He won’t rise to the bait. The conceit was for Joel Embiid to look into the camera and praise his 76ers teammate Ben Simmons — at the expense of Shaquille O’Neal — by affirming that Simmons was the best player to come out of LSU in the last 25 years. Of course, we all know that that distinction goes to “The Diesel.” This is the point of the gag. But Embiid can’t do it. “Shaq’s my man,” he says. And this is part of the 23-year-old Embiid’s goofy charm; while he loudtalks his contemporaries, both in person and on Twitter, he’s nothing but respectful to his big man elders, whether it’s Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson.
Having that knowledge of past greats is also part of why Embiid is poised to join their ranks in due course, as long as he can stay healthy going forward. Injuries are the only reason he didn’t go first overall in the 2014 Draft after his one season at Kansas. He slide to third and was scarfed up by then-Sixers GM Sam Hinkie, who felt Embiid fit in perfectly with Hinkie’s notion of getting the most talent possible on his roster, no matter its current shape, and patiently waiting for that talent to explode.
Embiid has, after fits and starts and surgeries delayed his NBA debut by two years. He was so dominant in 31 games last season — another injury-shortened campaign — that there was serious consideration by serious people to give him the Kia Rookie of the Year award anyway. Philly did that one better; despite the setbacks and worries about Embiid’s future health, the Sixers didn’t hesitate in putting a $148 million max deal on the table for Embiid in October.
With his back account swole, Embiid has happily returned to displaying his breathtaking array of skills on the court — 23.5 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists, two blocks per game — that has Philly fans chanting “Trust the Process” every time Embiid touches the ball. No big has every displayed all of the above — low-post dominance, a feathery jumper that extends well past the 3-point line, the occasional Eurostep and lightning quickness on defense — that Embiid has in his bag. And, like Shaq, Embiid does all of that while dominating social media as well — courting Rihanna, picking Twitter fights with fellow bigs Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside, running “Rocky”-style through the streets of Philly.
And Embiid has the 76ers off to their best start in years, with the fans and buzz returning to Wells Fargo Center. Considering that Embiid, a native of Cameroon, started playing basketball just seven years ago, all of this is remarkable. With Ben Simmons looking like a lock for Kia Rookie of the Year, and 2017 first overall pick Markelle Fultz not even on the floor at full strength yet, the Sixers look to be a force for years to come. Which is right with Embiid’s timeline. A decade or so should allow him to make his case for what he genuinely believes: he can be the best big man ever. Even better than Shaq.
Me: Who did you want to meet at the SI Awards that you got to meet?
Joel Embiid: Obviously, there was (Jose) Altuve. I went to the baseball game, the World Series, in Houston, so I got to witness, actually, when they won Game 5. That was a pretty good game. And I’m a big fan of J.J. Watt, too. And Beyonce was there, so it was great. That was the first time seeing her in person. I met Jay-Z like the week before that. So that was great.
Me: You and I spoke a couple of weeks ago, and I meant to ask then: how rewarding is it to be at the end of the The Process?
JE: Well, The Process is never going to end. It’s an ongoing thing. I don’t think it’s ever going to stop. As I have explained before, it’s a process for making it to the playoffs, it’s another one to make the conference finals, another one to actually go to The Finals and win the championship. And when you actually win it, you’ve got to come back the following year and do it all over again. So I don’t think The Process is ever going to end. But at this point of The Process, it’s rewarding. We’ve been winning lately. We’ve been playing well. We still have a long way to go, but I’m excited about the future.
Me: When you played the Lakers the first time, you had an historic game — 46 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, seven blocks. What was that like, being in a game where everything is working?
JE: I was just playing basketball. I was making plays, my teammates were finding me. They were feeding me, I looked unstoppable, and I feel like I’m unstoppable. So I kept going at it, and they tried to make adjustments, but I felt like it was too late. It was exciting in my head. The Lakers fans, they were talking (bleep) in the stands, and I love that. That got me going. So it was just, I don’t know the feeling, but that was kind of like my first time going through that. Just bucket after bucket. It was different.
