Joel Embiid Is Basketball’s Ultimate Wild Card

Despite understandable concern over whether Joel Embiid can stay healthy, the prospect of him playing is undeniably exciting for Sixers fans.

Joel Embiid practices before the Sixers played the Los Angeles Clippers on February 8th, 2016 | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Sixers’ center Joel Embiid comes with equal parts risk and reward. | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a level of excitement for the start of the Philadelphia 76ers season that this city hasn’t seen in quite some time.

Much of that can be attributed to many of the dominoes Sam Hinkie lined up over the past three seasons finally coming to fruition. From getting the #1 overall pick in May’s lottery, to Ben Simmons showing his immense talent in July’s summer league, to Dario Saric deciding to come over, there’s been a chain reaction of good news for Sixers fans that makes it obvious good times are ahead.

Much of that excitement is centered around Ben Simmons, and deservedly so. Simmons is an electrifying talent who has the ability to turn around a franchise, especially if he polishes some of the rough areas of his game. The fact that Sixers fans could watch his dazzling passes while wearing a Sixers uniform this summer certainly helped amp up the excitement level, as he possesses a combination of elite-level talent and immediacy that the rebuild had been lacking up to that point.

Yet there’s a second elite talent lurking in the shadows in the form of 7’2″, 270 center Joel Embiid, and he has the chance to eclipse them all.

Every now and then video of Joel Embiid working out emerges, sending the twittersphere into a frenzy. Such video serves as an almost functional reminder that Embiid even exists, as Sixers fans haven’t yet seen him don an NBA jersey and haven’t had much interaction with, even vicariously through the press, as he hasn’t spoken on the record in two years.

Such videos typically garner one of three reactions. One of unbridled excitement, a typical reaction to seeing a 7’2″, 270 pound human being move with the grace, athleticism, and fluidity Embiid does. Or one of skepticism about Embiid’s ability to overcome his twice-surgically-repaired right foot, a normal reaction for a prospect who hasn’t played competitive basketball in over two years. And, finally, a reaction of “let me see it against NBA athletes”.

That last reaction is one you can throw out. Obviously, scoring in the NBA will be more difficult than against a 6-foot trainer offering minimal resistance, cutting up a days worth of workouts to make the most impressive video possible. That’s such an obvious statement that a “well actually” seems kind of silly.

What stands out in those videos is not Embiid’s ability to make a stepback jumper or twirl in a reverse layup, but the overall athleticism, mobility, fluidity, and coordination contained in man of his size and strength, capable of making the 10′ rim look nerf hoop while also changing direction like a guard. This is a league that has long been dominated by two-way big men, and history typically remembers them on a first-name basis. Embiid has that ability.

For the past twelve months this town has been embroiled in a fierce Nerlens Noel-or-Jahlil Okafor debate that is based in basketball philosophy as much as it is in talent evaluation. What do you need in a big man in 2016? How have rule changes impacted the effectiveness, and responsibilities, of a big man? Can post scorers still flourish? Can you survive without crisp defensive rotations and capable pick-and-roll defense from the position?

The sheer uniqueness of each player has made the debate even more heated. Jahlil Okafor’s 1-on-1 scoring talents are undeniable, as is Nerlens Noel’s defensive potential. Yet it’s the deficiencies in their games, deficiencies that are just as pronounced as their strengths, that make the philosophical questions so relevant. There are likely always going to be spacing concerns with Nerlens Noel which will have to be taken into account when placing the talent around him, and multiple high-level scorers will still be necessary to acquire. Jahlil Okafor is unlikely to develop into a plus team defender, a critical component in matching up with modern pace-and-space offenses that rule changes have pushed to the forefront. The debate is centered as much around which deficiency are you willing to overlook as it is on what strength you’re looking to build around.

That’s what makes Joel Embiid such a fascinating prospect.

Sure, Embiid is young, not only in age (22) but also in experience, picking the game up late in life after spending his youth playing soccer and volleyball instead. And yeah, Embiid will be rusty, having gone 2.5 years since he last played competitive basketball on March 1st, 2014. It would be entirely unrealistic to expect him to look like anything other than a discombobulated mess to start the season after missing that amount of time.

But for all of the talent the Sixers have acquired over the past three years, none are as sure of a thing, from a talent-only perspective, as a healthy Joel Embiid, a weird thing to say considering how much uncertainty there is when you add in his injury situation to the equation. It’s a little bit overly simplistic to say, but Embiid has the chance to have the defensive impact (even if not the sheer versatility) of Noel, the offensive production of Okafor, and the rebounding production that neither are able to replicate.

