By David Aldridge, NBA.com
There was a moment late in the first quarter in a recent game — after Joel Embiid had drained the third effortless 3-pointer from the top of the key, giving him 17 points in his first 11 minutes against the Phoenix Suns — that he got a little insane, and tried to lead the break, and lost his dribble, and the ball.
He then committed a loose ball foul to stop the break now heading the other way, and lay on the floor at Wells Fargo Center, motionless.
There was a pregnant pause from the 18,125 on hand.
Very pregnant pause.
Embiid stayed motionless, face down, on the floor.
And, dead silence.
Finally, Embiid slapped the floor hard with his hand, and scrambled to his feet — not injured, just angry with himself, and the blood came back to the crowd’s face.
But on the floor, Embiid was smiling the whole time.
“One thing is enjoying every moment,” Embiid said afterward, after scoring a career-high 26 points in the Sixers’ 120-105 win.“In the last three years, I’ve been through so much, such as the loss of my brother (his younger brother Arthur was killed by a reckless driver in Cameroon in 2014). So it was tough. Now that I’m back on the court, it’s just enjoying every moment. I always like to have some type of connection with the crowd. When they chanted ‘trust the process,’ I got the block and just get them going. So it’s just about having fun.”
There has been so much despair in this city the last three years, waiting and waiting, and losing and losing, that fun is okay. He is actually introduced in the starting lineup as “Joel, The Process, Embiid.” (Is that on his driver’s license now: Joel T.P. Embiid? Do his close friends just call him “’Cess?” Like, ‘what’s up, ‘Cess?’)
“Trust the Process” was, of course, shorthand for the plan of the 76ers’ previous GM, Sam Hinkie, who believed the best way to build a franchise that could be good for an extended period of time was to always, always get as much talent under your control as possible. If it took a year, or two, or three for that talent to finally get to the court, that didn’t matter. Difference-making skill was hard to acquire, especially in free agency. So you did what you had to get to get it.
In Philly, that meant waiting on Embiid’s right foot.
He first broke it just before the 2014 Draft, an injury that followed a stress fracture in his back that limited him to 28 games in his single season of college at Kansas. The Sixers still took him third overall, knowing he could well miss the whole season, which he did. They didn’t count on him missing a second season after re-fracturing the navicular bone in his foot in June of 2015.
Embiid was still worth the gamble, Hinkie believed, just as he believed it was worth it to move then-All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday after the 2013 Draft to take a shot on Nerlens Noel, and worth wheeling and dealing before the 2014 Draft to take Dario Saric, a Croatian teenage sensation who was playing in Turkey and wasn’t coming to the NBA for a good long while.
They continued to Trust the Process. Not that they, or coach Brett Brown, had a choice. Much of the rest of the league wailed at what it believed was obvious tanking to get as high a pick as possible the following June. That the Sixers responded with kind of an organizational shrug enraged people more — outside and inside Wells Fargo Center.
The Sixers are still losing this season They’re just 4-14. And this is the problem when an organization has been indifferent to losing for so long: it’s hard for a lot of people to understand that this losing is different from the previous losing. It’s all just losing.
But this is the normal rebuilding that most teams do: they get some young players, put them on the floor, and live with the results as they get older, stronger and more experienced.
With Embiid, still just 22, the mind reels.
He is limited to 28 minutes a night at present. He won’t play back to back games for a while, if at all this season. But he’s here. Saric, after two years playing in Turkey, is now here. Jahlil Okafor, the third pick overall in 2015, is here. Of course, it wouldn’t be the Sixers if someone wasn’t here — this year, it’s Ben Simmons, the top pick in 2016 who is rehabbing a Jones fracture in his foot suffered before the start of camp.
And Noel, who has said he wouldn’t now mind being traded, just got back to town over the weekend after undergoing surgery on his left knee.
But Embiid’s development trumps everything. Because his potential trumps everyone’s. Because the 76ers haven’t had a superstar since Allen Iverson, a player who creates buzz, hope and anticipation.
You see it on the 3-pointers, of course, which he shoots naturally and with no strain. You see it on the block, when he did very different things against the same defender, Phoenix’s Alex Len. On the right block, Embiid takes the contact from Len, spins, keeps his foot and drops steps Len on the way to the hoop. On the left block, Embiid catches squares up and splashes a 12-footer. On defense, he covers eight or so feet in two large steps and comes across the lane to inhale a drive by Devin Booker. It all looks … effortless.
Then, he gets a little tired. But, man.
This is a pattern with the young man, who’s only played five years of organized basketball, and now has to scrape off two years’ worth of rust against the best players in the world. The flashes, though, have been amazing: 20 points and seven rebounds in his debut against Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams, who is no slouch. There’s a 22-point game against the Cleveland Cavaliers and a 25-point, seven-rebound game against the Indiana Pacers.
“If you look at him, ‘cause he started out, just like, ridiculous,” Brown said. “And his usage rate would blow the NBA record out of the water by something stupid. I (also) see this gangly young kid that at times, there’s no lift. He can’t even dunk. And when you watch him in practice, all of a sudden there’s this, bam, bam — Shaq stuff. Dunks and jump hooks. And then you see him out of balance, playing in a crowd, stumbling. And then, you see something finesse. But his head’s good, though. Before, that was always a challenge.”
The challenges, of course, were enormous. The first foot surgery didn’t take. Embiid changed agents and doctors, changed his diet and sleep habits. He mourned Arthur’s death with his real family and his Sixers family. He worked on his body — it was never quite as bad as detailed in a story on The Cauldron that noted Embiid’s fondness for Shirley Temples — and he waited for the foot to heal, out of public view for most of the last year.