Me: Why does trash talk motivate you so much?
JE: ‘Cause trash talk, I don’t know, it’s just in my nature. I love competing. I mean, if you ask anybody around me, my coaches, they know I love competing. I hate losing. So because I love competing and I hate losing, it just, I don’t know, for somebody to actually trash talk with me, it’s all about my game. Because I know I’m unguardable. It just takes my game to the next level, and I feel like most nights I need it, or it’s just going to be a lazy night, or sleepy night. So I actually kind of need it.
If I play against you the first time … and you want to be all physical and just talk, or talking trash or whatever, it just gets me going. It makes me want to kick your ass so I can go on social media and literally trash you on there.”
Joel Embiid, on playing other centers
Me: You seem to have a particular desire to go after your fellow bigs. And I wonder if that’s calculated or not?
JE: It’s not calculated. It depends. If I play against you the first time, or it doesn’t even have to be the first time, and you want to be all physical and just talk, or talking trash or whatever, it just gets me going. It makes me want to kick your ass so I can go on social media and literally trash you on there. So I want to trash you on the court and on social media. If you want to go down that road, good luck to you, because I don’t stop, and I never stop.
Me: But you went after Drummond hard. You said he can’t shoot.
JE: Well, like I said, a lot of people don’t know what actually goes into the game. The first matchup (with Detroit), I think I had 38 against him. He was all physical. He was talking a little bit. I don’t think people see that. I made the statement that I made at the end of that game, that he couldn’t play defense. Before the last game I played against him, they asked me if I was worried about what he was going to do offensively, and I just let them know how it is. And I’m sure everybody knows that he couldn’t shoot. He gets a lot of putback dunks. That’s his game. Everybody knows this. So I just stated the truth. I don’t know what else to say.
Me: Do you have the sense that the medical team here has kind of taken the shackles off of you in terms of minutes and back to backs, or is there still a daily back and forth with them?
We talk to each other sometimes. … And I feel like he basically kind of lost his job because of me, because I missed two years. So I feel like I owe him a lot.”
Joel Embiid, on former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie
JE: It’s definitely has gotten a lot better. I’m able to play a full game now. My only restriction is probably back to backs. I think the last month, month and a half, I’ve been playing more than 30 minutes every night. So it’s definitely getting better. I think the next step is obviously back to backs. I’m just excited.
Me: So when you hear the phrase ‘load management,’ what goes through your head?
JE: Load management. I mean, there’s a lot of meanings to that. (Laughs) In basketball, I guess, it’s just making sure they’re thinking about the future, too. They want me to play 20 years, so I get that, too. And I’m really thankful to be in this type of position. I can get mad all I want, but at the end of the day, they care about me, and I respect that.
Me: Sam Hinkie drafted you. Do you keep in touch with him, call, text?
JE: Yeah, we text sometimes. We talk to each other sometimes. I mean, that’s the guy that drafted me, and he made sure he put everything in place so I could get healthy. And I got healthy and I got back on the court. And I feel like he basically kind of lost his job because of me, because I missed two years. So I feel like I owe him a lot. Yeah, we talk. We talk sometimes.
Me: What’s the vibe like with you and Ben, on and off the court?
JE: I mean, it’s great. We’re just learning, on the court, we’re just learning to play with each other. Off the floor, we’re just learning how to be leaders. Still, this is his first year. He’s got a long way to go. I’ve been in the league, this is my fourth year, and I think like I’m the oldest on the team (in years with the franchise). Kind of being here a while, I’ve seen all The Process, all the losing, and then now, we’re winning. I’ve seen everything here in Philly. We’re still both really young, and we keep learning to play with each other.
Me: You have said over and over that while you respect and revere Hakeem’s game, you want to be the first Embiid and not the second Olajuwon. What does that specifically mean to you?