In a sea of talented, but flawed, prospects Joel Embiid stands out as an exciting amalgamation of the best of both worlds, a player capable of dominating both ends of the court, and without a glaring weakness to hide.

For some, that’s a bold statement to make considering Embiid averaged just 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game during his season at Kansas, the only extended period of high-level basketball most have seen him play. Yet when you watched Joel Embiid progress through the year, his talent became obvious.

Head coach Bill Self brought Embiid along slowly at the beginning of the year, perhaps expecting more of an adjustment period than ended up being necessary. Embiid averaged just 17.5 minutes per game in 7 November contests, all coming off the bench. Yet Embiid still found a way to make himself a key contributor despite that limited playing time, averaging 9.1 points, 7 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game, incredible per-minute production that made it impossible to bring him off the bench any longer, regardless of his inexperience.

As the season wore on Embiid’s playing time, and responsibility, grew, a product of not only Embiid’s ability to adjust quickly but also in Self’s trust in his young prodigy. Despite coming into the season known more for his potential as an impact defender Embiid wound up scoring in double figures in 15 of his final 20 games at Kansas, developing into a legitimate two-way college force. Embiid shared the court with another elite talent in Andrew Wiggins, himself blessed with out-of-this-world physical gifts and, as the son of former NBA player Mitchell Wiggins, practically born with a basketball in hand. Yet by the end of the season it was clear Embiid was far and away the best NBA prospect on that team.

His college season looked like that of a prodigy figuring out how to channel his latent athletic gifts into that of a productive basketball player, like how the first strokes of a Picasso must have looked to those viewing with a trained eye. And he did so at a rate nobody had any reasonable right to expect.

“We never have to show him a move twice,” is how one trainer who worked with Embiid described his natural athleticism, and the ease at which he picked up the game, to me. It was almost as if week by week a new portion of his game was being unveiled, like a movie being gradually teased through a series of trailers meant to wet the appetite of a drooling basketball fan base.

What started off as a simple drop step slowly morphed into advanced counter moves in the post, eventually culminating in a tantalizing dream shake that big men who have spent their entire lives honing their craft couldn’t pull off.  Simple re-posts when opponents sent double teams his way slowly turned into no-look passes to cutters, an evolution from not screwing up when double teams arrived to actively exploiting them. His jump shot, which at one point resulted in a 45 percent showing from the free throw line at the 2013 Adidas Nations camp, gradually developed into a 68.5 percent free throw shooter in college, then started manifesting itself as an in-game weapon.

None of this is the result of rose-colored glasses trying to talk myself into Embiid’s talents, either. I wrote the day before the 2014 NBA draft that I would take Embiid #1 overall, even after the navicular bone injury, and the necessary surgery, was known. What started the college season as a potential defensive center morphed into a projectable two-way monster right before our eyes.

If that right foot holds up.

And that’s the fear I can’t assuage. If your stance is that Joel Embiid’s health isn’t something that can be relied upon, nobody is going to argue with you. Foot injuries in tall human beings are always terrifying, with the navicular bone especially so. The fact that Embiid’s NBA debut appears to be on the horizon doesn’t change the sobering fact that the chance of a re-injury is ever-present. It’s a fear that is impossible to quell in the short term, and in some ways only becomes more pronounced once he gets back on the basketball court and can remind fans what another re-injury risks taking away.

Yet despite all that logical pessimism, the other side of the equation has to be remembered as well. Getting a truly dominant player is the most difficult thing to do in this game, and is frequently the result of sheer luck. Sometimes that luck is owning the correct ping pong ball combination on lottery night, and sometimes it’s the basketball gods smiling down upon you and ignoring an injury risk that could have altered the course of basketball history.

How differently the last 25 years of basketball would look if Michael Jordan‘s own navicular bone injury, which he risked his career on by ignoring the advice of his owner, general manager, and team physician by rushing to return for the playoffs, had gone a different way, or if Steph Curry‘s ankles had remained problematic, is an interesting thought experiment, but a reality we thankfully don’t have to deal with.

We spend so much time worried about what we could lose, in all decisions, whether that’s making a financial commitment like buying a house or investing a draft pick in a player. What’s sometimes lost in the shuffle is what we stand to gain, which in this case is one of the rare basketball prospects who legitimately has the chance to be dominant. I’d rather have that kind of talent on the roster than not.

Joel Embiid doesn’t just have the talent to change the Sixers’ fortunes, he has the talent level to change the NBA. That was, is, and always will be worth the risk, and it’s also worth getting excited about, even if that excitement leads to some emotional vulnerability if things do end up going sideways.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.