Same Same, But Different
It's a new season of 76ers basketball, and Joel Embiid is back to his old ways.
Crushing the Boston Celtics in one half of preseason action.
Bullying the Washington Wizards on Opening Night, then surgically dissecting the New York Knicks a few days later.
Before back tightness kept him out of last Sunday's games at Cleveland, the big man had totalled a whopping 56 points and 24 rebounds through the Sixers' first two games, both of which were wins.
He shot 54% from the field during this stretch, going 3-for-5 from 3-point territory and 13-for-16 from the free throw line.
Embiid then returned to action Tuesday against Toronto, and was a driving force in an impressive, resilient come-from-behind triumph.
The sample size is small, but so far, his production and impact have been off the charts.
And while the season remains young, these elite, early performances certainly augur well for Embiid and the Sixers alike, especially on the heels of an offseason fraught with change for the All-Star.
In September, he became a dad.
In October, he got a new head coach for the first time in his seven-year career.
In November, the Sixers brought in a new president of basketball operations.
A few weeks after that, the team reconfigured its starting lineup in an effort to surround the 7-footer with more shooting and give him better spacing.
So yeah, on the surface, there was a lot that changed in Embiid's orbit compared to when we last saw him in uniform four months ago inside the NBA's bubble in Orlando.
But in a recent interview, Embiid was somewhat resistant to embracing the "new year, new me" narrative, convenient as it might seem.
"Not really," the 26-year old replied, pausing with a smirk when asked if he was feeling any different heading into his fifth playing season. "I've always been a family guy, family-oriented. Having a new addition changed a little bit in me, but I'm still the same and I'm excited to be a new dad and be able to raise a kid."
Embiid also looks plenty excited to be back on the floor. Through one week of competition, he's been as dominant as anyone in the NBA, and he knows it.
"I don't think anybody can stop me," he said following the Sixers' opener.
And to think he's playing at this level all while changing diapers.
To know Joel Embiid's story is to know he nearly pulled the plug on his own career.
Just hours before a preseason game at The Center during what was supposed to be his rookie season, Embiid - then recovering from the first of two foot injuries - learned his brother, Arthur, had died in a car accident back in their native country of Cameroon.
Arthur's death caused Embiid to question everything.
"[It] was very tough on me, and as I've said before I almost quit basketball because of how hurt I was."
He didn't, of course.
Embiid has since gone on to become a three-time All-Star, perennial All-League selection, and MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Along the way, he's used the power of his platform to honor Arthur's memory, and more directly, his name.
There's the Arthur Embiid & Angels Foundation in Cameroon that provides aid to children in need.
Last winter, Embiid helped renovate the Arthur Embiid Athletics Court at a Boys & Girls Club in Northeast Philadelphia.
Then, on Sept. 25 of this year, came Embiid's most personal, enduring tribute yet: he passed down his brother's name to his first-born child, Arthur Elijah De Paula Embiid.
"It meant a lot to me," Embiid said.
There's no singular coping mechanism for death. It differs for everyone.
Six years later, Christine Embiid still struggles. Her oldest son hopes that a life born can ease the pain of a life lost.
"My mom, she's been dealing with this since ," said Joel Embiid. "It's been very tough on her, so giving my son that name was huge.
"It doesn't help her get over it, but it also kind of helped her relax a little bit more and just be more open to life again. It meant a lot and I'm glad I did it."
When the late Arthur Embiid passed, he was only 13 years old. He had barely scratched the surface.
"It's still hard," Joel Embiid said, "Being so young, he hadn't done anything in life. You try to just carry his name and his legacy for as long as you can. As long as I'm on this planet, I'm going to do the same thing and use that to help a lot of people in need."
Justin Anderson, who first met Embiid years ago when he hosted Embiid on a recruiting visit at the University of Virginia (where Anderson was playing at the time), notices something new about his friend these days.
After inking a training camp deal with the Sixers, Anderson reached out to Embiid in hopes of meeting Arthur. One of the first things Embiid asked Anderson was whether he flew or drove to get into the Philadelphia area.
Anderson told Embiid he drove, and Embiid thanked him. At first, Anderson was a little confused.
"Why do you say thank you?" Anderson responded.
Embiid then cited COVID-19, and the increased risk of exposure that comes with flying.
