CAMDEN, NJ — It's finally time for the Philadelphia 76ers to start moving forward. After three years at or near the bottom of the standings, there's real promise as training camp opens at the team's brand new practice facility on Tuesday.
"We're on the verge of establishing things above grade, things that hopefully move this organization forward," general manager Bryan Colangelo said at Media Day on Monday. "We're looking ahead with a lot of excitement and a lot of anticipation of where it might go."
With all the Lottery picks the Sixers have made over the last four years finally here and finally healthy, everyone inside and outside the organization wants to fast forward to Game 1 and to Game 50 and to three years down the road.
The most excitement surrounds rookies Ben Simmons (this year's No. 1 pick) and Joel Embiid (No. 3 in 2014), who both bring a combination of size and skills that we don't normally see. Simmons is the 6-10 forward with point-guard passing skills. Embiid is the 7-2 center with deft footwork and a soft touch.
Embiid hasn't played in almost three years, but humility is not his thing. He knows the potential he showed at Kansas and believes that was nothing.
"My game has gotten so much better [over] the past three years," he said. "If you watched the [college] game tape, I'm not the same guy."
Simmons and Embiid should be the focal points of the Sixers' offense and defense, respectively, for years to come. Can you imagine Embiid's blocks leading to Simmons in the open floor, or those pick-and-roll pocket passes from Simmons leading to a monster dunk from Embiid?
Everyone around the Sixers can taste it. They've seen these guys working out the last few weeks. They've seen Simmons put weight on his frame to be able to withstand the grind of an 82-game schedule. And they've seen Embiid fight through two years of rehab to finally arrive at the moment when he can step on the floor with a healthy right foot and an improved skill set.
So where can these two guys take this team in 3-4 years?
Wait a minute. Let's take this one step at a time. Let's see where they are in 3-4 days. If it's hard to be patient with talents like this, just listen to what they have to say themselves.
"I just want to get back on the court and play," Embiid said in response to a question about his expectations for himself. "And then, after that, I'm going to set new goals."
Colangelo said that Embiid probably won't play in both games of back-to-back sets and that his playing time and workload will be determined by the Sixers' medical staff. Embiid is on board.
"It's already kind of frustrating, because I have a time limit during practices," he said. "But these people, they care about me. And what I've been doing for the past couple of months, as far as my rehab and my time on the court, has been going well. I feel really good about it. My body has been feeling great. You just got to trust the process and keep it going. It's going to be frustrating. I want to play. I want to be on the court. But at the same time, they care about me, so I'm just going to listen to what they have to say and do what they want me to do as long as it's good for me."
For Simmons, it's about a belief that the work that he puts in will pay off in time. Some may see him as the next Magic Johnson or LeBron James, a future MVP or at least the guy that will make the last three years worthwhile. But he doesn't want to hear it.
"Potential is one of those words," Simmons said. "It can go down or up. There's a lot of potential, but I just got to put in the work and see what happens, honestly. There's a lot of things that people can say, but if I don't put the work in, it's not going to mean anything.
"I can't put anything out there saying what I expect. But I expect to come in and work hard and try to get better every day."
Embiid's and Simmons' patience isn't shared by everyone on the Sixers' roster. But you can understand why Nerlens Noel feels differently. He's the one who has had to endure all three years of losing in Philly. He sat out his first year after being drafted, but the Sixers are 28-114 (0.197) in games he's played.
Noel has made it clear that he's not happy with the Sixers' glut of young big men, saying that "it's just silly" to go into the season with himself, Embiid and Jahlil Okafor all Lottery picks with center as their primary position.
"It's like having three starting quarterbacks," Noel told the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday. "It doesn't make any sense."
Less than 24 hours later, Noel doubled down on his comments.
"I don't see a way of it working," he told the assembled media. "It's just a logjam. You have three talented centers that can play 30-plus minutes a night, and not three centers can play 30 minutes a night. That's that.
"Someone needs to be moved around. It's a tough situation. But I can't really say too much, because I have no say and no power. That's for who can handle the situation in the right manner."
Colangelo said that Noel's thoughts are "understandable," but the GM doesn't want to appear desperate to make a trade. He said that the Sixers never were "actively shopping" any of the bigs, and he clearly doesn't want to be left without any leverage whether he's making calls or taking them.
"I think where we are right now is an enviable position, in that we have a lot of talent," Colangelo said. "We have a lot of time for things to work out. Some of it will happen in the preseason. Some of it will happen in the regular season. But I don't feel like we're up against a deadline of any sort."
So Noel will have to wait ... and compete. Veteran Elton Brand said that he expects to see "a bloodbath" in training camp as the young bigs fight for playing time.
We've all waited three years, but the process will now begin to bear fruit. One step at a time.
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