TWO YEARS LATE, SIXER JOEL EMBIID WAS WORTH THE WAIT!

By Annie Ross

It may have been two years late, but Joel Embiid’s debut for the Sixers was worth the wait!

Embiid played well in last night’s 92-89 preseason win over the Celtics in Amherst, Mass.

jo-joIn 13 first-half minutes Embiid had six points (2 for 6 from the field) with four rebounds, two blocked shots and three turnovers. The 7-2, 276-pound center had not played since the 76ers picked him No. 3 overall in the 2014 Draft.

“I felt like I was definitely a new NBA player,’’ he told NBA.com. “I’m more agile, more athletic, my shot is better. I felt like I was a better player than I was in college.’’

“It’s only been two years,’’ said Embiid. “I’ve been alive for 22 years, so it doesn’t feel that long.’’

Really?

This was Embiid’s first appearance since March 1, 2014, when he was a Kansas freshman playing against Oklahoma State. A stress fracture in his back sidelined him for the remainder of that season, and his next two years were done in by a pair of surgeries involving the tiny, tortured navicular bone in his right foot. He averaged 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 23.1 minutes for Kansas while earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, which spoke to his greater potential: Embiid has the fire, size and athleticism to be a Top 10 player in the NBA, so long as his previous two seasons turn out to be the exception and not the rule.

“I was a little rusty in the beginning,’’ said Embiid, who was critical of his preference for jump shots. All six of his attempts came from the perimeter. “I think I had a bad game plan to start the game. I needed to go to the basket instead of shooting. So next time I got to get to the paint and use my jump hooks and just get some easy layups, and I think everything will open up.’’

The plan was to limit Embiid to 12 minutes in three spurts with time for rest in between. He scored his first basket near the end of the opening quarter, on a jab-step fallaway that looked entirely rhythmical. Moments later he was beating the buzzer with a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer that hinted at his versatility. But those plays came in his second stint.

He lost the opening tip to Amir Johnson, missed three midrange jumpers off the front rim and looked as if he was trying to remember what to do.

It came back to him quickly enough. Embiid’s energy increased as he worked through his fatigue. He didn’t appear to shy away from contact – especially at the defensive end, where Embiid followed his first NBA field goal by blocking the shot of Celtics rookie Jaylen Brown. He was surprised when the Celtics successfully double-teamed him in the second quarter. “I’m going to watch film, learn from it, and next game if it happens then I’ll be ready for it,’’ he said.

The Sixers lost No. 1 pick Ben Simmons to foot surgery (return date unknown) on the morning of Embiid’s long-awaited return. Coach Brett Brown has lived through this extended wait before – with Embiid as well as Nerlens Noel, who missed his entire rookie year while recovering from knee surgery – and his hope is to help Simmons improve his jump shot in order to turn his absence into improvement.

Embiid and Simmons are this team’s most talented prospects, and it will be years before they realize their potential, health pending. “The Ben Simmons thing took us all for a little bit of a loop initially,’’ Brown said. “But there are so many reasons to feel a greater level of hope than we have in the past.’’

“Can’t wait to get out there,’’ Embiid was saying at the clock ticked toward his first game. “It doesn’t matter if I don’t score, or it doesn’t matter if I don’t grab a rebound. It doesn’t matter if I don’t block a shot. I just want to get back on the court and play.’’

Elton Brand sat listening from the next locker. “His love of the game, if he lost any of it at all, it’s back,’’ Brand said. “He wants to be one of the best for sure, he wants to play against the best and find ways to be better. He’s that kind of guy.’’

Brand, the 37-year-old forward, found himself thinking back to his first game 16 years ago. “It was against Antonio McDyess and I played him really well. I think I had 16 (points),’’ said Brand. And then in his second regular-season game, Brand was going 1 for 4 against Alonzo Mourning and P.J. Brown. “I had four points.’’

That was how Brand began to transform his naive energy into real performances. Which is what Embiid will be learning soon enough. At long last.

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