"He was all over it," said Anderson. "Just from that, you see a level of maturity in a different way I've never seen before from him. I'm excited for him to see his journey and how he approaches parenthood."
So far, Dad Life has been going well, according to Embiid. Both he and his partner, Anne, have been getting enough sleep and plenty of smiles. For new parents, this is the Holy Grail.
"Every time we go to the doctor's, the doctor sees him and is just so impressed with how well he's doing as far as the stuff he's doing at his age, how advanced he is, so that's pretty good," said Embiid. "I love when he's just looking at me and starts laughing. It's been amazing spending a lot of time with him."
Now comes the real high-wire act. Being a full-time dad and a full-time basketball player. And not just any full-time basketball player, but one upon whose broad shoulders an immense amount of expectations and pressure rest.
Before the 76ers' Dec. 29 meeting with the Toronto Raptors, a reporter opened Doc Rivers' pregame media session with a straightforward question:
"Hey Doc. In the time you've had to work with Joel, what are your impressions of having a center that dominant in today's league?"
"I'm happy," Rivers replied with a wide smile and chuckle. "It's nice to have."
Had Rivers been asked the same question a few hours later, there's a good chance he probably would have said he's even happier.
Embiid assumed a starring role in the Sixers' gutsy 100-93 come-from-behind victory. After a leg issue caused him to leave the game briefly in the middle of the third quarter, he checked back in and promptly keyed a 13-0 run that tied the score heading into the fourth period.
The Sixers outscored Toronto 35-17 following Embiid's return. By the end of the evening, he had posted 29 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, two steals, and two blocks.
Rivers appreciated the points, but seemed to be most encouraged by the effect Embiid had on scoring possessions he didn't finish. The head coach loved the way his superstar got the ball out of the post and helped swing it to open shooters.
"That's how we have to play," Rivers said. "Joel Embiid is a dominant basketball player, and the other teams are going to send people. We work on it every day - everyone getting to the right spots so Joel doesn't have to think."
This has been Rivers' point of emphasis since Day One. Get the ball to Embiid, and get it to him deep. The defense then has to pick its poison.
Through the first week of the new season, Embiid averaged 52.0 passes per game, a dramatic jump from a career-low 44.1 passes per game he made a year ago. For comparison's sake, he generated 50.6 passes per game as a rookie, and a personal-best 57.9 passes per game during his second season in 2018-19.
With more shooting depth on this year's roster, Embiid has thrived.
"I'm definitely more comfortable, even when it comes to passing out of double-teams," he said following the Sixers' Dec. 26 win at New York. "If you want to double, I dare you, because we're going to knock down those shots. If you let me play one-on-one, it's either a bucket or a foul."
After the Sixers were swept by the Boston Celtics in the opening round of the playoffs in August, Embiid understood why the Sixers made changes. He said he has "a lot of love" for Brett Brown, cares about him, and was sad to see him go.
At the same time, Embiid praised ownership for aggressively pursuing Rivers and President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey - two of the most respected and accomplished names in their respective professions - the moment they became available.
"I think [Daryl] is the best at his job in this league and just talking to him he's a very, very smart guy," said Embiid. "We can talk about anything, and that's what we do. We talk about more life stuff than actually basketball, and that's what I like."
In Embiid's eyes, that's how the best relationships are built.
As for Rivers, Embiid said, "I think he's going to be a great leader and going to try to push us every day to be better."
Rivers has already been challenging Embiid and fellow All-Star Ben Simmons to not only improve individually, but together. The trio started meeting regularly in December at the start of training camp.
"We've just been talking about how we got to be accountable towards each other and the whole organization," said Embiid. "We just got to take on that role and be better than we've been in the past and just lead by example, just doing the right things and dominating together."
Even with some promising early returns, particularly in respect to Embiid, the Sixers' 2021 title pursuit remains a work in progress. Just about anyone associated with the team would say so.
But if the Sixers are to have a legitimate shot to be the last group standing this season, logic says Embiid will have to keep putting up MVP-caliber numbers. He knows it, welcomes the burden, and is thinking big.
"I just dream about having a lot of fun, acting crazy at the parade," he said. "That's why it's so important to me - being here, starting a family, being here for a long time, and wanting to finish here. That's why I want to make it happen so much."
A championship, for Philadelphia? That would be something different. That would be a change, one we're pretty sure Embiid would be happy to acknowledge.