When last we left our masked hero, he was, well, masked. And tired of wearing a mask. And angry about his season coming to an end in the second round of the NBA playoffs.
Compared to how his first three years in the league played out, though, none of those details seem so bad in retrospect.
Over the course of the 2017-18 season, Joel Embiid went from an injury-prone punchline to one of the game’s most dominating players. Some less serious setbacks than the ones that marred the Philadelphia center’s previous three as a professional caused him to miss 19 games, most coming at the end of the regular season. But his impact and numbers — 22.9 points per game, 11.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.8 blocks — were so great that he made the All-NBA second team in his second season of competition.
A man who couldn’t seem to stay healthy enough to actually get on the court after becoming the Sixers’ No. 3 overall draft pick in 2014 helped his team secure the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
When considering all that Embiid accomplished in his first full season in the NBA (he only played 31 of 82 games before suffering a season-ending injury as a rookie), I keep going back to what the 7-footer said before it all played out. When Embiid and the 76ers practiced at Allen Fieldhouse in October of 2017, I asked the former University of Kansas center whether he had added anything new to his repertoire during the offseason.
“Not really,” Embiid replied. “Because I didn’t really get the chance to be on the court this summer, because I was rehabbing (the left-knee injury that ended his 2016-17 season).”
The man couldn’t even work on his game during the summer, said he felt behind in the preseason and went on to become not just an all-star, but an all-league performer. And Embiid said once he got healthy and caught up he thought the Sixers — after five consecutive losing, playoff-less seasons — could make the postseason.
So we should probably heed the Cameroonian center’s words regarding his expectations for the 2018-19 season, which tips off Tuesday night (7 p.m., TNT) with Philadelphia taking on East favorite Boston, the team that eliminated the Sixers in the second round this past spring.
Amid a healthy offseason of actually working on his game and conditioning, Embiid made it clear back in August that he’s planning on a massive campaign.
“I want to win the MVP,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I feel like at the end of the day it might be an individual award, but when I play better, the team also does. I feel like if I’m an MVP candidate or if I win the MVP, that means we are on another level.”
Embiid possesses the bravado of a professional wrestler and the size and skill to become (if healthy, a parenthetical that will continue to accompany him for some time) one of the game’s all-time great big men. You’ll want to tune in for the show every chance you get.
Other Jayhawks to watch
On the opposite end of the NBA spectrum, in Phoenix, where the likely lottery-bound Suns have an intriguing core of young talent but play in the loaded Western Conference, another former one-and-done lottery pick from KU, Josh Jackson, enters his second season with some hardware in mind, too.
And Jackson isn’t taking an outlandish route with his goal.
After averaging 13.1points and 4.6 rebounds and shooting 41.7 percent from the floor in 77 games as a rookie, Jackson, through a promotional piece for Under Armour, made public his plan to go after the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
“I really want to win that award,” the 21-year-old Jackson said. “It would help me feel the work I put in last season and this summer paid off.”
While Suns games aren’t exactly easy to find on the league’s national TV schedule, you can keep up with Jackson’s progress over at The Undefeated, where he will work with Marc J. Spears throughout the season to provide diary entries about his life on and off the court.
“How good is he? How good is he going to be? Can he really win? I feel like this is a big year for me to answer those questions,” Jackson began in his first piece.
Though he started four games for Boston in the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, Marcus Morris plans on making a different role work for him this season.
The Celtics’ top five players — Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — project as one of the league’s best lineups. Morris, entering his eighth season, plans on Boston having one of the NBA’s top bench units, too.
With the old school hiphop group N.W.A. the source of his inspiration, Morris declared the Celtics’ group of reserves — himself, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes and others — “B.W.A.” or “bench with attitude.”
“I think we have a lot of guys that bring that fire,” Morris told The Athletic. “So I just wanted to try and have fun with it. We’ve got, to me, a couple guys on the bench who could start on other teams. And at the same time we’re still coming in with that fire. Basically, if another bench don’t come in ready we’re going to bust their ass. And that’s how we approach it.”
Morris and the Celtics are gunning for the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance since 2010.
Because, of course he did, Marcus’ twin brother Markieff, he of the Washington Wizards, told reporters before the preseason schedule even began that Boston “has never been better than us.”
The Wizards, in Markieff’s mind, are the best team in the East.
“Raptors are going through a little bit, they changed up DeMar DeRozan,” the Wizards forward opined. “Other than that, Boston has never been better than us. Internally we don't think they were better than us last year. But we just got to play up to our ability."
