When the Philadelphia 76ers pulled the trigger on a five-year, $146.5 million maximum-salaried contract extension for center Joel Embiid, many very smart and reasonable people raised a very smart and reasonable red flag. How, even if there are certain cost-saving provisions built into the contract, can you justify giving a max deal to someone who has been limited by injury to just 31 games since entering the NBA in the 2014 draft? Why would you pay somebody a million bucks for every 5.4 minutes of floor time he’s managed through three pro seasons?
His new deal fully finalized and his appendages fully healthy, Embiid took the court on Wednesday night for the Sixers’ preseason tilt against the Brooklyn Nets and reminded everybody: this is how. This is why. Because he is an overwhelming force of nature who must be seen to believed … and even then, you might find yourself wondering if you really saw what you just saw.
Embiid stepped on the floor and promptly set about pulverizing the Nets, immediately going to work against Brooklyn’s array of big men. He worked them by popping out to the perimeter after setting screens at the elbows, stroking jumpers and blowing past overeager closeouts to attack the paint.
Embiid is a ray of sunshine in a dark, dark world
— Liberty Ballers (@Liberty_Ballers) October 12, 2017
He worked them by posting up, facing up, ripping through and going softly off glass, and off one leg, a la Dirk. He worked them by using his 7-foot-1, 275-pound frame to bulldoze his way to the tin for offensive rebounds and forcing fouls — like, a lot of fouls.
Embiid: ”They can’t f–king guard me” pic.twitter.com/jwkgHTDjOO
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) October 12, 2017
He just flat out worked them, scoring 22 points in just 14 minutes and 45 seconds of floor time. He made four of his nine field-goal attempts, and 14 of his 18 free-throw attempts, while pulling down seven rebounds, dishing three assists, delivering a thunderous block and only turning the ball over once.
Get that out of here.
Embiid with the huge block! pic.twitter.com/UdnCzzwtGX
— NBC Sports Philly (@NBCSPhilly) October 12, 2017
How do you get more than a FT per minute in 10+ mins? https://t.co/6sGNsR6bOt
— Dan Marang (@DMarang) October 12, 2017
On one hand, averaging better than a point and a free-throw attempt per minute isn’t exactly something you can bank on as a sustainable rate of production. On the other, this is not particularly far off the pace at which Embiid produced last season, when he averaged 28.7 points and 11.2 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes of floor time.
On one hand, he was playing against a Nets team that, despite some nice additions and a solid system under head coach Kenny Atkinson, still figures to be one of the worst teams in the NBA this year. On the other … I mean, how the hell are even good teams going to consistently defend a guy who can eat them alive inside and out like Embiid can? Especially now that he’s going to be flanked by more credibly dangerous playmakers (rookie No. 1 picks Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, a more seasoned Dario Saric) and shot-makers (designated sniper J.J. Redick, solid vet Jerryd Bayless) who can feast off the extra attention Embiid’s going to require inside if he keeps steamrolling even fellow giants?
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) October 12, 2017
This is why you pay this man as much as humanly possible: because when you ask what his ceiling might be, the answer seriously might be, “What if Shaq was also Hakeem Olajuwon and could shoot threes?”
— Hats&Handshakes Pod (@Hats_Handshakes) October 12, 2017
I know that sounds like hyperbole, but watch the video again, and remember that this dude didn’t start playing organized basketball until 2011, and that he’s still only got less than half of an NBA season under his belt. There might be so much yet to come, and there’s already so much there.
Yes, there will always be fear that he won’t be able to stay on the floor — this is why Embiid’s new deal isn’t fully guaranteed — and he will likely continue to operate under minutes restrictions for the foreseeable future. But the whole point of the Sixers’ rebuilding plan — and, really, just about any rebuilding plan, even ones less extreme than Sam Hinkie’s vaunted “Process” — is to unearth, secure and retain the sort of generational talent that, by its own sheer force, can tip the balance between defeat and victory. If what you get when Embiid on the court is a player who can credibly look like the best player on the floor, no matter who else is out there, and in whose minutes the otherwise-trash Sixers outscored their opposition and locked down like the best defense in the league then, well, you have to pay that guy, right?
Saric on Embiid: "If he stays healthy, I hope I will be on his team…because of that I can start to celebrate one championship earlier."
— Jessica Camerato (@JCameratoNBCS) October 12, 2017
While Embiid criticized his performance in the Sixers’ 133-114 win — “Defensively, I thought I was pretty bad […] I didn’t have a lot of time on the court, so I feel like I’m still behind” — it was impossible to overstate his influence, and just how much he bossed the game.
“It’s just a very potent offensive package that people sort of have to game-plan for,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said, according to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We see the impact that he makes on the defensive end and all over the place. Something like tonight will remind us all that’s why he was paid what he was paid.”
The hope in Philly — as it ought to be in the hearts of basketball fans everywhere — is that Embiid stays ambulatory enough to give us many, many more such reminders in the months and years to come.
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