Mere months ago, the name Joel Embiid served as a punchline for some in NBA circles — what with the Philadelphia center unable to play a single game in his first two years with the franchise, due to serious foot issues.
Now, 21 games into his official rookie season with the Sixers, Embiid has become a sensation. And within the NBA Twitterverse and social media realms that once mocked him, the former Kansas big man has witnessed a surge in the opposite direction among fans, who are rallying to vote him into the 2017 all-star game.
"The fans have been [great] ... and I love it," Embiid told The Inquirer Monday, just one day after the league opened fan voting. "Coming in, I thought I was just going to come in and not play a lot, and just get my feet wet.”
Instead, the charismatic and highly skilled 7-foot-2 pivot quickly turned into not only a fan favorite, but also the face of a rebuilding franchise. The 76ers have yet to pull their minutes restriction (currently around 28 a game, with no back-to-back outings and some games off at the team’s discretion) on their 22-year-old investment with a history of getting hurt. Still, when Embiid gets to play, hardly a game passes without him stunning fans and opponents alike.
Monday night in Sacramento, while squaring off with arguably the best center in the NBA, DeMarcus Cousins, Embiid posted 25 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals — with an albeit awful total of 8 turnovers — in 29 minutes.
While seventh-year veteran “Boogie” Cousins got the best of the matchup, with 30 points, 7 boards, 5 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks and a 102-100 Kings victory, the typically cantankerous big man left the floor respecting Embiid and complimenting his game.
“I like that kid a lot. I don’t give a lot of people props, but I like that kid a lot, man,” Cousins said. “I think he got a great chance at being the best big in this league — after I retire.”
Likewise, Sacramento coach Dave Joerger gave the rookie center the verbal equivalent of a slap on the backside while discussing Embiid’s potential.
"It should be illegal to be that big and that skilled at the same time. He's got a terrific future,” Joerger told The Inquirer. “The sky is the limit. Goodness gracious is he good. He's really good.”
That’s the basic sentiment of most who watch Embiid play, and why he is a dark horse candidate to sneak into the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, in New Orleans, on Feb. 19. Providing he remains healthy, the crowd-pleaser from Cameroon will be in “The Big Easy” for all-star weekend, at the very least to participate in the league’s Rising Stars Challenge, a showcase for rookies and second-year players that takes place two days before the main event. Embiid’s talent is undeniable, and his season averages while playing in 21 of Philly’s 30 games — 18.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, 46.8% shooting in 24.7 minutes — make him a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year and a possible all-star.
"There is no doubt in my mind that he is a serious consideration for that," Sixers coach Brett Brown said of Embiid’s chances of becoming an all-star in his debut season. "I mean, he hasn't done much wrong for him not to be legitimately considered for that game."
As The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey outlined, through the years 45 rookies have played their way into an all-star selection. Even so, only 10 have done so since 1985:
- Blake Griffin, L.A. Clippers (2011)
- Yao Ming, Houston (2003)
- Tim Duncan, San Antonio (1998)
- Grant Hill, Detroit (1995)
- Shaquille O’Neal, Orlando (1993)
-Dikembe Mutombo, Denver (1992)
- David Robinson, San Antonio (1990)
- Patrick Ewing, New York (1986)
- Michael Jordan, Chicago (1985)
- Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston (1985)
Recent history suggests impactful big men who capture the imagination have a better shot than anyone of breaking into the exhibition showcase. And Embiid’s game falls in that category.
"You leave an arena," Brown said, while discussing his starting center’s array of skills, "you leave a practice and you leave all the games we played, saying I haven't seen that.”
To an extent, fans, players, coaches and media all have a say in whether Embiid becomes a rare rookie all-star. The NBA used to give the fans all the say in the game’s starting lineups, dating back to 1974-75. The popularity vote won’t carry the same weight this year, though. Those who run the league decided to give the popular vote 50 percent of the weight in picking starting fives for the Eastern and Western conferences this season, with the other 50 percent split evenly between votes from current players and a select group of media members who cover the NBA. The league’s coaches, as usual, will select the all-star reserves.
So how can a fan try and propel Embiid into a starting spot? There are a few options, the first being selecting him as one of three frontcourt players and two guards from the Eastern Conference, via a traditional ballot at NBA.com or through the NBA App.
Easier and quicker avenues exist, as well. The following are rules for voting through social media or Google, per the NBA (voting concludes Jan. 16):
Facebook: Post the player’s first and last name along with the hashtag #NBAVOTE on your personal Facebook account, or comment on another’s Facebook post. Each post may include only one player’s name. Fans may post votes for 10 unique players per day throughout the voting period.
Google search: Search “NBA Vote All-Star” or “NBA Vote Team Name” (ex: NBA Vote Sixers), and use respective voting cards that appear to select teams and players. Fans may submit votes for 10 unique players per day throughout the voting period.
As one would expect, the Sixers, while 7-23 and not creating much buzz for the organization as a whole, are capitalizing on their most marketable player and encouraging fans to vote for Embiid.
Is Embiid really a more deserving frontcourt starter in the East than, say, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kristaps Porzingis? (Obviously, no one should get a vote over LeBron James.) That’s the beauty — or ugliness, depending on your perspective — of the voting format. A fan can vote for any player in the NBA she or he wants, regardless of merit. So a trendy talent such as Embiid, who also has wowed opponents and media, seems to have a legitimate shot.
"If it's possible, it would be great,” the big man told The Inquirer, “and especially as a rookie, that would be exciting. That'd be great.”
Surely Embiid will trust the voting process.