BOSTON — Suffice it to say that Joel Embiid has had a journey.
Born in Yaoundé, Cameroon, Embiid first picked up basketball when he was a very tall teenage volleyball player. He got invited to Luc Mbah a Moute’s camp, flashed potential, moved to Florida for high school hoops, soon found himself picked third in the NBA draft, and sat on the sidelines for two full seasons because of injury before debuting for the Sixers.
Embiid is now the league’s MVP.
The NBA announced Tuesday night that Embiid expectedly came first in this year’s voting after consecutive runner-up finishes to Nuggets star Nikola Jokic.
While the MVP race tends to inspire intense debate, Embiid amassed formidable credentials to become the Sixers’ first MVP since Allen Iverson in the 2000-01 season.
Embiid won his second straight scoring title, averaging 33.1 points on a tremendous, career-best 65.5 true shooting percentage. He only scored under 30 points in 10 of his 66 regular-season appearances and posted over 50 on three occasions.
On both sides of the ball, Embiid was excellent late in close games. He was fearsome to defend from the nail and elbow, showing off wing-like agility, smooth mid-range scoring skills, and faith in his teammates to convert the many open jumpers he could create.
“I think I’m unguardable,” Embiid said in March. “It’s all about using that and trying to make my teammates better. With that comes a lot of double teams and triple teams every single game, so it’s about, how do I make my teammates better every day?”
The Sixers led the NBA with a 38.7 three-point percentage. Thanks in large part to Embiid, they also had the league’s best clutch defensive rating.
Embiid has called himself a “student of the game.” He’s copied point guards’ open-floor ball handling tricks, meticulously studied Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Dirk Nowitzki, and added useful tools every offseason through his work with trainer Drew Hanlen.
After Doc Rivers detailed on Tuesday the many ways Embiid has improved on the floor over the past three seasons — dedication to his conditioning, dominant fourth-quarter defense, better passing, etc. — the Sixers’ head coach added, “He’s done all that, and he’s kind of given himself to the team. He’s a loner. He really is. It’s unnatural for him, and he’s doing it.”
Georges Niang described Embiid as the Sixers’ “heartbeat” and had a humorous description of the 29-year-old’s relatively reserved leadership style.
“There’s different ways of leading,” the gregarious Niang said. “You can be a loner. If you look at every single superstar that’s ever played — or Hall of Famer, or MVP — not all of them were as charismatic and outgoing as me.
“He leads in his specific way, and he’s Joel. I think his success speaks for itself.”
Ironically, the Sixers had their best record during Embiid’s career this season in the games he missed. They went 11-5 in the regular season without him and sit 2-0 in the playoffs ahead of a Round 2, Game 2 matchup Wednesday night against the Celtics.
The Sixers listed Embiid as doubtful for that contest because of his right knee sprain. After Game 2, they’ll head back to Philadelphia and host the Celtics on Friday night.
Whatever transpires with Embiid’s injury, the MVP will be home.