One thing we know when the Sixers open the season against the Oklahoma City Thunder is Joel Embiid will start. After two years of sitting out with foot problems, the rookie big man will be on the floor for the first time in a real NBA game.
“He will (start),” Sixers coach Brett Brown told me on my radio show The Sports Bash, on 97.3 ESPN Radio.
So after two years Embiid is ready to go. Sixers fans are excited to finally see this 7-foot-2 giant fans have only seen in a couple of preseason games, a handful of vines and 28 college games. His debut is easily the most anticipated and eagerly awaited since Allen Iverson was ready to take the floor back in 1996.
So after all the hype and anticipation, is Embiid ready for the challenge?
“At times, he is further along then I anticipated,” Brown admitted. “He does stuff that I did not expect. But I will counter-balance that, with there are times where it’s clear that he hasn’t played basketball in two-and-a-half years.”
Brown explained that while Embiid sometimes shows some rust, mainly in his footwork, you can see that his mind for-the-game is very sharp. He talked about how Embiid can see things that the average player does not, but sometimes his mind tells him to do one thing, but his feet are two-and-a-half years behind.
“I’m not back peddling from any of the comments or praise that I have extended to him,” Brown said. “I think at his age, some of the things he is doing with his mobility and size he really has a chance to be a very, very good player and possibly great.”
In just the short time he has been cleared to play, Embiid game has evolved. He has shown that he’s more than just a traditional back-to-the-basket big man, hitting three-point shots with regularity during his rehab, and recently showing off the ability to run the break, even joking he “always thought he was a point guard.”
But the fact is he can handle the ball, pass in the open floor and run the break and coach Brown says he encourages that, but reminds him that he is a 7-foot-2 post player first-and-foremost, but doesn’t mind seeing him flash his ‘guard-like abilities’ from time-to-time.
So, as his game keeps evolving, how about his minutes? It seems inevitable that as his production goes up and he feels better and better, Emiid, a fierce competitor, will want more minutes.
It’s something coach Brown knows he will have to wrestle with plenty this season.
“It’s going to happen every single day I coach him,” Brown admitted. “Until medical people feel one-hundred percent certain that he is unrestricted, and it happens at practice every day that I’ve coached him since I’ve had him this preseason. It’s happened during the games – and I say that with affection and respect, he loves playing basketball.”
“It’s my job that he remains healthy,” Brown added.
Brown says people that are paid to provide this kind of information are advising him, and he understands that while everyone is excited to see Embiid play, including himself, he realizes that it’s his responsibility to ensure Embiid stays healthy.
“It’s going to be a fistfight every day,” Brown acknowledged, “But I’m happy to do it.”
Another thing to consider is Embiid himself. While everyone seems to be excited to see him play, Brown recognizes the rookie is excited to play his first NBA game.
“His heart is so big, he wants to please, he wants to play, its a good problem to have,” Brown said.
Embiid will be on about a 20-minute restriction for the opener, which Brown will break into five segments of four-minute increments each time. He will try to sprinkle the minutes throughout the game, with everything being engineered to try to end the game with Embiid on the floor.
As for his partner Jahlil Okafor, the plan is for him to play about eight minutes – getting two, four-minute runs.
“I hope sometime soon, to be able to play those two guys together,” Brown stated. “Right now we just don’t have the ability to do that.”
Brown said while the duo most likely won’t play together right away, he does see Okafor coming off the bench as a “lightning in the bottle” type of player, who will be matched up against backup centers as they ease him back into the rotation.
“I do believe there will be a lot of times that we can play Jahlil and Joel together,” Brown said.
That time is not right now, because of the erratic preseason the Sixers had, filled with uncertainty, it is a lot more difficult for Brown to map out what he would like to do with playing time and exact roles.
So while there is plenty of excitement surrounding Embiid, with Ben Simmons out, Nerlens Noel on the shelf and Jarryd Bayless missing about a month, it would appear like another season of development for Brown and his young Sixers team and a lot of the focus will now fall on Embiid’s shoulders.
In a season that will most likely end without a trip to the playoffs, this season is about finding out of Embiid and Okafor, your two best, somewhat healthy, pieces can exist together, even if they struggle at times right away.