There was a moment in mid-November that nearly broke my brain. It came after Joel Embiid had spent the week in Los Angeles, where he averaged 39 points and 15.5 rebounds on 62.5% shooting in wins over the Clippers and the Lakers. Later that week the Sixers returned home to face the Warriors on Saturday night, when Philly went up 22 points at halftime. Then, early in the third quarter, Embiid chased down Zaza Pachulia and went crashing into the basket stanchion. Embiid crumpled to the floor and laid there for at least 30 seconds, and it occurred to me that if he were seriously injured in that moment and somehow never played again—after three years of waiting for his career to begin in earnest, after his performance in L.A., exceeding the hype in every conceivable way, in the middle of dominating the most talented team the league has seen—it would have been the wildest basketball story of the past 30 years.
Instead, Embiid pulled himself to his feet and walked to the bench. He was fine. And we can all continue watching a story that is likely to get even wilder from here.
Embiid didn’t begin playing basketball until he was 16. Within four years he was a top-three pick. He likely would’ve gone No. 1 in 2014 if not for injury concerns, but then, those concerns were warranted. Because of complications from a fractured foot, Embiid couldn’t take the court for two years. He played 31 games in year three.
Even this season his health remains uncertain. He rests on back-to-backs, and he still plays a shade less than 30 minutes per game, and yes, he’ll still have the occasional high-impact collision that sends all of Philadelphia into a state of paralysis.
The twist is that over the past two seasons, it’s become obvious he was worth every gamble. He’s worth all the anxiety and any precaution it takes to keep him on the court. At seven feet with power that was supposed to be obsolete in today’s NBA, along with footwork, speed and shooting that’s allowed him to adapt seamlessly to the small-ball era, Embiid’s one of the most gifted players to ever enter the league.
His production through the first two seasons has already settled several years of very loud tanking debates in Philadelphia and around the NBA. Along with Ben Simmons, he’s helped transform the Sixers from a punch line into a genuine contender in the East. This season when Embiid is on the floor, Philly has an offensive rating (109.6) that would rank fifth best among all NBA teams, with a defensive rating (101.9) that would rank seventh.
Off the court he’s been every bit as prolific. Before this season began, Sixers head coach Brett Brown told SI that really, there are two versions of Embiid. “I’ve seen the effect he has on people,” Brown said, “and the effect he has on the team. They’re different.” Among his teammates Embiid’s dominance gives everyone more space, makes everyone more confident. “With the fans,” Brown explained, “he aspires to be a man of the people. He enjoys the interactions. He enjoys having fun. He enjoys Twitter.”
Embiid is sort of the perfect superstar for the Internet age. One minute you will see a viral video of him running the streets of Philadelphia. Then he's playing tennis in a local park. Then you’ll see him on Twitter, lecturing Hassan Whiteside about the Heat center’s subpar plus-minus. Then he’s back on the court with a hand to his ear, telling Philly fans he can’t hear them, playing to the crowd like a pro wrestler. During an era in which everything is news, Embiid news is consistently more entertaining than just about anything in sports.
“Basketball is about having fun,” Embiid told SI before the season. “If I’m not having fun, I’m not going to play well. If the crowd is not into the game, if I don’t get them going, I’m going to fall asleep. To me, it's all about having fun.” For a player who lived through two-and-a-half seasons rehabbing injuries on training tables in Philadelphia, this attitude might be more profound than it seems.
Once you realize that what you love can be taken away at any time, enjoying every moment becomes the best way to stay sane. “So he walks this line,” Brown continued, “being all that to the team and to me, and then you get out of it, and he’s got a playful side. He’s very endearing. And he’s good. The package is very, very special.”
And this is just the beginning.