JE: It just means, I think I’m a different player than all those guys. Like I’ve explained before, I’m sure Hakeem could have shot the three a lot if he wanted to. But he didn’t. But for me, my game is more about, more complete. He was a great defender, he’s definitely better than me defensively. And offensively, the post moves he had, I’ve got a long way to go to reach that level. But as far as, just like an overall game, I want to [have] one of the most, if not the most complete player ever. Defensively, offensively, just be a playmaker when I want to, score when I want to. Just a leader and defensively, be the best defensively player in the world. I’m a big fan (of Olajuwon), and he knows that, too. But it’s kind of like, it’s different. He was really good. He was smooth. But I feel like I’ve got everything, as far as the shot, post moves, defense. And he had that, too. Being physical, he was really athletic, too. There’s a lot. But I’ve got a long way to go. I’m not there yet. I’m not close to it.
Me: When Fultz gets back on the floor and it’s the three of you out there, what do you think you’ll do?
JE: I don’t know. I know we started the year and he was coming off the bench. But I think he’s going to be really good. I’ve watched him, I’ve been around him. He’s kind of going through the same thing that I did, and that Ben did — people forgetting about you. And then, when you come back, boom — people are like, ‘damn, what happened?’ So I feel like he’s in that boat, and I think he’s going to be really good. But I think he’s also, and Coach will figure it out, how to play with each other. And we also have to put in a lot of work to learn how to play with each other.
Me: When they said ‘we’re going to give you the extension,’ what went through your head?
JE: First thing, I won’t lie. I was like, I’ve only played 31 games in three years. I think during those 31 games, I showed that I was, or I could be at that level. It was a weird situation, but that’s not a situation you say no to. Because I’m blessed to be in this position. For someone like me, who started playing basketball six years ago, missed two years because of injuries, I was just thankful for all those people, like the owners and the whole organization. It was, I was definitely shocked.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
I see under Derek Jeter’s Marlin Orange there’s pinstripes …
— John Henson (@Johnhenson31) December 9, 2017
— Bucks forward John Henson (@Johnhenson31), Saturday, 11:38 a.m., after the news broke that the Miami Marlins — of whom Jeter is now CEO after his soon to be Hall of Fame playing career with the Yankees — had brokered a trade to send slugger Giancarlo Stanton to New York.
THEY SAID IT
“Man, I don’t care about — not to be rude — I don’t care about no (bleeping) money. It’s not about that. I’ve saved up enough money. It’s not about that. If I wanted to leave, I would have left. Like I said, coming back here, starting with rehab, that’s my first step.”
— Derrick Rose, upon his return last week to the Cavaliers after being away from the team while he dealt with bone spurs in his ankle. Rose was asked if his shoe deal money, which he might have to forfeit if he retired, was a factor in his decision to come back to the team.
“Not in the second half, because we started thinking about ourselves too much. ‘Oh, this guy missed me, or this guy didn’t pass me the ball, or this guy didn’t help me.’ We started making too many excuses. And then we got a little bit lazy, we didn’t have no urgency. I don’t understand, when you lost, what was it, 12 out of 13 games, how guys can’t have urgency. That to me is mind-boggling.”
— Marc Gasol, asked if his team played with effort in the Grizzlies’ loss to Toronto Friday. After blowing a 20-point lead in another loss Saturday, to Oklahoma City, Memphis has dropped 14 of its last 15 and six of seven since firing former coach David Fizdale two weeks ago.
“It’s the most realistic basketball game you could ever play. I mix and match a lot of lineup changes to see how we can be really good. I’ve done that.”
— LeBron James, detailing how he’s learning Isaiah Thomas’ game even though Thomas remains out as he rehabs his injured hip, by playing NBA2K18. (Full disclosure: I’m in the game. I got paid to be in the game. This is not an endorsement of the game, though I’ve heard it would sure make a swell Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa gift.)
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