Brett Brown Looks to Joel Embiid to Set Sixers’ Culture

During a lunch with members of the media, 76ers head coach Brett Brown talked about how he looks to Joel Embiid to hold his teammates accountable.

Sixers head coach Brett Brown works with Joel Embiid before the Sixers played the Indiana Pacers last season at the Wells Fargo Center | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Sixers’ center Joel Embiid is one of the cornerstones of Brett Brown’s team| Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Seventeen minutes.

Seventeen minutes had gone by in head coach Brett Brown’s annual preseason media luncheon before somebody asked a question that wasn’t focused on Joel Embiid.

After two years of rehabilitation to return from a twice surgically repaired navicular bone in his right foot, questions about Embiid’s progress are only natural. Despite drafting Ben Simmons with the #1 overall pick in June’s draft, Embiid’s uncertainty makes him the bigger storyline to many. There’s a perceived dependability with Simmons that makes his training camp seem less pressing.

Yet as we were sitting there listening to Brown go on about Embiid and his potential, it also became readily apparent that the laser-like focus placed on Embiid’s gigantic 7’2” shoulders wasn’t just because of the delay in his NBA debut.

It would be hard to pinpoint exactly when in those seventeen minutes it became obvious just how much excitement Brown had to coach Embiid, because there were many moments to select from.

There was the point in the talk when Brown relayed the story of talking with 76er legend Charles Barkley on the difficulty of finding a player to compare Embiid to.

“I struggle saying ‘Oh, Joel Embiid, he’s either a wannabe this or a could be that or a kind of like him’,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said about finding a comparison. “When you say ‘Who does all that at 7’2, 276 pounds, that world shrinks.

“I said the same thing sitting next to Charles Barkley,” Brown continued, explaining all the different ways Embiid can impact the game, from post-ups to rolling to the hoop to dominating on defense. “It’s like, ‘You’ve done this a long time, what do you (Barkley) think he is?’ You both sort of struggle coming up with an example.”

Perhaps that realization of Embiid’s importance could have occurred when Brown was talking about pulling Embiid into his office to talk about how Embiid, who has never played a minute of NBA basketball, should hold his teammates accountable and set a culture for the team.

“You pull him up into an office and you talk freely,” Brown said about his discussions with Embiid. “Come in here and tell me about the teammates that you want to play with. Tell me what the standards, the accountability, the behavior you want in your organization.

“We need to grow this,” Brown continued. “I’ve said many times you don’t want it to be a coach driven formula. Ultimately it needs to be a player coached team, a player driven formula. The players determine the behavior. The players determine the culture.

“Where somebody will say ‘That’s just not good enough. That’s not how we act. That’s not how we guard. We show up on time. That’s not respectful’. Whatever it is,” Brown continued. “Through discussions I have with Joel I’m trying to achieve that.”

That seems like quite the burden to be placed on the shoulders of a man who hasn’t even taken part in an official, fully cleared, in-season 5-on-5 practice with the team yet, and who has had his own bouts of immaturity in the past. But it’s also an indication of where Brown and the front office see Embiid in the team’s hierarchy, as teams frequently take on the personality of their best players. Brown is preemptively trying to instill a mindset in Embiid because his massive potential, and commanding personality, will place him front and center.

The moment of clarity could have also arrived when Brown included Joel Embiid, along with Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, and Sergio Rodriguez, in his list of “elite, world class passers” the Sixers now possess.

If the excitement over Embiid’s arrival still isn’t readily obvious Brown went on about making Embiid the centerpiece, the “crown jewel” of the team’s defensive schemes. About running plays for him during crunch time in a close game. He mentioned how he hasn’t thrown out the possibility that Embiid could start at center right away, despite the presence of numerous other high lottery picks at his position on the roster and encumbered by the playing time restrictions Embiid will be under to start his career as the Sixers cautiously work him back into playing competitive basketball.

The mere mention of Embiid generates two very distinct reactions from Sixers fans at this point, one of either uncontrollable excitement or almost annoyed skepticism. Either reaction is, to some extent, perfectly valid. For a guy who hasn’t played basketball in over two years, who has never even fully taken part in an official practice with the team, the hype can be almost cartoonish in nature. Embiid has been lionized without ever playing a game.

And perhaps on a different team, in a different environment, the focus on Embiid would be dampened. But this is the rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers, who pursued obtaining a transcendent talent with the utmost fervor. A team whose other assumed franchise player also hasn’t played an NBA game to date. And for as obvious as it is to point out that Embiid hasn’t yet proven his talents against NBA competition, it’s equally obvious to watch Embiid on the basketball court and realize this is a different kind of talent we’re dealing with.

Listen to Brett Brown talk and it’s obvious the organization feels the same way, even if they can catch themselves, mid-sentence at times, and try to temper the excitement because of the undeniable injury risk inherent in Embiid.

But peek through the curtains, look hard at what Brown is saying, and the message is obvious. This could be an exciting time for 76ers fans if the team, and Embiid, get just a little bit of luck.

Odds and Ends
* Jahlil Okafor is in Philadelphia, but he is currently limited because he rolled an ankle last week. He is expected to be a full participant when training camp opens on September 27th.
* Nerlens Noel returned from a trip to Haiti earlier this week. He is in Philadelphia and has begun working out with strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright in preparation for the season.
* On the Sixers retaining all three centers heading into camp, Brown says he is going to “going to coach them until they’re not (here)” and that “it’s my job to reward competitors. I need to reward the most competitive people”.
* Dario Saric and Sergio Rodriguez joined the team this week after competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
* If the season started today, Brown said that Jerryd Bayless would be his starting point guard.
* 76ers legend Charles Barkley and Billy Cunningham were watching informal practices at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine this week, where the 76ers have been working out.

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