But then, Hinkie resigned last spring, and Philly hired veteran executive Bryan Colangelo, the former Suns and Raptors’ GM. Hinkie had already done a career’s worth of medical and support work on Embiid. Colangelo brought his people in to augment what had already been done, and added more staff — a new head of Sports Science, along with a full-time physiotherapist and clinical diagnostic technician. In addition to the Catapault wearable technology many teams use to monitor stress loads of players, the Sixers teamed with an Australian company whose bands specifically measures foot stresses.
“I’m still trying to figure it out. Sometimes, I feel like I’m lost. But I’ve always said that I believe in God. Even with the injury concerns, one thing I told myself before the season was, just go out and play. Whatever happens, happens.”
“When you talk about all the things that we’re doing as an organization to have the best possible athlete care, we’ve got that,” Colangelo said Sunday. “Over that time period, the things that they (previously) did and built up with Joel in terms of confidence, I think there’s no doubt that we’ve proven over a long period of time that we’ve got nothing but his best interests at heart.”
Embiid’s body looks lean and strong now, the result of months of work with Philly’s player development group, and his game was helped by a month over the summer with skills coach Drew Hanlen. But Embiid had to trust his body again.
“Key for us was gradually throwing more and more at him,” Hanlen said Sunday. “Walking through something, then going half speed, then going through full speed with dummy defense before actually trying it against real defenders. Piece by piece improving his footwork, moves, understanding and feel. He was hesitant to try things at times but over time came around. The Sixers did a great job of managing his load and rest too. Even when he was with me in L.A., they were monitoring everything.
“Trusting comes from knowing. When you know you can do something and are comfortable and confident doing it, you trust that it’ll work.”
It is not without its ups and downs. Scrimmages are not games; practice is not a 300-pound guy in another jersey leaning on you, trying to do damage.
“Honestly, I don’t know how I’m able to do it,” Embiid said. “I’m still trying to figure it out. Sometimes, I feel like I’m lost. But I’ve always said that I believe in God. Even with the injury concerns, one thing I told myself before the season was, just go out and play. Whatever happens, happens. If something happens, something happens. But I believe in God and I pray every day.”
The rest of the Sixers’ season will be highlighted by a minute-by-minute evaluation of Embiid’s numbers — not just the minutes on the court, but the soreness he feels after practice, and where, and for how long. Every step he takes is examined.
A medical team within the team, including the 76ers’ lead orthopedist, Dr. Christopher C. Dodson, and Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Jonathan Glashow, make the daily calls on whether Embiid’s vitals are game-ready on a daily basis. With no back-to-backs on the docket, Embiid’s likely max number of games this season will be somewhere around 50 to 60. But if something shows up that the medical team doesn’t like in the interim — like a sprained left ankle that could cause Embiid to overcompensate for the now-healthy right foot — someone can raise a flag, and Embiid won’t play that night, as happened last Wednesday in Philly before the 76ers played the Wizards.
It nearly happened again Saturday, but after shootaround and a pregame workout, Embiid said he felt good, and he was cleared to play. Other days are likely to not go as well.
“Right now, it’s tough to explain to a 22-year-old man who’s been waiting two years to play basketball that he can’t play,” Colangelo said. “But it’s because we care about him and we’re thinking about his long-term future. It’s his long-term future, but it’s our long-term future as well.”
The 28-minute nightly limit forces Brown to work backwards. If he wants Embiid on the floor at the end of the game, he starts with his fourth-quarter minutes and then figures out how long he can play earlier in the game. (Assistant coach and director of player development Billy Lange is the one who gives him the bad news when Embiid’s time in a given game is just about up.)
Embiid doesn’t stay down long now that he’s back on the floor. He can good-naturedly grumble that the Minnesota Timberwolves didn’t let Karl-Anthony Towns defend him one-on-one (“they double-teamed and triple-teamed me … I didn’t get a chance to go at him … that’s what people wanted to see and I wanted to give them a chance to see it”) and joke that his plans after the game are to “drink a couple of Shirley Temples and go to bed.”
The Sixers still have a big-man heavy roster, one that will almost certainly be without Noel by this time next season. Brown still says he’d like to play Embiid and Okafor together, but the current minute restrictions on both make that almost impossible.
Philly traded for veteran forward Ersan Ilyasova to help spread the floor, but he’s just one more big man on a team full of them. Eventually, someone will go. But it won’t be the 22-year-old in whom the franchise has invested, and invests, so much, the one who laughs when fans chant ‘trust the process’ when he’s at the foul line.
“People have labeled the Process as whatever, tanking,” Embiid said. “I don’t see it like that. I think in a few years, we’re going to be really good. We’ve still got Ben, who’s going to play soon. We’ve got Nerlens, who’s going to be back. We’ve got a lot of talent. I think now — I don’t know if it’s because I’m pushing it — but everybody’s kind of getting into the Process.”
Meanwhile, Brown has suffered 209 NBA losses since 2013, waiting for the cavalry, coaching himself crazy. Now, he has a 7-foot, 275-pound cornerstone that looks like the Eastern Conference’s version of Towns — the next generation, do-everything center. If his feet cooperate.
Brown is a basketball lifer. Lifers tend to be clear-eyed, not dreamers. But the question is put to him: when this is all finally over, and if the 76ers ever become what they’re capable of becoming — how, in his dreams, does he envision Embiid winning games for him after all this losing?
“Let’s start,” the long-suffering coach says, “with him playing 36 minutes a game. And go from there.”
He is not smiling.
But he is hopeful.
There is a tiny bit of light at the end of the Process.