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Joel Embiid Sacrificed His Body (but Not His Stat Line) for a Win

The Sixers’ ascendant star had his best night of the season against the Nets. Trust the Process!

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.

King of the Court: Joel Embiid

Sixers fans had no choice but to dream big when it came to Joel Embiid. They had just lived through a short-lived Sam Hinkie era, in which hyperrationality became the core tenet of a fervently irrational fan sentiment that bordered on pseudo-religion. Embiid cut a Moses-like figure; his 7-foot-2 frame, finally ready to play, offered deliverance. The Hinkie ouster and subsequent Colangelo family takeover presented fans with a renewed crisis of faith. For validation, as much as anything, they needed Embiid to be everything.

So it’s astonishing that, with the stakes so high, Embiid has surpassed even the most unreasonable of expectations in his first 18 games of the season. Sunday night, Embiid had the performance of his short career against the Brooklyn Nets, dropping 33 points on 12-of-17 shooting, 10 rebounds, three blocks, and two steals in 27 minutes in a 108–107 victory. The Sixers are now on pace for their first 20-win season since 2013.

Embiid is the first Sixers rookie to score 33 points since Allen Iverson, the franchise’s last true savior; he’s the youngest Sixers player to score more than 30 points and pull down at least 10 rebounds. But even the traditional box score figures, no matter how impressive, can’t tell you everything Embiid has done to rejuvenate this franchise. More important than Embiid’s 2.5 blocks per game is how he induces dread by simply being on the floor on defense, and how game he is to defend any player on the court, no matter the position. Here he is, out near the 3-point line, hounding Jeremy Lin, who damn near forgets how to dribble he’s so concerned about Embiid’s whereabouts.

Ersan Ilyasova’s leaning body bailed Lin out with a defensive foul drawn, but the psychic impact Embiid has on defense is evident, and it’s without a doubt one of the most impressive things about him. All this from a player who still doesn’t really know how to play NBA basketball. One day he won’t telegraph his footwork in the post like a kid eager to show off his new toy. One day he’ll be more ready to impact the game by being a facilitator out of the post. The absurd skill he flashes can at times feel more ornamental than functional, but his possessions are valuable reps that will eventually blossom as he continues to develop both his critical and creative judgment on the court.

“I really feel like I’m The Process,” he now-famously told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins before the season. Reclaiming the Process is a form of necromancy. It is acknowledging history and the team’s tribulations that can’t be whitewashed away. It’s homage not only to Hinkie, but to everyone who kept the faith. And yes, it is fan service, but Embiid seems acutely aware of what every level of the organization needs him to be. With the Nerlens Noel situation imploding, trust in the Colangelo regime has reached a new low, but Embiid is enough to single-handedly keep the morale intact. He plays with the passion of someone who truly believes in the Sixers — when was the last time you could say that about one of their players?

Embiid had seven deflections Sunday night; none more important than the game-winning near-steal with two seconds remaining on the game clock, and none more symbolic than the one with 11:02 remaining in the game that had him diving into the second row in hopes of keeping the ball alive.

Look, this is incredible because — and it bears repeating — Embiid lost two entire years to chronic foot issues that threatened to derail his career before it even began. To be hesitant in this situation is to be human; the idea of history repeating itself is triggering enough. But Embiid, in a very short time, has shown the capacity to take on burdens for the team and unload them at will. No one on the Sixers plays harder than him; this is a function of his (steadily loosening) minutes restriction, but it’s also the cross he has decided to bear. It’s the reality of a player who has decided, for the sake of the team, that Hinkie’s sacrifice would culminate in his ascension.