Talking about the Sixers the last few years — at least in this sect of the community — has often felt like an “us against the world” exercise. With the team deep into a rebuilding project, the assumption from most fans was that national guys either ignored or did not care about what was going down in Philadelphia.
But with the Sixers’ return to national television looming, I wanted to test that theory. In a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, TNT’s Kevin Harlan assured me that wasn’t the case.
“I think because we’re all NBA fans at TNT and we’re watching as much as we can, loving the league as it develops through a season, and with the intrigue that surrounds the way the Sixers are doing business, and some of the kids they’ve got... even though they have not been on [national TV] for whatever it is, three years, we’re definitely watching,” Harlan says.
Sure, maybe he wasn't seeing incremental gains from the likes of Jerami Grant the last few years, but he insists it’s not due to lack of interest. “Do I know intricately what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis? I can’t say that I do. But there’s a lot of teams like that we just don’t follow a ton because quite frankly we’re dealing with playoff teams every year, the top 16 teams in the league, there’s a lot of volume even with that... but I’m very curious to see how it’s going to play out there.”
Like most people following the Sixers, Harlan lit up when talking about Joel Embiid. He’s a Kansas grad, so the fellow Jayhawk was deeply invested in the stories surrounding Embiid before he ever set foot on campus in Lawrence. If you let him tell it, what we’re seeing today is exactly what he expected all along.
“The numbers you’ve seen in the limited times he’s played do not surprise me,” Harlan says. “He was a freak at Kansas when he was healthy and changed games, and I expect that should he be able to keep his health in the NBA he’ll have the same imprint. You just can’t watch him play and not think that, all things being equal, he could be a dominating player.”
That optimism comes with the usual kicker — we have to see him stay healthy first before jumping all in.
“He needs minutes, he needs to play, and right now he’s on a pitch count,” says Harlan. “That’s a great step forward, but until he’s playing every night and going through the rigors of the league and a season, you really don’t know what you’re going to get. I think that’s the gamble that all these teams take. But Embiid has put up some individual games that have been very impressive. I’m hopeful we’re going to get that on Thursday night.”
Tonight’s game against the Timberwolves is monumental for a few reasons. It marks the Sixers’ return to the TNT slate after an extended absence, but it’s also Embiid’s first opportunity to match up against a player in Karl-Anthony Towns who should become a chief rival of his.
Harlan sees seeds for intrigue beyond the individual matchup, right down to the very nature of the rebuilding style used by both franchises.
“They both have tried in so many ways to use the draft to build,” says Harlan. “Flip Saunders began that before his unfortunate death, and Tom Thibodeau is a buyer of that work. Ultimately you get the kind of kid right out of college into your system, you train him, you teach him, you school him the way you want him to play, so all he’s heard is that style from the moment he’s gone through your doors.”
For Harlan, the high-caliber youth and this style of rebuilding sets the stage for what could become a fun, out-of-conference rivalry as the players age and develop.
“We’re talking about big-name players. Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons eventually, some of the biggest names that have come out of the college ranks. The great things the colleges provide is you continue to follow the story of the player once they get to the pros,” he says. “We see it in the NFL, but we really see it from college to the pro level in basketball, there’s a real fascination with a guy like Simmons who plays at LSU and then we’re normally drawn to what he’s going to do in the NBA.”
“Because of that, that intrigue, especially the way they’ve accumulated these things in Philadelphia -- and Minnesota to a degree — [the intrigue] follows them into the pros. So absolutely we’re going to follow them, and they could, if they all stay, all hands on deck, [a long-term rivalry] could be the case.”
The shadow of Kevin Durant (and LeBron James before him) looms over that possibility for Harlan. He's fully aware of the various avenues available to star free agents, and he cautions against getting too far ahead of ourselves. “But it’d be nice to think,” he says, “that they’d all stay, that these two teams will rise, and that this could be a wonderful rivalry.”
Bullish as Harlan is on his fellow Jayhawk, I had to ask who he’d choose between Embiid or Towns if he had his wish. His answer might disappoint Sixers fans.
“I think it’s hard to deny Towns. You talk to scouts, you talk to coaches, and they all put him in that top three, four [big men] in the league. The position isn’t what it once was, it maybe doesn’t hold the glamour that it once had... but Karl-Anthony Towns is a special player. Flip Saunders when he drafted him at Minnesota knew he was getting -- I don’t know if he’s generational — but if he stays healthy, he’s going to have a remarkable career.”
Harlan compares Towns to that top tier of bigs — Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and so forth — rattling off names of players Sixers fans hope will be fodder for Embiid’s exploits down the road.
He offers an olive branch to those who would prefer to roll the dice on Embiid’s future: “There aren’t too many guys built like him who have the upside he has. The intrigue level is probably a little higher than Towns.”
But — there's always a but — “sometimes you have to show me you can go through a full season and prove you can be a dominant, successful force at that position.”
Logical though the pick may be, I don't know if I could make the same choice. Foot injuries and all, Embiid has become the personification of Philadelphia’s last few seasons, a young man brimming with upside but possessing potentially devastating defects. He suffered right along with us — albeit on an NBA player’s salary — as Philadelphia’s team labored through hard times.
Talking with Harlan and hearing the neutral perspective reinforced those feelings for me. Embiid’s jovial nature in the face of personal turmoil and a mountain of losses has been uplifting for a fanbase looking for someone to lift them back to prominence. It appears as though he immersed himself within weird corners of Sixers internet during the time he spent off the court the last couple seasons, and choosing against him at this point feels like backstabbing a member of your crew. We all attempt to be objective about our teams and players on some level, but it's hard to apply that to the giant Shirley-Temple slurper Philadelphia has come to know and love.
I love watching Karl-Anthony Towns play basketball. I feel fortunate as a basketball fan that I can watch him and Andrew Wiggins grow together under Tom Thibodeau’s watch in Minnesota, with the hope they eventually morph into a defensive juggernaut.
And I hope Joel Embiid beats them both like a cheap piñata, tonight, tomorrow and for as long as he continues to wear a Sixers uniform.