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Embiid for This

No one player has exemplified the promise and the pain of the Process like Philadelphia’s brilliant, hilarious, often injured, and recently paid center, Joel Embiid. On the verge of a new season, the team and its enigmatic star are both dealing with an unfamiliar feeling: great expectations.

Joel Embiid Getty Images/Ringer illustration

They see him all the time. Everyone around here sees him all the time. He makes it impossible not to see him. But right now, on this early-October day, it’s what they’re seeing him do that’s of particular interest. It is no small thing, and it’s why there’s a reaction—a noticeable one—when the door to the court swings open and reporters are ushered in for the portion of practice they’re permitted to watch.

There he is, running the full length of the floor. Joel Embiid. Unicorn of unicorns.

The counting begins in earnest. He is out there with—how many teammates? Seven, eight, nine—yes, he is out there with nine other basketball players, which makes 10 humans total after some quick math, and they are engaged in a professional practice. This means Embiid—who had not participated in five-on-five full-court basketball while recovering from the meniscus surgery he had on his left knee last March—has been cleared to rejoin practice in full. It sends reporters into a tweeting tizzy, because everything about Embiid instantly becomes hashtag #BIGNEWS.

When the Thursday practice wraps at the Sixers training complex, Embiid speaks to reporters for the first time since media day. He says it feels good to be back on the court without restrictions, but he admits he’s rusty. That’s understandable, since he hasn’t played an NBA game since last January. You would expect some rust. Fatigue, too. Sixers coach Brett Brown will later say that Embiid—who is 7 feet tall and somewhere in the 260-pound range depending on the day and which report you believe—“carries his weight well” and “looks good” without a shirt, but qualifies his remarks, adding that his center is in “decent shape, not great shape.”

Even so, this qualifies as progress, though it’s somewhat unexpected. A little over a week ago, at media day, president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo gave a vague statement about hoping to have Embiid back for the regular season. Two days before his surprise five-on-five appearance, Embiid was still limited to half-court activity. And not even 24 hours earlier, prior to the Sixers’ first preseason game, Brown parried countless questions thrust at him by a relentless media eager to learn Embiid’s timetable.

With Embiid, timetables are always subject to change. Brown says “it would be irresponsible to declare everything.” Meanwhile, Embiid does his Embiid thing and hints there’s “a good chance” he’ll be back in game action sooner than the Sixers will admit. (He lets it slip that he’s known for a week that he’d be a full go as of today, something the team conveniently kept to itself.) Either way, both Brown and Embiid agree the 23-year-old center is targeting the regular-season opener. That’s happy news for the Sixers, and especially for Brown. No one wants Embiid to get back on the court and stay there more than Embiid, but Brown is probably a close second. Having Embiid around changes everything, so everything is about Embiid.

“We really do the same thing every morning,” Brown says. “We come in. We learn from the medical people what we’re able to get out of Joel Embiid, and we sort of design the practice based on what the advice is from the medical people.”

Brown explains that the Sixers “cater the structure” of each practice to slowly—ever so slooooooowly, as it turns out—work Embiid back into the mix. In his hand, Brown clutches a color-coded chart that outlines which players are available for specific portions of practice. The green boxes represent Embiid. The interesting part is the bit about the “medical people” dictating Embiid’s activities. That would be true of any player on any team—except perhaps this one. Theoretical control is one thing. Functional control is something else entirely. A few days before Embiid finally runs full-court with his teammates, he’s spotted running the streets of Philadelphia. OK, maybe not running, exactly. But jogging. On the street. At night. In his game shorts.

Philadelphians are a skeptical bunch. There are questions about whether the video was staged as part of some as-yet-unidentified underground marketing campaign. Brown assures us that is not the case. In fact, he insists the truth is much simpler: The video captured the second consecutive night Embiid ran home. After playing tennis with an assistant coach. At night. In his game shorts. “People just weren’t ready with their cameras the night before,” Brown explains. Then he gives the whole affair his blessing. He’s glad Embiid is “trying to find ways to do active things outside” and “get fresh air.”

I frankly do not believe him at first. Because I am stupid. Because I never learn. Of course Joel Embiid played tennis in his game shorts before he was cleared to play five-on-five full-court. Of course he ran home afterward. Twice. Of course someone recorded it.

“I’m a really good server,” Embiid replies when I ask about his tennis game. “They call me the black Roger Federer.”

The way Brown sees it, Embiid’s quirks are a delightful way to connect with the city. “He declares himself to be a man of the people,” Brown says. “I think that’s true. I think he lives it. … It’s pure.”

Later, when Sixers point forward Ben Simmons is asked if he saw the video of Embiid running home after playing tennis, he says no. Then he laughs up a caveat: “That sounds like something Jo would do.” True enough. Has there ever been a professional athlete who has played so little and revealed so much?

