Joel Embiid played just 31 games in his rookie season, but what a memorable 31 they were. The 23-year-old put together a lifetime worth of highlights in that short period of time with ridiculous dunks and pulverizing blocks, all while instilling hope in a city that forgot what good basketball players looked like.
We went back to try and find his ten best moments of the year. It wasn’t easy.
10. Embiid plays in an NBA game, scores first career points - Oct. 26 vs. Oklahoma City
After two very long years of waiting for Joel Embiid to take the court in a Sixers jersey, watching him finally step on the court for the 2016-17 season opener was the Process version of winning an NBA title.
His first career bucket - a beautiful turnaround jumper over the outstretched arm of Andre Roberson - was a perfect start. The Wells Fargo Center erupted and Embiid played to the crowd for the first of many times during his rookie season. After watching him at Kansas in 2014, it was evident Embiid had some shooting touch, but many expected his post play to be his bread and butter. For his face up game to be more polished than his post up moves was a bit surprising, and his first NBA points gave Sixers fans a taste of what was to come.
9. Embiid (technically) rejects LeBron James - Nov. 5 vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Yes, this undoubtedly should have been a goaltending call (also the reason I put it so low on this list), but this was the moment Embiid had officially announced to the NBA world that he was here, and he was for real. Few people in this world are able to reject a LeBron James shot attempt and live to tell about, and here was this 22-year-old kid from Cameroon vaporizing a layup from the best basketball player on the planet so hard the ball practically turned into dust particles. That’s a special moment regardless of its legality.
This was also the time I noticed Embiid was already getting the superstar treatment from referees. Between this play and the baseline swing through move on offense that he might as well file a patent for, he’s on the favorable end of a lot of whistles.
8. Embiid fakes and shakes Jeff Withey into oblivion - Nov. 7 vs. Utah Jazz
Poor Jeff Withey. The perfect prey to get caught up in a move like this. You could tell he wasn’t ready for whatever was to follow after one hard dribble from Embiid at the foul line sent him into an immediate backpedal. It’s not exactly “The Dream Shake” we saw Embiid flex at Kansas, but close enough. I’m expecting to see more moves like this in his sophomore season. Put em’ in a spin cycle, JoJo.
7. Embiid swats away Devin Booker’s weak floater - Nov. 19 vs. Phoenix Suns
This entire play just seems so effortless from Embiid. He casually glides across the lane and smacks Booker’s helpless floater attempt hard enough to hit the only Phoenix Suns fan sitting courtside on the fly. Those volleyball skills certainly come into play in a moment like that. Booker’s become a popular figure around the league for his scoring prowess, and for good reason. His 70 points against the Boston Celtics were the most scored by a single player since Kobe Bryant’s 81-point performance in 2006. But against the Sixers that night Booker was held to just 10 points on 13 shots. The rim protecting abilities of Embiid can certainly be attributed to that poor shooting performance.
6. Embiid brings down the roof at BMO Harris Bradley Center - Jan. 16 vs. Milwaukee Bucks
There are countless moments where Embiid did something that left you speechless, and this was one of them. Here’s Joel having enough coordination (for once) to high point an outlet pass from Dario Saric like a wide receiver, and take a dribble before depositing a dunk that likely resulted in some seismic activity. Other than the dunk my favorite part of this video is the man sitting on the baseline under the basket, who seems like he’s struggling to sort through his emotions.
Embiid would elicit a similar reaction from that same man in the fourth quarter by hammering home another hard dunk while also making sure he clotheslined Malcolm Brogdon in the process. That moment alone should’ve solidified him as Rookie of the Year.
5. Embiid and DeMarcus Cousins trade butt slaps - Dec. 26 vs. Sacramento Kings
Embiid had a ton of light-hearted moments on and off the court during his rookie season, but this may have been the most notable. In the middle of an ultra physical battle with the not-so-friendly DeMarcus Cousins, the pair showed each other some respect with two powerful butt slaps a piece. This was pretty funny, but the fact that he’s doing this with DeMarcus Cousins, who doesn’t seem to like anyone he has to share a court with, is pretty remarkable. If Marcus Smart tried to do that I think Cousins would’ve put him under the hardwood floor.
The fact that Embiid’s already garnered a ton of respect from some of the NBA’s most notable names is truly incredible, especially somebody as fickle as Boogie.
4. Embiid goes dunk face all over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist...
3. ...then obliterates Cody Zeller - Jan. 14 vs. Charlotte Hornets
These two come as a package deal on our list. The Michael Kidd-Gilchrist poster is just another victim on Embiid’s growing body count, but that block on Zeller...my goodness. Zeller not only had an extra step on Embiid, but had all his momentum going towards the rim. Embiid had to turn around, and still find a way to chase Zeller down. To not only beat Zeller to the rim but to smack the hell out of his dunk attempt with his left hand is insane. It goes to show just how much of a freak athlete Embiid is. I can only imagine the shock and horror that pulsated through Zeller’s body when he finally noticed Embiid on his periphery. I wouldn’t wish that feeling on no man.
2. Embiid’s block on Kyle Lowry seals the deal - Jan. 18 vs. Toronto Raptors
This moment is a little underrated on the spectrum of Embiid plays, but this play and this game was perhaps the highest point of the season for Sixers fans. The Sixers had started off the month of January 5-2, and were set to see what they were truly made of in a face off with one of the Eastern Conference’s elite powers. Embiid rose to the challenge that night with 26 points, nine rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a game-high point differential of +20. And with the game still hanging in the balance, Embiid shattered any chance of a Toronto comeback by stuffing a Kyle Lowry floater attempt. Embiid’s block subsequently followed by his two free throws put the game on ice, and gave the Sixers a win so invigorating that many began to wonder if this team could compete for a playoff spot.
The month of January was the most exciting time period in Sixers basketball in over three years, as it provided the people with tangible hope for the future. Embiid had overtaken both the franchise and the city, and after that win against Toronto, anything felt possible with him at the helm.
1. Embiid dunks on Nene, goes off for career-high 32 points in final game of his rookie season - Jan. 27 vs. Houston
Naturally, nothing good in Philadelphia can last forever, and little did we know at the time that Embiid’s best game of the year would also be his last. He had injured his knee one week prior against the Portland Trail Blazers, and we’d later find out that Embiid had talked the medical staff into letting him play. In the grand scheme of things, it certainly wasn’t worth it, but Embiid certainly went out with a bang. He started the game with a vicious hammer over Nene (meniscus check), and never looked back. Embiid would finish with a career-high 32 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals.
The Sixers would go on to lose that game, but the result didn’t matter. In a national TV showcase, Philadelphia was finally able to display to the world that we had something special, and no, you can’t have him.
He’s ours, and as long as he can stay healthy, we plan on keeping it that way.