The Sixers’ practice facility on the waterfront in Camden, New Jersey, is state of the art and one of the best in the league. It’s befitting of a leading MVP candidate, a former MVP and the other talented players that have come through it.
It wasn’t that long that the Sixers didn’t have a facility of their own. They held workouts in the cramped gym of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine — or PCOM, to those in the know.
It was there where several of us got our first look at Joel Embiid as an NBA player. He’d missed the first two seasons of his professional career because of a fractured navicular bone in his right foot. The injury was often considered a death sentence for the career of big men. It’s why the seven-footer out of Kansas dropped from the presumed No. 1 pick to the Sixers’ laps at No. 3 overall.
Even as Embiid embarked on his journey to his first NBA game, there were plenty that doubted it would ever happen.
Randomly skimming through old pictures on my phone. From May of 2016. At this point there were people who thought Joel Embiid might never play a game. pic.twitter.com/0n9YjydfyG— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) December 31, 2019
The charismatic center from Cameroon went from almost mythical in a dusty old gym for a franchise desperate for relevancy to one of the best players on the planet, attempting to carry that very franchise to its first championship in nearly four decades.
As one of his former teammates so succinctly put it after Tuesday’s 45-point, 13-rebound performance:
Give him the damn MVP.
If you want to talk numbers, we can talk numbers. That outing against the Pacers was Embiid’s 12th 40-point, 10-rebound performance of the season. That ties an NBA single-season record. The other two players to accomplish the feat were former Sixer Moses Malone and Russell Westbrook — and both won the MVP in those seasons.
Embiid currently leads the league in scoring at 30.4 points a game with three regular-season games remaining. If he finishes the season above 30 and holds on for the scoring title, it’ll be fairly unprecedented. The last center to win the scoring title was Shaquille O’Neal back in 2000. Embiid would be the first international player to do so. He’d also be the first center to average over 30 points a game since the merger. All that while being double-teamed on 33.5 percent of his team’s offensive possessions this season. That’s the second-highest percentage in the league and by far the most for a post player.
And from a historical standpoint, Embiid averages more points per minute than any player in NBA history. More than Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kevin Durant — more than anyone. For a player to possibly finish his career with a number that high and never win an MVP would be a travesty.
The offense would be impressive enough, but Embiid also happens to be one of the most impactful defenders in the league. Beyond the fact that he’s fifth in the league in rebounding and ninth in blocks, Embiid is the anchor for everything the Sixers do defensively. A task that has been made exceedingly more difficult with the absence and subsequent departure of Ben Simmons. But even without the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year, the Sixers remain a top-10 defensive team. Embiid himself has the third-lowest defensive rating in the NBA.
Speaking of Simmons, if you’re looking for a narrative in your MVP candidate, Embiid’s got you covered there. We don’t need to relitigate the entire Simmons situation, but what we can talk about is the void the three-time All-Star’s absence created and how Embiid never wanted to use it as an excuse.
Embiid has talked in the past about being a leader. The whole situation has shone a light on his growth in that department.
“I don’t see it as ‘This is my team,’” Embiid said all the way back on media day. “I don’t care. I don’t care about any of that. That has nothing to do with me. I’m not trying to live in the spotlight.”
Embiid was then asked about his comments after Game 7, pointing out that The Pass™ was the turning point in a disappointing loss:
“I don’t have any regrets because I don’t feel like I put anybody in a situation where they had to feel bad,” Embiid said. “But at the end of the day, just like I just said, we’ve got to have self-awareness and figure out ways how to get better as players and as a team. I’m figuring it out; I’m not perfect.”
Before the blockbuster that brought James Harden to Philadelphia, Embiid had the Sixers just 2.5 games out of the one seed in an Eastern Conference that’s proven to be a bloodbath. Since that trade, Embiid has had to adjust his game to accommodate the 2017-18 MVP. All the while, his level of play never dropped off.
The story of how Embiid got to this point is incredible — or “like a movie,” how he often describes it. He was a skinny 16-year-old that had his eyes set on a career as a professional volleyball player before Luc Mbah a Moute and a host of others helped turned him into a force on the basketball court.
Embiid is one of the most confident athletes you’ll find, which is why it’s so remarkable to hear him tell stories about how he lacked confidence in high school while he was first learning the game. Or how he told Kansas head coach Bill Self to redshirt him, only for Self to proclaim that he believed Embiid had a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick.
When the injuries happened there was legitimate concern that Embiid would never play or that his career would be derailed similarly to Greg Oden. Embiid defied those odds. He made it through The Process, Collargate, front office and roster upheaval, playoff disappointments, a coaching change, the Simmons saga, and came out clean on the other side like Andy Dufresne headed to the Pacific.
So, as “Simba” said:
Give him the damn MVP.
Whether it’s numbers, narrative or the eye test, he’s earned it.