NBA Teams
Jackie MacMullan, ESPN Senior Writer 24d

Joel Embiid is more than the NBA's best follow

Philadelphia 76ers

PHILADELPHIA -- Joel Embiid postures at the free throw line like the Greek warrior Perseus, flexing his chiseled 7-foot-2 frame and gesturing to the paying customers to raise their game.

The adoring Philly crowd responds accordingly, enthusiastically bellowing in unison, "Let's go process!" When Embiid drains the first free throw, the chant is upgraded: "MVP! MVP!"

The adulation intensifies as Embiid knocks down the second free throw with the easy, natural stroke of a long-ball marksman. He is shooting nearly 82 percent from the line in this young season and has displayed a knack for soft, feathery jump shots from the post, the perimeter, even the 3-point line.

"You watch him and you say, 'Am I seeing [Hakeem] Olajuwon? Is this [Tim] Duncan? Wait, he can shoot, too? Is he [Arvydas] Sabonis?"' asks coach Brett Brown.

Embiid is in the midst of harnessing that explosive package of power, agility and touch. According to Second Spectrum, he's fifth in the league in defensive quantified shooting impact (qSI) among centers, with players shooting a 10.8 percent lower effective field goal percentage in the paint when Embiid is guarding them.

Players driving against Embiid score 0.63 points per drive, compared to the league average of 0.94. And the Sixers are much better on both ends with Embiid on the floor this season, boasting a 106.9 offensive rating and a 99.8 defensive rating. Those numbers take a considerable hit when he heads to the bench.

Yet his skill set is only part of the appeal. Embiid has unleashed the most captivating NBA personality since Shaquille O'Neal, conquering social media with the same gusto he exhibits on the court, whether it's flirting with Rihanna, making free agency overtures to LeBron James and Kevin Durant, dishing smack to Hassan Whiteside, or spinning yarns about killing a lion, even though he was born and raised in Yaounde, Cameroon, a bustling city of 2.4 million people -- and zero big-game animals. Embiid has even waded into politics, warning teammate Ben Simmons, who was born in Melbourne, Australia, prior to last November's presidential election, that if Donald Trump were to win, "He's gonna deport you.''

No wonder the normally persnickety Sixers fan base has fallen so hard. Expectations have run rampant in the first weeks of the NBA season. Nobody expects Embiid to slay Medusa or wrestle a sea serpent, as Perseus did. All they'd like this season is a few victories and a playoff berth.

Both of those goals are on the uptick. After starting the season 1-4, the Sixers are riding a modest two-game winning streak.

Philadelphia's young roster of Embiid, Simmons and Markelle Fultz oozes potential, but it remains a work in progress. Fultz is struggling with shoulder soreness that may or may not have affected his shooting mechanics and is out for at least three weeks. Embiid, who missed the first two seasons of his NBA career because of a broken bone in his right foot, then played just 31 games last season because of a torn meniscus in his left knee, missed the entire offseason rehabbing from knee surgery and was cleared for full basketball activity only three and a half weeks ago.

Brown put Embiid on a minutes restriction while he rounds into shape, which the young center declared "f---ing bull----." Through seven games, Embiid is averaging 27 minutes a night, which, he rationalizes, is close to starter's minutes. "If I'm tired, Coach has gotta get me out. If I'm feeling good, he's gotta keep me in there,'' Embiid says. "One of these nights, if I'm having a great game and not feeling tired and I can go for 40 minutes, they're going to let me.''

That night has yet to materialize. Against the frenetic Houston Rockets on Oct. 25, whose game plan was to run the Sixers' big man ragged, Embiid picked up two early fouls and was noticeably winded early in the second half.

"The hardest thing has been conditioning,'' Embiid concedes. "I'm behind everyone else. Way behind. Once I get my legs under me, look out.''


EMBIID IS FOND of saying, "Trust the process,'' but what he's really saying is, "Trust me.''

The Sixers do. Why else would they invest $148 million in a player who had played a grand total of 31 career games?

When asked what he bought for himself after inking the extension, Embiid answered, "Nothing.''

Just before the extension, he purchased a new home for his parents in Cameroon because the old one was filled with painful memories of his brother Arthur, who was struck and killed by a car three years ago. Embiid wasn't tempted to indulge for himself, either with jewelry, a house or a new car.

"I don't drive,'' he says. "All I really need is my video games and a big-ass TV."


He returned to Yaounde in August for the first time since Arthur's death, a triumphant yet bittersweet homecoming. Embiid is adored even more in his native Cameroon than in Philly because he represents prosperity and promise to an African nation that has been thwarted by pervasive corruption.

While he was there, friends and strangers alike gathered outside the gates of his parents' home. Embiid spent hours each morning sitting cross-legged on the ground, meeting with people and handing out Sixers hats and T-shirts.

He accompanied his mother, Christine, to the Sainte Anne de Mbalmayo orphanage to deliver food, supplies, clothing and money, the mission of the Arthur Embiid & Angels Foundation that he funds.

Embiid says he is determined to remain an everyman, both in his native country and his adopted U.S. city. Watch him in his Sixers shorts jogging through the streets of Philadelphia just after 9 p.m. There he is smashing tennis balls at the city courts. And yes, that's him telling Hassan Whiteside, "Dude, they had to take your ass out or [you] would have fouled out in five minutes," and announcing Andre Drummond "doesn't play any defense."

"It's a friendly league," Embiid says. "I know when I'm talking trash I'm getting in their head, and they will do anything to stop me. They become very aggressive, and that's how I get them. I'm very good at drawing fouls.''