The East’s No. 8 seed this past season, Washington lost to Toronto in the first round of the playoffs. We’ll have to check back in April or May to gauge Markieff’s prophesying abilities.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft and the recent recipient of a five-year, $148 million contract extension, Andrew Wiggins is viewed in most NBA circles as little more than an athletic scorer.
Those who cover Minnesota for the Star Tribune have reached a point where they’re ready to label Wiggins as a lost cause.
The Timberwolves’ best player, Jimmy Butler, demanded a trade, reportedly, in part, due to his not-so-high opinion of Wiggins and the franchise’s youngest star, Karl-Anthony Towns.
Butler might have been traded by the time you’re reading this. Or he might play out the season begrudgingly with Minnesota. Either way, Wiggins will be on the receiving end of some unwanted attention. The T’wolves are due to pay him more than $25 million this season and they — coach Tom Thibodeau in particular — would like to see more from the 23-year-old wing than the 19.7 points per game career average he brings with him into his fifth NBA season.
Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk
Sure, they play on opposite coasts for very different franchises, but for one last time it seems right to group these two former KU teammates and sidekicks together.
Both second-round picks enter their rookie season in similar situations, too. Devonte’ Graham, for now, looks like a 12th man type for Charlotte, behind all-star Kemba Walker and former Spurs great Tony Parker at point guard.
Playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, on the same team as legendary forward LeBron James no less, Svi Mykhailiuk, like Graham, likely won’t be called upon unless the bench is emptied in the game’s final minutes.
But an injury here or there could bump either of the rookies up their team’s depth chart. It will be interesting to see how they handle their opportunities when they come and to monitor how much their respective franchises utilize the G League in their development.
Kelly Oubre Jr.
Under contract only through the end of this season, Kelly Oubre Jr.’s next few months will determine how much money teams, including Washington, are interested in paying him once he becomes a restricted free agent next summer.
The 15th overall pick in the 2015 draft, Oubre is coming off easily his most productive season in the NBA, having averaged 11.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.0 steals, while shooting 34.1 percent from 3-point range — all career highs.
He already has proven to be a valuable defender as a pro. If he can somehow develop into a slightly better 3-point shooter Oubre won’t have to worry about finding a team that wants to pay him.
Frank Mason III
A beloved former national player of the year at KU, Frank Mason III just might begin his second season taking on a key role for Sacramento.
According to NBC Sports Bay Area, Kings coach Dave Joerger is considering starting Mason in the backcourt while the team is without Bogdan Bogdanovic.
“You’re going to get 110 percent from him,” Joerger said of Mason.
A hot start for Mason could inspire his coach to ask more of him on a permanent basis. Mason averaged 18.9 minutes while playing in 52 games as a rookie, producing 7.9 points, 2.8 assists and 2.5 rebounds, with 36 percent 3-point accuracy but just a 38.4 percent mark on 2-pointers as he struggled to finish inside against the length of NBA defenders.
Though Wayne Selden, in his first full season with Memphis, averaged 9.3 points per game and hit 40.2 percent of his 3-pointers, his status within the Grizzlies’ rotation, it appears, will be determined by how he plays in the weeks ahead and fits into various lineups.
As reported by the Memphis Commercial Appeal, injuries during his time with the organization have kept Selden from establishing what he could be for the Grizzlies. Selden will enter the summer of 2019 as an unrestricted free agent.
Coming into his third year with New Orleans, Cheick Diallo has yet to play more than 11.7 minutes a game. He at least appeared in 52 in 2017-18, far more than the 17 he experienced as a rookie.
Due to the Pelicans’ front court depth — Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, Nikola Mirotic, Darius Miller and even Jahlil Okafor — it’s difficult to foresee his role expanding this year.
Back with Sacramento after an uneventful stint with Memphis, Ben McLemore, at 25, doesn’t even really fit into the Kings’ youth movement.
It doesn’t seem too farfetched for him to play behind Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, Yogi Ferrell and Iman Shumpert at shooting guard.
When the Kings traded for him this summer it was most likely for his contract, which will come off the books at the end of this season.
An undrafted rookie who never actually played at Kansas, Billy Preston likely won’t play much for Cleveland this year, either.
The 6-foot-10 forward whose name infamously popped up in the ongoing federal college basketball trial is playing on a two-way contract with the Cavs, allowing him to split time in the G League and NBA.