Here he is during the first of two professional redshirt seasons riding a hoverboard down the streets of Philadelphia. Here he is mingling at Center City Sips, an overcrowded happy hour beset by bros. Here he is wearing an Eagles mascot hat with the Eagles mascot (and Ben Simmons). Here he is losing his damn mind after the Birds beat the Giants this season on a 61-yard field goal by a rookie kicker named Jake Elliott. Here he is swatting the shit out of a small child’s layup attempt on a basketball court at the team’s annual summer fan event at the Jersey Shore. Here he is on the sidelines before the Champions League final, naturally wearing a futbol jersey stamped with “The Process” across the shoulders. Here he is wearing his own jersey at a Philly after-hours club after dropping 26 points in a win over the Suns last November. Here he is, happy and half-naked, on stage with Meek Mill.

Here he is. All the time. Everywhere. Well, almost everywhere. Which is the problem. Embiid is a reality star missing from the one reality that matters most: the NBA court. As Brown allowed, everything they do—even in practice, even when he’s only partially available—is about Embiid. He is their present and future, and he will either sink or save both.

To that end, just a few days after Embiid is cleared to join his teammates in five-on-five full-court, the Sixers gave their fragile big man a fat new contract extension. On Monday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the deal is for five years and $148 million—with supermax language baked in that could potentially escalate the deal to as much as $178 million.

Those are the kinds of numbers that immediately get people talking. Not long after the news broke, I had conversations with various league sources, all of whom had negotiated contracts in the past and were extremely curious about the details of this deal. The common point the people I talked to made was that the Sixers must have indemnified themselves against Embiid’s susceptibility to injury by front-loading the contract, or layering it with various incentives based on games played, or adding in stat-based kickers that will increase the amount paid only if he’s on the floor an awful lot. Or all of the above. The thing everyone seemed to agree on is that this is probably one of the most complex contracts created in some time.

One NBA front-office member theorized that the deal likely looks closer to an NFL contract. Another longtime league executive put it even more bluntly: “If they’re guaranteeing every penny, I would be shocked.”

All of which underscores how much the Sixers are risking, and not just in terms of money. In a town where Vegas setting the over/under for Sixers wins at 40.5 is somehow considered an insult, the organization has repeatedly said it wants to move the Process forward into a new phase that makes them relevant in the standings and not just the greater league-wide conversation.

To do so, the Sixers will obviously need their best—and now richest—player to make significant contributions. But before anyone can predict how good the Sixers will be this season, everyone needs to know how many games they can squeeze out of Embiid without squeezing too hard.

There’s a pretty big chasm between Embiid being cleared for full practice activities and appearing regularly in the regular season. There’s an extensive history of him being fine and healthy—right up until he isn’t.

Last January, Embiid fell and hurt his knee against the Trail Blazers. Afterward, he told reporters, “I’m great. The knee’s fine.” The Sixers shut him down for a few games, then let him play in a nationally televised tilt against the Rockets on January 27. Then they shut him down again, that time for good. Only later did we learn that an MRI revealed the meniscus tear on the night of the Portland game—and they let him play against the Rockets anyway, while Colangelo insisted everything was fine. That created some trust issues between the Sixers and the public. Two months later, Embiid was back on the table for another surgery, naturally taking care to broadcast updates from his hospital bed.

You get the sense that the Sixers’ medical department and parts of the front office would wrap him in bubble wrap if they could. From talking to people around the team, you also get the sense that Embiid would throttle them if they tried. Those midnight jogs might be a good way to get fresh air as far as Brown is concerned, but they might also be the manifestation of some frustrations on the player’s part.

It’s no secret that Embiid hasn’t always agreed with the kid gloves the Sixers wear when handling him. While reporting this piece, sources told me Embiid lobbied the Sixers following that fateful Rockets game to label it a “minor” meniscus tear when discussing the injury in public. It was yet another instance of Embiid pushing back on matters concerning his health. That’s not unique to Colangelo’s regime or the new people mapping out Embiid’s path to recovery. (In the offseason, the Sixers hired C. Daniel Medina away from FC Barcelona and installed him in a newly created position: vice president of athlete care.) In fact, Embiid has battled the organization on that front since Sam Hinkie and the previous administration were in charge.

Back in 2015, as spring bled into summer, team doctors and decision-makers told Embiid they wanted him to undergo a second surgery on his foot. That would require him to sit out a second straight season, thereby further delaying the start to his already-on-hold pro career. Embiid was not pleased.

At the time, Sixers sources told me there was a not-insignificant lag between the time when the team had that discussion with Embiid and when Embiid finally acquiesced to the strategy. Several months passed before the second surgery was ultimately performed in August 2015. (Five doctors were involved in the procedure!) The official spin to the public and media was that Embiid was having a hard time accepting the idea of missing another year. He’s a kid. He wanted to play. He needed time to wrap his head around it. Those were the official talking points. And that was probably true, but a couple of longtime Sixers employees remembered it a bit differently. They said Embiid wanted to enjoy his summer first and party a little before enduring another procedure. That’s understandable enough when you think about his age—he was just 21 at the time—and what he’d gone through, though the Sixers weren’t exactly happy about Embiid taking some me-time before the procedure. Not that they could do much about it.

