When Joel Embiid arrived in Los Angeles for the NBA’s 2018 All-Star Weekend, the biggest achievement of his career to date brought to mind the not-so-long-ago state of his basketball existence.
Foot surgeries and the resulting rehab robbed Embiid of two full seasons after Philadelphia made him the No. 3 overall pick out of Kansas in the 2014 draft. Now he’s clearly one of the league’s top big men.
“It’s really special. You guys called me a bust when I missed those two years,” a smiling Embiid told reporters ahead of starting for Team Stephen in Sunday night’s showcase. “But I worked really hard and went through a lot, missing those two years, losing my brother (Arthur, who died in 2014). I wanted to quit basketball, and it was hard being away from the court. But I’m glad I just kept pushing.”
The first player to represent KU in the all-star game since Paul Pierce in 2012 and the first Jayhawk to start in one since Wilt Chamberlain in 1973, Embiid looked right at home. The Sixers center scored 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting, grabbed 8 rebounds and blocked 2 shots in 20 minutes.
It wasn’t two-time NBA MVP and team captain Stephen Curry or scoring machine James Harden, but the versatile 76ers center who produced the game’s first basket, throwing down a two-handed jam and drawing a foul for a quick three points. Embiid kept it going shortly thereafter with a smooth jumper outside the right elbow, giving him the first 5 points in a matchup of the world’s elite basketball players.
Sixers fans, coaches and management might have cringed a little when Embiid collided with LeBron James while going up for a defensive rebound in the first quarter, but the 76ers big with an injury history survived just fine.
Following a lengthy break on the bench, Embiid returned in the second quarter to deliver one of the first half’s oohs-and-ahhhs-inspiring sequences. The center, in a span of seconds, splashed a 3-pointer from a few feet behind the arc, then got back on defense to deny Russell Westbrook of a layup, with a blocked shot at the rim.
“That’s the age of the new NBA,” Curry said during a halftime interview on TNT, when asked about Embiid both providing some spacing on the floor and protecting the rim. “Everybody can stretch the limits a little bit, and he’s one of them. I like to see it. I like his confidence, I like his swagger and I’m glad he’s on my team.”
Averaging 23.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 31.4 minutes during his second season with Philadelphia, Embiid remained active in the second half, coming through with an easy dunk and his second 3-pointer of the night in the opening minutes of the third quarter.
After observing for another long stretch, Embiid returned to a one-possession game with 4:24 remaining in the fourth quarter. Always assertive offensively, the extended rest didn’t impact his approach. Embiid scored a reverse lay-in over Kevin Durant with 3:10 to play, giving Team Stephen a three-point advantage.
Near the 2:00 mark, following a defensive switch, Embiid navigated a one-on-one with Kyrie Irving successfully on the perimeter, contesting a missed 3-pointer. On offense, he proceeded to attack LeBron James from the high post and bank in a little right-handed jump-hook for a 144-141 lead.
Although James quickly got his revenge in the form of a game-tying 3-pointer over the Philly center, in the final minute Embiid didn’t let Paul George score a go-ahead layup on his watch, blocking the Oklahoma City forward inside.
With Team LeBron using no traditional big men in crunch time, Draymond Green replaced Embiid with 40 seconds left. Team Curry, put Embiid back on the floor for the final offensive possession, but couldn’t get off a would-be game-tying 3-pointer. Team LeBron won 148-145 and James, with 28 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists, took home the MVP trophy.
It was a busy weekend for Embiid, the 7-foot-2 center from Cameroon, who made a brief appearance in the Rising Stars exhibition on Friday, scoring 5 points in 8 minutes.
The 23-year-old said beforehand he didn’t want to play too much in that game made up of first- and second-year players, preferring instead to let the “young guys” shine.
Some wondered how much a sore ankle that sidelined Embiid in the Sixers’ final game before the all-star break would limit him in L.A. But Embiid, who said the words “minutes restriction” don’t exist for him in Philadelphia anymore, competed in Saturday’s Skills Challenge, too.
After beating Boston’s Al Horford in a race up and down the court that incorporated dribbling, passing and shooting, Embiid lost out on a chance at the event’s final round when Chicago rookie Lauri Markkanen knocked him out.
The first two nights didn’t carry the prestige of Sunday’s main event. So it was no surprise the driven Embiid used that stage, playing with and against the NBA’s best, to really flash his array of abilities.
Not that all-star appearances are the measure Embiid plans on using to gauge his career success.
“Now that I’m here I’ve still got a long way to go,” Embiid said during his first of what could be many all-star weekends as the face of the Sixers. “I’m not anywhere close to where I want to get. But now that I’m here it’s sweeter being an all-star starter, too, for the first time. So I’m excited.”
When Joel Embiid makes his NBA All-Star debut in a few weeks, he will do so as a temporary teammate of two-time league MVP and two-time champion Stephen Curry.
Golden State’s 3-point-shooting savant, as the leading vote-getter in the Western Conference, earned a captainship opposite the East’s most popular superstar, LeBron James. The two perennial all-stars and NBA Finals opponents spent a portion of their Thursday afternoon drafting their teammates — a new twist on the league’s annual February showcase.
