The Philadelphia 76ers unwrapped their greatest Christmas gift on Monday morning: franchise center Joel Embiid. After starting the day a game-time decision due to a nagging sore back, Embiid played 34 minutes, dominating the New York Knicks to the tune of 25 points, 16 rebounds, three blocks and three assists. “He’s sort of like a borrowed stud,” head coach Brett Brown said. Embiid doesn’t practice. He receives hours of daily treatment. And roughly 35 minutes before tipoff, Brown receives the final go-ahead that his All-NBA-caliber big man will dress and start. “You inherit him in some games,” Brown said.
The pure uncertainty is remarkable. Perhaps the premier center in the entire league, Embiid is truly questionable every night. “We all step back and you say, ‘Who is he?’” Brown said. “Is he Sabonis, is he Olajuwon, is he Duncan; he can shoot a three, is he Dirk?” Yet on a daily basis, the Sixers simply must ask if Embiid will be ready to play. J.J. Redick had missed Philly’s two previous games before Christmas Day with a hamstring issue. And although he too was deemed questionable for the matinee, there was hardly any doubt that the Sixers sharpshooter would be firing under the Madison Square Garden lights. Embiid meanwhile has to progress through a meticulous series of benchmarks in order to be activated.
“There is a checklist,” Brown said, and it’s far grander than the coaching staff and Embiid collaborating to determine his status. “There’s physiotherapists involved, Joel has a significant say in all this, there are doctors, there are people that are looking at sort of pre-loading stuff that has gone on and patterns and trends,” Brown explained.
After Embiid is ruled questionable by the medical team—that is, having the opportunity to play—the 23-year-old strolls onto the court for his pre-game warmup. Typically Embiid circles around the basket along with Dario Saric, but recently he has sparred solo against an assistant coach at various spots on the floor.
On Christmas, Embiid and the Sixers coaches begin working one-on-one in the deep post. He flicks hook shots over his hulking shoulders with each had, sometimes unfurling the ball after a shimmy. They migrate out to the right block, where Embiid finishes with an array of strong finishes and gorgeous fadeways. Watching him operate on a relatively empty court, free of double teams and fatigue, is breathtaking. His absurd combination of size and fluidity never ceases to catch you by surprise. When Embiid reaches seven points—a basket or drawn foul counts as one, a miss is a point for the exhausted coach attempting to guard this monster—they shift up to the right elbow.
Ben Simmons watches from the foul line. As his counterpart squares to the basket, juking with pivots and head fakes, Simmons shouts, “Facetime!” Embiid and coaches head to the left elbow next, and work their way back down to the block one impressive finish after the next. When Embiid then posts at the center of the foul line with the entire lane to operate, it’s impossible for the coach to even contain him.
Embiid’s drenched in a full sweat as he moves out to the three-point line. Swingman Justin Anderson sticks a hand up as he launches corner three after corner three, again shooting until he reaches those seven points. The coaches act as defenders when Embiid arrives at each wing, the top of the key, and the opposite corner. When he catches a low or high pass, Embiid simulates attacking a closeout and glides into stepbacks as smoothly as James Harden.
Following one miss, he punches the ball back over towards the coach feeding his shooting pocket. Only, the ball is far off-target and crashes into a scrum of cameramen and broadcasters milling around before filming their pre-game sets. Embiid winces and looks up at the MSG jumbotron, as if he had nothing to do with the commotion. As long as he’s not clenching his teeth over lingering back pain, everything’s fine. The involved parties all laugh off the errant ball.
After Embiid ends his game of around the world, he follows a member of the team’s public relations department back into the bowels of the arena to inform the coaching staff on his condition. “Really the final decision is only kinda determined after he does his warmups. He gives us thumbs up, thumbs down,” Brown said. “He cares. He doesn’t want to hurt the team and that’s the process of which we go through it.”
“The more I stay on the floor, the more I get into the flow, I’ll be able to go,” Embiid said. “If it can’t stop me, unless it’s something that really, really, bothers me, I’m gonna play.”
The Sixers are 14–11 with Embiid active this season, compared to just 1–7 when he wears street clothes on the pine. Philly is more than conscious of it and the Celtics’ front-loaded schedules in lead up to their game in London on Jan. 11. Both teams have and will play a string of back-to-backs prior to receiving consecutive days off before and after the contest in England. The schedule has caused more ramifications for Brown than Brad Stevens.
As will be the case in London, the Sixers will obviously need Embiid active more often than not to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012, and they have instituted a detailed—apologies—process to ensure everything runs smoothly. “It’s extensive and thoughtful and it needs to be, because he’s very much in his infancy of growing into playing again,” Brown said. “We’re trying to preserve one of our crown jewels.”