For the second time in as many drafts during his tenure as 76ers general manager, Sam Hinkie acquired an injured big man on Draft Night 2014, selecting Joel Embiid with the third-overall pick. While Sixers fans will have to wait until Summer League to get a glimpse of him playing in a real basketball game, they were treated all season long through the magic of Vine to glimpses of the Cameroonian's potential:
Embiid's pregame workouts this season became the Wells Fargo Center's version of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa bashing homers out of the park during batting practice back in 1998. I was fortunate enough to cover a few Sixers games in person this season. While some traditional media folk would (rightly) hit up the open locker rooms to try to extract some info from coaches and players, I'd dart towards the court and try to capture an appetizer of Embiid's talent on video.
I'd see Embiid out there running through drills with player development coach Sean Rooks, honing his craft on the low block, as well as flashing some range that gives hope for him possessing a legitimate mid-range game.
Just going off the Vine above, my imagination started ramping up, picturing Embiid spinning away from Nikola Vucevic's faulty defense in the post, while Nerlens Noel transforms into an evolutionary power forward in the Serge Ibaka mold as a player who can both protect the rim and stretch the floor.
It wasn't always that way though.
The first home game I covered this season was back on January 13th against the Atlanta Hawks (shameless plug for my Kyle Korver feature). I watched Embiid a bit before tipoff and he did seem a little thick, but that's expected when a player has a broken bone in his foot, prohibiting him from doing the sort of intense conditioning exercises that an NBA lifestyle demands. Just a few days later on January 18th, Keith Pompey's story from The Philadelphia Inquirer hit that the organization wasn't happy with his rehabilitation process.
With the public thinking that the Sixers blew this lottery pick and that Embiid lacked maturity, he took it personal. He began to get out on the court to work with Rooks earlier each night, shedding some weight as he regaining his mobility and began showcasing what made him such a prized prospect back Kansas.
When I got back around to press row of the Wells Fargo Center on March 6th, I thought I was watching a total different guy out there than the one I encountered a few weeks before.
He was cut. He was swift. He was moving with fluidity and draining threes with the physique of a dominant NBA big man. If this were his pre-draft workout, he would've gone first overall in most drafts over the past two decades. Those Vines of him were getting people in Philly excited as well.
I found myself back at the WFC on March 13th. As I made my way to see Embiid practice, I noticed the first few rows of the lower bowl of the arena were packed much more than normal. I then put two and two together. They were here for him! People were coming to the games just to watch this dude warm up.
As I discussed a bit earlier in the week about Dario Saric's play in the Euroleague playoffs, these moments where the Sixers' young talent flash their potential perfectly encapsulate the last two seasons of the team's rebuilding plan. It's the hope that Embiid has a full medical recovery and makes good on the lofty Hakeem Olajuwon comparisons that have been thrown at him, that either he, or Noel, or a 2015 first rounder, can be that special player that carries the franchise out of the league's basement to a point of championship contention and make these years of racking up loses worth it.
The time for that is not today, so Sixers fans are only left with Vines of dream shakes and three pointers to carry them until then.