Where exactly Embiid, the 7-foot-2 Philadelphia center and former Kansas standout, fell in the pecking order isn’t widely known at this point. The NBA opted not to televise the all-star draft this year (more on that later). All we know for sure is James had the first pick and both he and Curry had to select from a pool of starters — as voted on by fans, media and players —before picking up any of the reserves — chosen by the league’s coaches.
Embiid will take the floor with not only Curry, Feb. 18, in Los Angeles, but also Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and DeMar DeRozan. The “Team Stephen” starters will open up the exhibition at Staples Center versus “Team LeBron,” featuring Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Kyrie Irving.
Considering Harden and Antetokounmpo are two of the premier players in the NBA, it’s safe to guess Curry selected Embiid fourth or fifth overall.
While the lineups will fluctuate greatly during the course of the game it should be entertaining to watch Embiid try to take on New Orleans bigs Davis and Cousins for stretches. But look for the Sixers’ star to really put in work when he gazes across the court and sees Kristaps Porzingis headed his way. Embiid beat out the New York star for the final available front court starting spot in the East, prompting Porzingis to tell reporters, “players know,” he should have been a starter over Embiid, referencing his peers casting more votes for the Knicks’ unicorn than Philly’s trash-talking center.
Curry, speaking with TNT’s Ernie Johnson on NBA Tip-Off, referenced Embiid’s personality and social media prowess when reviewing the teammates he picked.
“Joel’s obviously gonna be a future all-star for plenty more years, and this is his first go-round,” Curry said. “Maybe one day that weekend he’ll take over my Twitter account and say some jokes for me or something.”
Fans and followers of the NBA would’ve enjoyed the chance to watch Curry and James take turns deciding the all-star rosters, perhaps groaning when the other selected someone before his opponent had a chance to swoop in or talking trash about which team looked more devastating.
And you know Embiid — averaging 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.9 blocks to go with 49.1% shooting — would have plenty to say after the fact about where he did or didn’t go during the draft.
We might get to see all of that and more play out in 2019. James said on TNT after the teams were unveiled: “This thing should’ve been televised.”
Curry agreed, and said while the process was cool behind closed doors, “Hopefully we’ll both be captains again and we can broadcast it to the world in real time.”
The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported there was enough “union pushback” from the NBA’s players to inspire the league to not televise or stream the all-star draft this year.
The National Basketball Players Association released the following statement to SB Nation on the matter:
“It was the absence of a consensus by prospective players likely to be affected that led to support for a reveal (instead of a televised draft). Whether a decision to broadcast the draft will be made after this year’s game, that will be determined going forward.”
TEAM STEPHEN | Starters: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and DeMar DeRozan. Reserves: Damian Lillard, Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Kyle Lowry, Klay Thompson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Al Horford.
TEAM LEBRON | Starters: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Kyrie Irving. Reserves: Bradley Beal, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo, Kristaps Porzingis and John Wall.
2 All-Star Weekend appearances for Embiid
In addition to starting in All-Star Weekend’s main event, Embiid will also play in the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge — a showcase for first- and second-year players — two nights earlier.
With rosters split up by nationality, Embiid will join Team World against Team United States. Just as in the actual All-Star Game, Embiid will be the only former Kansas player in action.
Embiid was slated to play in the Rising Stars game a year ago, but missed it due to injury. The 23-year-old played in only 31 games during 2016-17, his debut season.
Thus far in his second year, Embiid has played in 35 of the 76ers’ 44 games. Philly is 21-14 when he plays, and 2-7 when Embiid sits.
One of the more popular young players in the NBA, Philadelphia rookie center Joel Embiid didn’t take it too personally when the league’s coaches failed to select him as one of seven reserves for the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
While the fans gave Embiid the third-most votes among East frontcourt players — the former Kansas big man trailed only superstar LeBron James and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo — Chicago’s Jimmy Butler took the third frontcourt starting spot, with the support of player and media votes. The coaches chose Cleveland’s Kevin Love, Indiana’s Pual George and Atlanta’s Paul Millsap for the East’s backup bigs and forwards.
“A little disappointed,” Embiid said of his reaction to being left off the team, while speaking with reporters Friday in Philadelphia. “A lot of guys that made it deserved it, and I’m young, so I’m gonna get a lot of chances, so I’m not (too) disappointed.”
Asked if he could use the snub as motivation, though, the 22-year-old center stated his case for why he should’ve become the league’s first rookie all-star since Blake Griffin, in 2011.
“I thought I deserved it,” said Embiid, who in 30 games for the 76ers is averaging 19.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.1 assists, while playing 25.3 minutes. “You know, not that I care about my stats, but that’s one of the points that could’ve been proven. But I think the thing was the minutes, which I didn’t understand. If you average that many points in 24, 25 minutes, I don’t know. That should be the case. But, like I said, I’m not disappointed. I’m happy for those guys.”
