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Recap: Sixers Look Good In Joel Embiid’s Debut, But Lose to Thunder

He couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. “If Embiid is healthy, it’s over. It’s over.” “Nothing matters if Embiid can play.” “I wish we had gotten Towns, but it won’t matter that much if Embiid turns out.”

Then pre-season happened. Embiid put up ridiculous line after ridiculous line; he handled John Wall in space; he turned the Polish Hammer into a Polish Traffic Cone; he asked to be introduced as “The Process,” and dropped a TTP in every interview. Even as we tried our best to keep our expectations low, we couldn’t help but gush.

Just as we felt our attachment to JoJo could not grow any deeper, Lee Jenkins wrote an in-depth profile for SI, arriving the day of his NBA debut. Where, before, Embiid had been a (literally) larger than life avatar for our cult-ish exultations, suddenly the tragedy and humanity of his situation loomed large. The pain of dealing with his brother’s death; of learning a new language around those who dehumanized him; of being cut off from the people and things that he loved.

If Embiid had simply played a pedestrian 15 minutes last night, dayenu. But he never just does enough. The legend of Embiid is that he somehow keeps surpassing expectations.

He couldn’t possibly live up to the hype.

And he didn’t. He smashed the hype with a sledgehammer, like a crusted old fossil.

As far as debuts go, Embiid’s is one of the most memorable of the past few years. He put up an insane statline: 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocks, with 7-8 FT and about 4 “Wow” moments per quarter. Even more impressive, he did it against one of the premier defenders in the league, frustrating Steven Adams and matching the behemoth Kiwi physically all night long.

Buoyed by Embiid’s energy, the Sixers came out of the gates strong, opening up an 8 point lead by the first substitution. JoJo came out of the first four possessions with 3 rebounds and a steal, setting the table for what would prove to be an exception defensive performance. Henderson looked bouncy, the Sixers’ shooters were connecting, and Embiid was everywhere.

The subs coughed up the lead quickly, but the Sixers played the Thunder toe-to-toe from the opening whistle until the final one. After a relatively discouraging pre-season, it was the type of performance fans were hoping to see from the team this year— one in which the Sixers were overmatched but competitive, hopefully putting the embarrassing blowouts of yesteryear in the back mirror for good.

Some general thoughts:

  • Embiid had a lot of promising moments, but it was also clear that he has a long way to go. While his free throw shooting raised his efficiency, he was unable to get easy shots against Adams’ post defense, and his 6-16 shooting was something less than ideal. His 47.1% usage rate was also unheard of. He’ll need some easier looks and to include his teammates a bit more to be the defensive backbone the team is looking for.
  • On the defensive end, he showed more consistency, but also lacked an understanding of when to double, or how to guard on the perimeter. He gave up some easy rolls to Adams by doubling at the wrong time, an adjustment that will be learned with patience.
  • Okafor had a mixed performance off the bench. He hit his first three shots, showing off his repertoire and touch, but rarely looked to pass, and killed the offensive flow whenever he touched the ball. On defense, he missed rotations and struggled in help situations, but he showed some nice feet in isolation against Westbrook, and he sprinted back in transition for one of the first times that I can remember. Improved activity is a good sign, and I’ll hope to see more from him in the future.
  • Sergio Rodriguez provided exactly the type of playmaking the Sixers have been crying out for the last three years. As was expected, he lacked the athleticism to get into the lane, but he showed off great vision, putting teammates in easy-scoring positions they had not frequently experienced over the last three years. His 9 assists on 0 turnovers was an important look for a team desperate for that kind of control.
  • Dario struggled in his NBA debut. When his jumper isn’t falling, it’s tough for him to be impactful on the offensive end, and he was overwhelmed by OKC’s length under the hoop, shooting 0-36 on contested shots within 3 feet (all numbers approximate). Still, he showed good effort, grabbing 7 boards, and is sure to be a hit in the city.
  • STAUSKAS! He lives! Who could have guessed that the player who looked to scared to dribble over the last two years would suddenly rediscover the college handle that made him such an attractive prospect?! He missed his only 3-point attempt, but he abused Oladipo off the bounce, scoring 13 points on 5-6 shooting and adding an assist to boot. If that’s the player who shows up more regularly, than he will be fully deserving of his roster spot.
  • Jerami Grant still can’t finish. He also traded in his 3-pointers for long 2’s, which he shot more confidently and accurately, but are also a far worse shot.
  • Robert Covington played in a reduced role offensively compared to the last two years, and it was an important change for him. He looked far less out of his depth, shooting 2-4 from deep and continuing the ball’s movement around the perimeter. He also showed some nice passing which has hitherto been missing, most notably on a kickout to El Chacho on the opposite wing. The saved offensive energy allowed him to have a strong game defensively, and perhaps gave a preview of what his best role might be.
  • Westbrook is still good. He and Adams were OKC’s main battering rams, and batter they did.