CLEVELAND — Joel Embiid arrived at All-Star Weekend at the top of the race for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. And when asked to make his case Saturday at media day, the 76ers’ center said, “The way I’ve been playing speaks for itself.”

“Especially with everything we went through, the drama this whole year, and obviously missing a big piece,” he said, referring to Ben Simmons. “... I really had to take my game to another level, whether it’s offensively, defensively, or playmaking.”

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Embiid entered the All-Star break leading the league in scoring at 29.6 points per game — a rarity for a center — while shooting 49.5% from the floor and 36.9% from three-point distance. He also is averaging 11.2 rebounds and a career-high 4.5 assists per game. His team has ascended to third place in the tightly packed Eastern Conference standings at 35-23, and will be a major storyline down the stretch after last week’s blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets that brought 10-time All-Star James Harden to Philly in exchange for Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round draft picks.

Embiid’s top competitors for the award right now are reigning MVP Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets and the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, who won the award the previous two seasons. Players such as the Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul and the Chicago Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan are also in the mix.

When asked if this season is the best of his career, Embiid responded, “Yes, so far.” But he quickly added, “There’s still another level that I believe I can get to, and [I] plan to keep working to reach that level.”

He highlighted the physical improvements he has made during the last two years through nutrition, conditioning, and injury treatment and prevention, which have given Embiid the durability to play in 29 of the Sixers’ last 30 games (he missed their Jan. 31 overtime win for planned rest). He played through a knee injury early in the season, and has been dealing with a hand/wrist problem in recent games.

“I’m not close to where I want to be when it comes to my body,” Embiid said. " … To be asked to do everything offensively and defensively, it takes a toll and it’s hard. There’s not a lot of guys that can do that in the league. … It takes your body to be in the best shape possible, and I think that’s where I’m going to get to.”

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Embiid believes that continued progress will help him “earn that respect” on the defensive end that he does not think he receives now. He also wants to continue expanding his offensive game, including “acting like Steph [Curry]” while coming off pin-down screens for shots.

“I believe that I have the opportunity and I have the skill level to be able to do that,” Embiid said. “I know a lot of guys, especially Shaq [O’Neal] and Charles [Barkley] and all of those guys, they always say, ‘You got to stay in the paint. You got to be dominant in the paint.’ Which, at times, I can pick and choose and I know when I have to do that. But in today’s game, it’s hard.

“I get doubled and triple-teamed every single possession, so to be able to get the shot off, I’ve got to do a lot of other things.”

Patty Mills says Ben Simmons ‘in a really good place mentally’ with Nets

Brooklyn Nets guard Patty Mills has known Simmons since before the former Sixers point guard entered high school. So Mills, a fellow Aussie, has a unique perspective on how things deteriorated for Simmons in Philly and last week’s blockbuster trade that led to Mills and Simmons becoming NBA teammates.

“From what I’ve seen from Ben so far and the conversations that I’ve had with him, he’s in a really good place mentally,” Mills said hours before competing in the three-point competition at All-Star Saturday Night. “He’s enjoying. He’s excited.

“There’s a hungriness to him that I see, a fierce hungriness that he’s been waiting to be let out of the cage, almost, and pounce at this opportunity to be able to compete for a championship. And knowing that I’m here, as well, I think gives him a lot of comfort.”

Mills, a widely respected NBA veteran, has been a mentor from afar to Simmons throughout his career and life. Mills described a “helpless” feeling when Simmons sputtered at the end of last season’s playoffs and requested a trade from the Sixers, before sitting out the entire 2021-22 season so far because he said he was not mentally ready to play.

Now, Mills and Simmons get to share a locker room and forge an everyday relationship.

“I’m just enjoying this time with Ben in this environment,” Mills said, “where we can both be together and work on our game together and learn things from each other. Just really soaking that up, I think, is my approach to this.

“It’s been a long time coming, always wanting to be alongside him on the basketball court.”