Everyone loves a story about realization and rebirth. Joel Embiid can write his now.
He returned from a two-game suspension Wednesday in Utah with the chance to remake himself. The chance to change from selfish bullyboy to what he should be: the international face and voice of the National Basketball Association. He is singularly qualified to do this; in fact, he’s the most qualified player in league history.
He’s a brilliant, polylingual Cameroonian, a citizen of the world, a natural ambassador willing to promote himself and his brand anywhere, any time. As the light of LeBron wanes, Embiid can exceed both James’ range and reach.
But only if he can get out of his own way.
No more feuds. No more fights. No more late-night, middle-school tweetstorms.
Can he do it?
Really, he must. Because he’s become the face and the voice of self-indulgent buffoonery.
Embiid last week instigated a fight with Timberwolves center (and Eagles superfan) Karl-Anthony Towns, which resulted in the ejection of both centers. Embiid then held a postgame press conference in which he repeatedly congratulated himself, painted himself as the victim, and assured listeners he would face no suspension. Then he spent 5 hours in a vulgar Twitter spat with Towns.
Both the fighting and the tweeting earned the suspension, the NBA said. Both the fighting and the tweeting need to stop.
This behavior should be beneath Embiid. He doesn’t need to cheap-shot or trash-talk opponents to intimidate them; he intimidates them when he puts on his socks.
He said he never seeks trouble: “It always finds me.”
This is, generally, false. The incident in question began when Embiid double-teamed Towns, then entangled Towns’ arms as the play went downcourt. Seconds later, as Towns flailed away, Embiid’s hand was around Towns’ neck, his thumb was in Towns’ eye, and both men crashed to the floor.
Embiid said, “I loved it. It was great.”
It cost him $379,374. He didn’t love that.
Before the season began, Embiid vowed to minimize his antics, and that promise was believable. He’d been humiliated in the second round of the playoffs last season by Hall of Fame commentators Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, his fitness mocked, his professionalism derided. And they were right.
Embiid improved his diet during the series. He wept in the tunnel after the Game 7 loss at Toronto, crushed by the outcome. He arrived at training camp in the best shape of his career Not the best shape possible, mind you, but better than ever.
He seemed to be progressing, finally. Yes, he’s only 25, but he was drafted six years ago. He spent his first two seasons as part of a severely dysfunctional parody of an NBA franchise, sidelined by injury, but he has been a witness to everything except winning, so he knows how the league works.
Nonetheless, it’s become clearer by the day that he has no idea how transformationally dominant he could be if he just grew up. If he focused on better fitness, better footwork, better study habits, better discipline.
His coach at Kansas, Bill Self, compared him to Hakeem Olajuwon on draft night. Self undersold Embiid. His athleticism and physique give him the potential to be more than Olajuwon ever was. More than Shaq. The game has changed, so yes: Even more than Wilt.
There has never been a player with this sort of total package. There might never be again.
Embiid touts himself as all of these things, but, despite his bravado, Embiid has been erased by sound defenders twice in the past two postseasons. Al Horford, now his teammate, muzzled him for Boston in 2018. The Raptors traded for Marc Gasol with the express purpose of stifling Embiid in the 2019 playoffs. Embiid shot 37 percent from the field, down from more than 48 percent during the regular season, and scored about 10 fewer points per game. Much of the attention goes to the way Boston and Toronto defended Ben Simmons, who is scared to shoot from the perimeter, but a first-team All Star and MVP candidate cannot disappear in a second-round playoff series. Twice in a row.
Again: After last season, Embiid said he’d be more “mature.”
Then, the fight. The press-conference defiance. The Twitter taunts.
Really, what Embiid says doesn’t much matter.
What matters is whether he gets his rest; he’s a notorious night owl. What matters is whether he feeds himself garbage.
What matters is whether he develops a repertoire of post moves that cannot be stopped, as he should have done already.
Brett Brown, his long-suffering coach — and, frankly, his chief enabler — tells anyone who will listen that Embiid can be something unimaginable. Something dreamed up by a comic-book writer. He can be a real-life action hero.
Instead, he acts like a clown.
What a waste.