A couple of months ago at the start of the NBA season, predicting that Joel Embiid was going to have a successful rookie campaign seemed like a fun bet to make.
He was coming off two full seasons of surgeries right after his short-lived collegiate career at Kansas, and hadn’t played in a single NBA game. He slipped to the 3rd pick in his draft, and had to wait for his time to play for the Philadelphia 76ers while they went through the early stages of “the Process.”
You’d have to be crazy to predict that the 76ers, who had just pulled off the 3rd worst record in NBA history, would be on the cusp of entering the playoff conversation this season. With their trio of lottery pick centres, who obviously still can’t share a court, and their latest no.1 pick in the 2016 Draft also sidelined due to surgery, it looked like the 76ers were bound for another season to forget.
Going back to a couple of months ago, if someone were to propose a bet that Embiid would be able to guide the 76ers to the postseason in his rookie year; it would of been wise to call BS and snatch that fool’s liquor money.
Instead, that foolish prediction is actually starting to come to life, with the 76ers blossoming into the feel good story of the NBA – as Embiid carries the City of Brotherly Love like no one could of imagined.
Philadelphia is 6-2 in January.
The 76ers have a better record this month than the Cavaliers, Rockets, Spurs and Thunder. pic.twitter.com/VqHRnKmy9H
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) January 19, 2017
The 7-foot-2 centre spent his first couple season in the NBA sitting beside Sam Hinkie, the man who had created the Process. He had time to sit back and look at the game in a different light, with an infamous Philly GM who had put the 76ers through their worst stretch in franchise history. While they tanked on the court, Embiid waited for his opportunity to carry them back into prominence.
Last season, the 76ers barely nudged their way to 10 wins. Now, halfway through the 2016-17 season, Embiid has them working towards the playoffs.
“I think we’re seven or eight games from the eighth place, so I think that’s a goal. I think we have a chance,” said Embiid after a win against the Brooklyn Nets. “We’ve been hot lately. … We’re really figuring things out, we’re starting to learn how to win games.”
When Embiid came out and said that the 76ers had a chance to get to the playoffs, he immediately continued to back up his words like a great player is supposed to. Since their win against the Nets on Jan. 8, they’ve won 4 of their last 5 matchups, with Embiid not playing in their lone loss against the Washington Wizards.
Their 4 wins have come against the Knicks, Bulls, Bucks, and Raptors as they continue to climb up the Eastern Conference standings; sitting only 5.5 games out of the 8th seed. If they were to continue their pace from the start of 2017, they would be bound for a 45-win season, and with the 8th seed in the East held by a 21-22 Bulls team, the 76ers’ chances of making the playoffs now look well within their reach.
Every night that Embiid plays, it seems like something special is about to happen for a franchise that’s been in the dark for far too long. Last night against the Raptors, Embiid was able to guide them to a 94-89 victory, finishing with 26 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks while also going 2-4 from 3-point distance.
He was his team’s leading scorer once again, registering his 10th straight game with at least 20 points, while he also provided them with great defence down the stretch; including a big time block on Kyle Lowry. He followed it up by hitting a pair of clutch free throws to seal the game, while the Wells Fargo Center erupted with “Trust the Process” chants.
The 76ers are winning games once again, and it’s been Embiid’s presence on both ends of the floor that has propelled them to the point where they’re now more than just a pit stop on an opposing team’s schedule.
Instead, they’ve started off the New Year on a 6-2 stretch; improving their record to 14-26. In that stretch, Embiid has taken his game to another level as he continues to progress through his rookie season, averaging 23 points on 45 FG%, 9.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.4 blocks in just 27.1 minutes a game.
Even though he continues to face a minutes restriction, not having played over 30 minutes in an NBA game, he’s emerged into his team’s biggest weapon. He’s been an ideal big man, leading them in points and rebounds, while also providing them with great rim protection. His agility at his size has been his biggest commodity, with the 76ers holding the league’s highest defensive rating while he’s on the court.
Sixers' defensive rating w/ Embiid = No. 1 in NBA.
Sixers' defensive rating w/o Embiid = No. 25 in NBA. pic.twitter.com/v6p8HHr5ss
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) January 19, 2017
Embiid’s emergence has been a blessing for the NBA, with his entertaining and bright personality holding as much impact as his play on the court. He’s already acting like the leader and motivator the 76ers desperately needed, while at the same time he continues to produce as their best player. It’s a rare combination, making Embiid’s arrival in their lineup this season seem like a gift from above.
At one point, it was unknown if Embiid was ever going to even get his chance to play in the NBA. Now, he’s making it his own stage, as the 76ers start to make a name for themselves behind a legitimate franchise cornerstone.
As Embiid continues to produce highlight plays, and most importantly tally up wins for the 76ers, it’s becoming near impossible to predict how bright of a future he’ll have in the NBA. Making the playoffs at this point of his career, as a 22-year-old rookie centre, might seem like a classic case of shooting for the stars, but Embiid is making it look like a reality.
All stats for this article are from NBA.com
You can follow Bryan Meler on Twitter @BryanMelo97