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When will the Sixers feel safe enough to build around Joel Embiid?

The team’s confidence in Embiid will be revealed if (and when) they go all-in on their big man.

NBA: Preseason-Philadelphia 76ers at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Two years worth of waiting has done nothing to quiet the Joel Embiid hype. If anything, his absence has only amplified the confidence of those left believing in the Sixers’ blue-chip center. Without a lowlight reel filled with errors and things to improve, highlights of college dominance and workout feats were all the public had.

Now we have seven games worth of Embiid against NBA competition, and the most compelling question left seems to be this — how soon will the Sixers rip off the band-aid and turn the keys over to their 7’2” colossus?

The Sixers’ center problem is about investment of resources above all else. This presents problems in the present and future.

Short-term, everyone is aware of the minutes crunch at the pivot that will force two of the team’s biggest investments to spend more time on the sideline than they’d hope. Long-term, that creates a domino effect of problems. As we’ve already seen with Nerlens Noel, the clash of egos, future earnings, and role with the team will leave players dissatisfied with the arrangement.

Noel’s unhappiness is the worst case playing out, but the best case isn’t exactly a rosy proposition — if the Sixers end up dishing out big extensions for Embiid and Jahlil Okafor in a couple years, they will have a lot of resources locked up in two players who are odd fits at best. This is a high-class problem to have, sure, but it paints the franchise into a corner as they build the rest of their roster.

Noel and/or Okafor serving as “insurance” for Embiid has been part of the case for keeping them around. This forces you to believe in a premise that’s inherently faulty; if you don’t believe in Embiid’s structural integrity and ability to hold up over the long-term, him playing a couple of seasons (or even one year) of healthy basketball shouldn’t change your outlook on his future. There’s not a magic number or defined timeframe for when his body would give out. Instead, his bones will face constant tests of probability, and his playing in 60+ games this season will not change that.

If you don’t believe in Embiid now, that’s fine! There are cases like his which have ended in doom more often than not, so applying conservatism to his outlook is understandable. What doesn’t make sense is treating him like a ticking time bomb and then taking the wait-and-see approach. If you’re not going to attempt to diffuse the damn thing, start running so you’re outside of the blast radius.

I’m all-in on Embiid. It was easy to say this in the summer when he was more idea than basketball player, and everything I’ve seen so far just confirms what I already believed.

It’s worth repeating a passage here that I included in a story about applying patience to Ben Simmons’ recovery:

Liberty Ballers was told last summer that Embiid’s second foot surgery was not a “do-or-die” procedure. According to multiple sources familiar with the decision-making process, the call to put Embiid under the knife again was an odds play. Rather than roll the dice on what was described to LB as a “50-50” chance of Embiid staying healthy, they chose to extend his time on the sideline in order to maximize his chance at having a long, healthy NBA career.

All we’re ever dealing with in evaluating talent is probability. When the word “upside” is used in conjunction with an NBA prospect, the percent chance they have of cashing in on their talent is as important as the talent itself. The same idea applies to sifting through labels like “injury prone”; even if you believe there’s now a 90-10 chance Embiid can stay healthy (and I do, based on what we know), the injury will look and feel no different because of the likelihood. Them’s the breaks, literally and figuratively.

Were Embiid a lesser talent, moving him on to be another team’s worry would be easy enough. But I just can’t watch a guy his size do things like this...

...and say, “I’m not willing to take this risk.” I can’t watch him throwing in put-back slams, commanding double teams, and anchoring a competent defense after two years off and defer my decision. We begged for the Sixers to sell out in order to obtain a franchise player, and every sign points to Embiid having that caliber of talent.

If you aren’t willing to take the risk to build around him, you’d be better off moving on from him entirely. The Sixers’ escape from basketball purgatory will have only pushed them into different water-treading territory if they are constantly hedging against his doom. You need players that can enhance his shine and share the court with him, not big men who deserve time and space to blossom the team can’t offer them.

Embiid is the rarest of prospects, the type of big man who can actually put up 20 and 10 while locking down his team’s paint on the defensive end. He has no glaring flaws, no stone hands off which passes will bounce, no lacking awareness that teams can exploit in pick-and-rolls. He has played basketball for just a few years and has flown past lifers in his field. He is a savant with a problem that has consumed some of history’s most promising talent — he doesn’t know if his own body will cooperate with his goals.

In listening to them speak, it’s clear that Bryan Colangelo, Brett Brown and the Sixers staff at-large believe in Embiid. The only way we’ll know they have unwavering faith, however, is if they move on from their other highly-touted bigs in order to accentuate the skills of the yeti-sized man from Cameroon.

I believe in Joel Embiid. I might be wrong to feel this way, and the odds might tilt unfavorably at any given moment. But watching him play and knowing what I do, I’d rather push my chips in on him and risk total failure than look back in 5-10 years and wonder why better efforts weren’t made to push him to the top.

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