trip in January 2015. At the time, team sources said Embiid was close to 300 pounds after weighing in at 250 at Kansas the season before.

“Oh, Joel is whatever, 300 pounds, and the media always talking down on you,” Embiid recalled. “It was tough. I had to go through a lot. It was very tough, but I’m glad I just kept pushing through with the help of everybody around me. I’m happy to be here.”

He played in only 31 games in his third season, his first actual season on the court, before the team announced on March 1, 2017 that he would need season-ending knee surgery.

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But he began a string of five straight NBA All-Star Game starts the next season, 2017-18.

The young player who almost walked away from basketball, is now on pace to be one of the all-time greats.