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Sixers-Bucks Preview: ‘The Process’ returns to combat ‘The Greek Freak’

Joel Embiid will look to boost his All-Star Game résumé against Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid, singlehandedly, might have made a regular season, middle-of-January affair with the Bucks appear to have incredible importance. Early dominance gave way to NBA prognosticators labeling him as Rookie of the Year frontrunner, but he’s seeking greater heights. “The Process” is pushing for an All-Star Game bid, hoping to become the first rookie since Blake Griffin in 2011 to appear in the spectacle.

The fanbase has tirelessly used social media to give Embiid a chance before NBA personnel deems him worthy, but the 7-foot-2 rookie sensation has backed up his case recently. Over the month of January, he’s catalyzed a Sixers breakthrough in the standings, serving as a primary option in the post and remaining a rim-protecting presence.

Playing in the parameters of his minutes restriction, Embiid has made extrapolation a fun argument, with a 19.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG, and 2.3 BPG clip in just 25.2 MPG. His counting stats, additionally, are exciting, but his game film has been special as well. Whether it’s corralling a board, running down the floor in transition and converting layups, keeping bigs honest with his three-point ability or getting his arms fully above the rim for a rejection, Embiid is a different breed of big than his ASG competitors (Hassan Whiteside, Kevin Love).

Regardless of whether he’s picked for the main event of All-Star weekend or not, Embiid has surpassed expectations, with everyone fawning over his talent, upside and two-way prowess. Fortunately for the Milwaukee Bucks, they also have a budding superstar whose star qualities have lifted a fanbase.

Joel Embiid is a rare breed at center in the Eastern Conference; Giannis Antetokounmpo is another athletic, wunderkind forward who has reinvigorated a franchise in the Central division.

He’s arguably the closest thing to LeBron James the league has witnessed at the small forward position and Antetokounmpo has starred, averaging 23.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game this season. Akin to Embiid’s incredibly athletic displays, Antetokounmpo also has converted plays that few players at his position could perform and finish.

Already dealing with Karl Anthony-Towns and Isaiah Thomas this month, the Sixers have a problem on their hands in the Greek Freak when they travel to Milwaukee Monday. It’ll be the first time the two young talents meet up, but this rivalry could bloom into something special when both teams reach their ceilings.

With Embiid back in the fold, Jahlil Okafor’s starting role appears to be just a one-game stint. The second-year center was a plus offensively (26 points, 10-of-16 shooting) Saturday night against Washington, after missing the previous four games. Embiid’s presence complicates Okafor’s rotation status, with Nerlens Noel (7.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 23.5 PER) looking competent since his return from multiple DNP-CDs.

Noel’s spirits, regarding the team, are high at the moment, but Brett Brown has to decide whether to give Okafor a portion of Noel’s minutes or have his active backup center continue his role. Monday will be telling.

Ersan Ilyasova (14.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 45.1 FG%) hasn’t stressed over his position in the rotation. The starting power forward had a tepid shooting performance this month until Saturday, when he showed more activity on offense and crashed the offensive glass more. It’s not his forte, but the willingness to try a different approach is commendable. Defensively, he was overwhelmed against Washington and Milwaukee should provide another challenge.

Jabari Parker has shed the “bust” label that was prematurely placed on him and his ability to stretch the floor has complemented Giannis on offense. Averaging a career-high 20.8 PPG and shooting 42.1 percent from deep, the undersized 4 has progressed offensively. However, the persisting challenges on the other end have limited his upside for the Bucks. Ilyasova won’t expose him off the dribble, with Parker struggling with containment, but his floor spacing could present some issues for the former No. 2 overall pick.

In the backcourt, T.J. McConnell (4.8 PPG, 5.4 APG, 12.0 PER) would typically start, but he will miss Monday’s game with a wrist injury. Sergio Rodriguez (8.8 PPG, 5.8 APG) will likely get the start, with 10-day contract recipient Chasson Randle backing him up.

It’ll be interesting to see newly minted starting Bucks point guard Malcolm Brogdon (9.2 PPG, 3.8 APG), an unheralded second-round pick, and how he’ll thrive despite not being a primary facilitator. Brogdon -- like the injured McConnell -- is fighting for a starting gig for the remainder of the season.

The Sixers (12-26) and Bucks (20-19) have two stars looking to make an impression before fan voting closes for the All-Star Game. Tipoff starts at 3:30 p.m. EST.

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