As Embiid referenced, his relative lack of minutes played in comparison to his colleagues chosen as all-stars by the coaches likely made the difference in the debate. Love, George and Millsap all have played in more games this season and spent less time on the bench than Embiid in those starts. Based on clocking in and clocking out, they’ve put in more game work than the rookie this season, and that means a lot to coaches.
Embiid did have some good news, though, after sitting out of the Sixers’ previous three games, in part because of a left knee bruise.
“I’m feeling good. My knee’s feeling great,” the 7-foot-2 phenom from Cameroon reported.
So are Embiid’s teammates, because, unlike in recent seasons, the 76ers are actually competitive. The young face of the franchise said the energy around the organization has been “amazing” of late, with Philly winning eight of its last 10, and even picking up two victories in his absence.
“My job here is kind of like to change the culture,” Embiid said. “The Sixers, the past three years, people have said that they’re trying to tank or whatever, but that wasn’t the case. Now we’re proving that we’re trying to win, trying to make the playoffs and I think we’ve got a pretty good chance. So my job here is kind of like to bring the excitement back to the city and just change the culture.”
Philadelphia (17-27) enters Friday’s nationally televised game against Houston 4.5 games back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.
Beaten out by sixth-year Chicago veteran Jimmy Butler for the final frontcourt starting spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team last week, rookie NBA sensation Joel Embiid will learn Thursday night whether the league’s coaches have voted him onto the team as a reserve.
Seven roster spots remain — with two slotted for guards, three for frontcourt players and two more for wild cards — and the inevitable 2017 Rookie of the Year has a legitimate shot at becoming an all-star in his debut season with Philadelphia, following a torturous two-year wait due to Embiid’s foot fracture.
The NBA announced last week the top-10 vote-getters at each position, per the composite point system that took into account where players ranked among fans, players and media members. If the league still mandated a center had to be represented in the starting lineup — which it did until 2013 — Embiid would be starting. The 7-foot-2 pivot from Cameroon received more votes than any other East center. What’s more, the former Kansas standout ranked third overall among East forwards and bigs in fan votes, getting more love than Kevin Love, so if the NBA hadn’t altered its voting process before this season to include players and media, he would be starting.
The reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Embiid suffered a left knee bruise this past Friday in a Sixers victory over Portland and has been held out of the lineup to heal. He is expected to return Friday versus Houston.
As pointed out by Keith Pompey of Philly.com, the 76ers are 3-10 without their smiling face of the franchise on the floor. When Embiid does play, the Sixers are 13-17 — this from an organization that has lost more than 75% of its games in each of the previous three seasons.
Of late, Philadelphia has thrived with its starting center on the floor, winning six straight and eight of its last nine with Embiid playing. In 30 games, he’s averaging 19.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.1 assists in just 25.3 minutes. The big man is shooting 46.2% from the floor, 34.8% from 3-point range and 77.7% at the foul line.
Whether all those numbers add up to a rare rookie all-star selection — only 10 first-year players have made the cut since 1985 — is up to the NBA’s 30 head coaches.
ESPN analyst and former coach Jeff Van Gundy, while appearing recently on Zach Lowe’s The Lowe Post podcast, was blown away to hear the impact Embiid makes statistically when he’s available. The Sixers’ net rating (an estimate of point differential per 100 possessions) with Embiid on the floor currently stands at +14.7, per basketball-reference.com.
“He is the MVP of the year then,” Van Gundy joked. “No, it’s over. Like, (Russell) Westbrook, (James) Harden, forget it. Embiid is MVP, and I’ll start leading the chants if we do another Sixer game, because if that’s true, with the roster that he has around him, that’s an incredible accomplishment.”
If a coaching veteran like Van Gundy can be swayed by the numbers and overlook the time Embiid has missed due to the Sixers taking injury precautions and limiting his minutes and availability, perhaps the current head coaches can, as well.
As for Embiid’s competition at this point, Love, a veteran with great numbers on the East’s best team, is a virtual lock. So the Sixers’ flamboyant big man will have to contend with a contingent of other frontcourt players for the final two to four roster spots — the coaches could vote in four guards for the bench unit, leaving just three total spots for reserve forwards and bigs.
Here’s who Embiid figures to be up against: Indiana’s Paul George, Atlanta’s Paul Millsap, Detroit’s Andre Drummond, New York’s Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, Miami’s Hassan Whiteside, Atlanta’s Dwight Howard and Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker.
The Sixers depend upon Embiid more than any of his competitors’ teams need them, and the rookie big man’s Player Efficiency Rating ranks better than all of the other candidates in the discussion.
If Embiid doesn’t make it, you can likely ascribe that scenario to coaches preferring to give veterans their due or thinking the Sixers’ centerpiece hasn’t played enough games, compared to the other candidates — or all of the above.
No matter what the coaches decide, Embiid can book his flight to New Orleans for All-Star Weekend (Feb. 17-19), because he’ll be a headliner in the Rising Stars Challenge. And he just might join previously announced starters LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Butler and DeMar DeRozan on the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
Good news for Embiid: the games aren’t on back-to-back nights. The Rising Stars game is Friday and the main event is Saturday. And no one plays that many minutes in all-star games.