He says he understands the pitfalls of engaging with established NBA players in such a public manner.

"You definitely have to back it up,'' he says. "I've been fortunate that I have the talent to do that. But I'm sure if I have an off night against Whiteside, I'll hear about it.''

He says neither general manager Bryan Colangelo nor Brown have spoken to him about his antics, including declaring to Brooklyn Nets starters, "Y'all can't [expletive] guard me.''

"Joel is unfiltered, he's a maverick, and I think it's part of why he's successful,'' Brown says. "There are times when he will cross a line, and contrary to what he's telling you, we do talk to him about it. I feel it's my responsibility to help him.''

While Embiid's flamboyance is on regular display, Justin Anderson, one of his closest friends on the Sixers, says the big man is generally subdued behind closed doors.

"Honestly, he's kinda shy,'' Anderson says. "The most interesting thing about him is while he's doing all this trash-talking and absorbing the love of the fans, he's saying the whole time, 'I gotta keep working.'"

The Sixers list Embiid on their roster as 260 pounds, but he hasn't weighed that since he played at Kansas. Embiid says his ideal weight falls between 275 and 280 pounds. At the moment, he says, he weighs 283 pounds. "I'm a little over, but it's all going to keep dropping as I practice and play."

Brown brightens when he's informed of Embiid's goals. The number Brown likes is 275. How does eight fewer pounds manifest itself in an NBA big man?

"It's another two years on someone's contract, another four minutes a game, one more post-up, two more free throws,'' Brown says. "It's a more fluid style, not a ground-bound, slower player. Our sport is not slowing down.''


WHEN EMBIID RETURNED from Cameroon, he brought along Ludo, a cross-and-circle board game that requires each player to race its tokens to the finish. No matter who dropped by -- Jenny Sacks, who is head of his management team, Anderson, or the physical therapist -- he coaxed them into playing.

After he signed his extension on Oct. 10, Sacks presented him with a gift: Monopoly. When told snagging Boardwalk was where it's at, Embiid obsessively targeted the high-rent property.

"And then he wouldn't stop talking trash every time we landed on it,'' Anderson says. "Monopoly, video games, basketball, it doesn't matter. He's super competitive in all of them.

"It's what has made him great, and he hasn't even scratched the surface yet of what he can do.''


IT'S LATE IN the fourth quarter, and the Oct. 25 game between the Sixers and Rockets is tight. A win would be a huge step forward, and the anticipation in Wells Fargo Arena is palpable.

But the Sixers, after leading by nine, have gone cold. Embiid sets up in the post, but Rockets center Clint Capela holds him at bay while PJ Tucker comes over to double Embiid and strips the ball.

With 30 seconds left, James Harden streaks to the hole. Embiid swoops in from the weak side and swats his shot into the seats. He comes in so high and so hard that he can't stop from colliding with Harden, and rolls head over heels onto the Rockets star.

Referee Ron Garretson whistles Embiid for goaltending. The Sixers go scoreless in the final 3 minutes, 5 seconds, and Houston wins on an Eric Gordon 3-pointer at the buzzer.

It's a crushing loss for Philadelphia. After the game, teammate Robert Covington confesses his heart skipped a beat when he saw Embiid tumble. "I was just praying that he'd go down easy,'' Covington says.

"Everybody's got to stop being scared,'' Embiid says. "I'm not made of glass.'''

Anderson understands why the sentiment irks his friend. Nobody wants to be known as the biggest gamble in sports simply because he has yet to prove he can remain upright.

"Joel thinks he's me sometimes -- a 6-6 shooting guard," Anderson says. "He thinks he can make acrobatic plays. And when you tell him after the game, 'Be careful,' he doesn't want to hear that."

The postgame chatter on Philly talk radio is that Embiid needs more shots. (The next game he gets 19 in a win over Dallas.) The city wants and expects a playoff team, and Brown says the next step is for his young center to assert himself with his teammates.

"We know Joel can take care of his own game, but now we want him to grow as a leader, especially defensively,'' Brown says. "I think it's in him, and he's making a great effort to do it. "Everybody leads in their own way. Maybe he's not the one to take everybody out to dinner on the road. Maybe's he's not the guy to give the Knute Rockne speech at halftime. But he can lead because he backs it up with how he plays.''

Embiid spends a lot of time watching film of Karl-Anthony Towns, Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge.

"And Blake Griffin,'' Embiid adds. "I like mobile bodies.''

His coach will do his best to insulate him from the mounting pressure. Greatness can be tricky to maneuver in an environment where heroes are built up and torn down with the same measure of glee.

"He's charismatic, he's a handsome man, he's international,'' Brown says. "It's hard to find holes in the package. I've been privileged to see how superstars act, so I enjoy the dialogue with Joel. So I ask him: 'What path are you going to take? Who are you? What's your legacy going to be?"'

On Monday, at the Toyota Center in Houston, Simmons flirted with a triple double (24 points, seven rebounds, nine assists), and Embiid submitted 22 points (on 9-of-12 shooting), nine boards and five assists to upend Houston in their biggest win of the young season. Embiid staved off another furious Rockets comeback down the stretch with a key offensive rebound, layup, steal and block.

"We learned our lesson,'' he says.

Embiid vows to keep it simple: work hard, have fun. He doesn't drink alcohol, he's cut back on those sugary Shirley Temples that he craves, and he still considers a night of NBA 2K and taking names in board games a great way to spend his time.

"Right now, he thinks he's the best Monopoly player in the world,'' Anderson says.

The Sixers are playing with real money, and it's time for Embiid -- their Boardwalk -- to cash in.

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