Joel Embiid to Make NBA Debut in Sixers Preseason Opener

Joel Embiid will make his NBA (preseason) debut tonight against the Boston Celtics.

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

Joel Embiid will make his NBA (preseason) debut tonight against the Boston Celtics | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers will take on the Boston Celtics later tonight at UMass-Amherst, kicking off their preseason schedule.

The Sixers will start things off against one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams, with the Celtics returning four starters — Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Amir Johnson — from last year’s 48 win team. Boston’s fifth starter, prized offseason acquisition Al Horford, is a four-time All-Star.

That will create an interesting frontcourt matchup, and a good test for Joel Embiid in his first taste of NBA action.

And, let’s be honest, that’s really what you’re tuning in for.

Yeah, it will be nice to watch new additions Sergio Rodriguez and Gerald Henderson play for the team. And Dario Saric, another player Sixers fans have waited two years to see, is an exciting, dynamic playmaker who will become a fan favorite because of his hustle. But today’s game is all about Joel Embiid.

The details of Embiid’s journey to his NBA debut are at this point well told. The back injury that caused him to miss the 2014 NCAA tournament, the foot injury the week of the 2014 NBA draft, the setback a year later that forced Embiid to miss yet another season.

In all, it has been 948 days since Joel Embiid played a game of organized basketball. Nine hundred and forty eight days.

That’s a long time for fans of the Philadelphia 76ers to be waiting for an enormous talent to take the court. That’s an even longer time for a player who left his friends and family in Cameroon for the explicit purpose of playing basketball.

As Embiid candidly told reporters yesterday, he “worked his ass off” to come back.

Exactly how Embiid will perform tonight is unknown, but a high amount of rust is certainly to be expected. That’s fine. The high point of today’s game will be to see Embiid on the court, and anything else is gravy.

As for the rest of the team, it’s been decimated by injuries of late. Some minor, one major.

Ben Simmons is obviously out, as he underwent surgery to repair an acute Jones fracture in his right foot. Jahlil Okafor is out, as he hasn’t been scrimmaging of late due to soreness in his knee. Jerryd Bayless is also out with a sore left wrist. Finally, Cat Barber is out with a right hand injury, and did not make the trip to Amherst.

That leaves the Sixers with a likely starting lineup of Sergio Rodriguez, Gerald Henderson, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and Joel Embiid.

But none of that really matters. This isn’t a normal game in any sense of the imagination. Not in terms of how the coaches will gameplan for it, not in terms of how the minutes will be handed out, and not in terms of how the fans are looking forward to seeing it.

Head coach Brett Brown said that Embiid will be limited to twelve minutes, all of which may come in the first half. It doesn’t really matter. What Embiid does or does not accomplish tonight is almost irrelevant. The accomplishment is getting back on the basketball court and getting the reward for all that he’s gone through over the past two years, and for Sixers fans to be rewarded for the faith they’ve shown with just a little bit of promise toward what the future holds.

Today’s game is a milestone.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.