But as displays of displeasure go, the most public one probably occurred early last season. Embiid began the year on a strict minutes limit. He wasn’t thrilled about that either, and he had a hard time hiding it. Last November, the Sixers hosted the Grizzlies. As the game funneled its second of two overtime periods, Embiid had 12 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, three blocks, a steal, and a 3-ball. He also played 24 minutes—or three more than the allotted limit. Embiid wanted to keep playing. The doctors told him to sit down instead. Before he did, Embiid kicked a chair. He was smart enough to use his left foot and not the twice-surgically-repaired right one. The Sixers lost that game in double overtime.

That kind of tension between Embiid and team officials is understandable. He’s desperate to get out there today. They’re still planning for tomorrow. Makes sense all around, even if it’s sometimes hard for one side to see things from the other side’s perspective.

Over the summer, Embiid was at Jay-Z’s annual Made in America Festival, held by the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the Ben Franklin Parkway. Retired Flyer Kimmo Timonen, along with a host of other people, was also there. The groups mingled. There were fun pictures. According to someone with knowledge of the exchange, Timonen asked Embiid if he would play this season, to which Embiid grumbled, “I could play right now.”

“I trust [the medical staff], but at the same time I have a voice, too,” Embiid says following that first five-on-five full-court effort last week. “I think they value my opinion, too. It’s about us being on the same page. If I feel good and I’m able to play, they’re going to let me play.”

Maybe, but that’s only part of the equation. It isn’t just a question of if Embiid will play, or when, but how much?

Everyone is in the same spot. Embiid. Brown. The Sixers. The fans. Out-of-town fans. The media. The rest of the league. Everyone is curious. When asked, Embiid recently conceded, “I’ll be honest—I don’t think I’ll play 82 games.” That’s a safe bet, and you’d be wise to put money on it if you can find a sucker somewhere to lay the odds.

If the Sixers could get even 50 games out of Embiid this season, they’d have to consider it a not-so-minor victory. This is technically his fourth professional season. He’s appeared in just 31 games to date. Small sample size or no, it’s fun to fantasize about his ability. His per-36 numbers during his limited career are absurd: 28.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, three assists, 1.2 steals, and 3.5 blocks. As The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks pointed out, those stats put him in historic company for a rookie. Not surprisingly, the Sixers were infinitely better with Embiid than without him. According to NBA.com, the Sixers had a net rating of plus-3.2 with him on the floor a year ago and minus-7.9 with him off. As point guard T.J. McConnell neatly summarized, the Sixers are “a totally different team with him out there. He changes everything.”

“I notice a lot of shifts,” Brown said about the way the rest of the team responds when Embiid is available. “Defense changes. Offense changes. Focal point changes. The whole gym changes. That for sure influences the mood of the gym.”

The mood of the town changes. You have to remember that this whole thing is playing out in front of a city of maniacs. After the Sixers lost to the Grizzlies last week, a Philadelphia Inquirer headline screamed “Not a Grand Opening” while the back page of the Daily News declared “Work in Process.” That was after the first preseason game.

Hyperbole aside, it’s not hard to imagine the Sixers struggling without Embiid, and it’s even easier to envision the city turning on the team if he isn’t on the court enough to help them make the expected leap forward. It’s a crucial time for the organization, made even more so by Embiid’s mysterious new contract extension.

As recently as June, majority owner Josh Harris said the organization was “focused on it,” and he wanted Embiid to stick around for a long time because “we want us all to grow old together.” (He’s nearly 30 years older than Embiid; good thing they hurried up and got on that.) The two sides reached the agreement a week before the October 16 deadline—if they missed that target, they would have been forced to wait until Embiid hit restricted free agency, at which point even more variables would have entered an already complicated equation.

Not even a week ago, before Embiid signed his new deal, a league executive wondered what the Sixers would do about their center. The exec said “they’ll never get insurance on [an extension].” He was right, of course. As pre-existing conditions go, Embiid has roughly all of them. Which is why so many people around the league speculated about the specific structure of the extension shortly after the news broke. They figured the Sixers had to pack the contract with caveats, for obvious reasons.

Embiid’s extension is a giant knot that will likely take a while to unravel. Planning for the future can prove to be a smart strategy, but you can only delay things for so long. Eventually, whether you’re ready or not, tomorrow bleeds into the present and you’re forced to confront the difficult decisions you previously put in motion. The Sixers preemptively jettisoned one of those potentially hard choices when they traded Nerlens Noel to Dallas rather than keep him around and figure out how much to pay him. That was their prerogative, but they didn’t have such an easy out with Embiid.

“It’s a gamble,” the aforementioned exec said about paying Embiid.

True. But the Sixers didn’t really have a choice. Embiid is too important to Philadelphia’s prospects to not take the chance. At the very least, regardless of how much risk the team assumed in the deal, everyone now knows Embiid isn’t going anywhere. He’ll be right here in Philly for the foreseeable future, free to run the city streets or whip off his shirt and dance with Meek Mill. Embiid is the biggest show in town. The stage remains his to command. The court is another matter.

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