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May We Never Take Joel Embiid for Granted

LA Clippers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

This is not a painstaking clap-back against the mainstream media and prospective voters who seem to have all but penciled in Nikola Jokic as this year’s MVP. I care not to spend a thousand words pounding the table for Joel Embiid’s candidacy, his defense, his gargantuan impact on the court. I won’t be delving into how we ought to actually define “valuable” in present-day basketball.

I’m not here to contextualize Embiid’s dominant season in the pantheon of historic NBA performances. I won’t be embedding screenshots from Basketball Reference in an effort to draw comparisons between Joel’s 2021 season and the likes of Wilt, MJ, Shaq, or others.

Nor am I here to break down the X’s and O’s of exactly how and why Embiid has made this most meaningful leap.

I am here to celebrate the fact that Joel Embiid is a Philadelphia 76er.

Because who he is — and who he has become — both on and off the court, completely exceeds any of our most hopeful projections not only for Embiid’s career, but for the vaunted ‘Process’ altogether.

Philadelphia 76ers V Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Think back to June 27, 2013. NBA draft night. It was a night that represented as large a moment of organizational sea change as we’ve seen in recent league history, when newly-minted General Manager Sam Hinkie began dismantling the ever-mediocre Philadelphia 76ers. He traded the team’s best player, Jrue Holiday, in exchange for Nerlens Noel — a bouncy and high-ceiling defensive prospect slated to miss the entire 2013-14 season with a torn ACL — and a first-round pick in the following year’s draft.

The message was clear: the Sixers’ new brass was prepared to go to the bottom in order to get to the top.

After that, of course, Hinkie jettisoned the rest of the veteran mainstays on the Sixers, with Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young all finding new homes in the league in due time.

Replacing the players most responsible for the good-but-not-great teams of the early 2010s was a cadre of fresh faces determined to find a place in the NBA. Some were first-round picks (Noel, Dario Saric, Jahlil Okafor), some were second-round picks (Jerami Grant, Richaun Holmes), and some had gone undrafted (TJ McConnell, Robert Covington, Hollis Thompson).

One was Joel Embiid, now 26 years old and one of the unquestioned best players in basketball.

No one reading this story needs even a brief recap of Embiid’s bumpy road to stardom once he was drafted by Philadelphia with the 3rd overall pick in the 2014 draft. The surgeries, the death of his brother, the weight, the shirley temples, the meniscus — all of it adds up to one of the most unlikely stories of a player who simply refused to quit on himself and his dream in pursuit of NBA preeminence.

But something else happened along that journey.

Embiid forged a bond with Philadelphia and with Sixers fans that proved stronger than any hurdle lying in his path.

First, he struck a chord with the city on social media, endearing himself to the Philly faithful by displaying his magnetic personality and sense of humor on Twitter. He pursued both Rihanna and Kim Kardashian, and recruited LeBron to Philadelphia.

Of course, Embiid had the time to develop his heralded online point of view because of the consecutive foot fractures that kept him off the court for the first two seasons after he was drafted. But this persona combined with the tantalizing talent and potential Embiid showed at Kansas and via scant practice videos was red meat for Process fans desperate for something to believe in, desperate for their guy.

So they fell in love with him. They fell in love with what he might be someday. And when anti-Hinkie traditionalists would lambast the Process in the media, or malign Embiid in scurrilous takedown pieces on the internet, Embiid’s new fans would go to bat for him as one of their own. He hadn’t even played yet, but Embiid quickly became a metaphor for Hinkie’s plan. He was the ultimate lottery ticket. He may never play, but if he does — watch out. Because Embiid’s potential represented the ability for the Sixers to reach a height that it hadn’t since Allen Iverson donned its jersey. The calculus for Process acolytes was rather simple: in the NBA, you can’t compete for a title without a superstar. The only way for Philadelphia to bring in a superstar, at that time, was through the draft.

But for a long time, it was all theoretical. It was a fairy tale.

Did you see that video of Embiid? He can shoot! Man, if he gets healthy ...

Those years of belief and blind faith turned Joel into one of us. He saw us in him, too.

His pain was our pain.

Thus, his joy was also ours. Just watch this and listen to the fans in attendance, finally watching their guy take the court in their city for the first time:

I’m not ashamed to say that when I saw his post announcing that he and his girlfriend, Anne, had welcomed their first child, I swelled with pride and joy for Joel — a person I’ve never actually met in real life.

We know what happened next. There were some more obstacles, some more injuries. Some elite play, All-NBA and All-Defense selections. Playoff elation and playoff agony.

Through it all, Joel has maintained his unparalleled connection with the fans in Philadelphia. He has used his voice and his wallet to affect real change for the people in the city who have supported him along the way.

These aren’t PR-fueled, calculated, nice guy moves to feign care for his home fans. The internet is littered with earnest interviews wherein Embiid discusses his deep connection to Philadelphia fans and his everlasting desire to play only for the Sixers.

Today, Embiid is in the midst of his finest professional season and in the thick of the MVP race for his Eastern Conference-leading Sixers.

So think back to draft night in 2013.

If someone had asked you what you most hoped would result from Hinkie’s experiment, I’m sure many would say a championship trophy. Maybe, more broadly, sustained contention in the NBA, led by a player or players who are good enough for long enough to make the Philadelphia 76ers really matter.

But I don’t think we could have ever have hoped for someone like Joel Embiid.

We hoped for a great player, sure, but someone as skilled on both ends of the court as Embiid? Someone as savvy and determined as Embiid? Someone as eager to improve and look inward during times of strife as Embiid?

What about as a person? Could we fans have hoped for a player that good who was this entrenched in our community and invested in our fanbase? Who speaks time and again about giving his all for the city of Philadelphia and taking pride in wearing a Sixers uniform?

I don’t think so.

So, I don’t know that Joel Embiid’s Sixers will ever win a championship. I don’t know that he’ll win the MVP this year or ever. I don’t know if he’ll ever play 75 games in a season, and I don’t know if his body will allow him to play another decade in the league.

That fairy tale we all dreamt up in 2013? It hasn’t exactly come to fruition just yet. But what has is much better: we get to root for Joel Embiid. He is ours and we are his.

And I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

LA Clippers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

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