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Wembanyama might be the future, but Joel Embiid reminded everyone who’s the present

On a night where everyone was focused on Joel Embiid vs. Victor Wembanyama, the reigning MVP completely stole the show, dropping a franchise-record 70 points.

San Antonio Spurs v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama, the 2023 first overall pick and 7-foot-4 unicorn, made his first appearance against the Sixers in Philadelphia on Monday. On the bench was former Sixers head coach Brett Brown, now an assistant on Gregg Popovich’s staff.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Joel Embiid was a tantalizing young big man that Brown was charged with fostering. While Embiid was beset by injuries for two years before making his NBA debut, Brown knew how uniquely gifted the team’s prized prospect was. By the end of his time here, Brown took to calling Embiid “the crown jewel” of the Sixers’ offense.

Man, he wasn’t kidding.

It was only fitting that Brown was in attendance for Embiid’s pièce de résistance. The reigning MVP dropped 70 points, a new career high and a new Sixers single-game franchise record, in a 133-123 win over the Spurs.

One of the funniest parts of the night: Embiid never came out to warm up at his usual time. All the developmental staff and equipment crew left the court. It left several media members confused, wondering if Embiid was a late scratch — an all-too-familiar scenario when covering the Sixers over the last eight years.

The reality is Embiid just had a weird day, arrived to the arena a little later than usual, and decided to forgo his usual warmup routine.

“I think I’m just taking whatever the defense is giving me,” Embiid said. “I just try to prepare myself … well, tonight I didn’t prepare myself; I didn’t warm up. (Smiles.) But most of the time, I just watch a lot of film and just try to see what defenses do.”

This game was billed like a heavyweight bought with two freakishly gifted large humans going toe-to-toe.

But by halftime, people were less focused on that and paying greater attention to the 34 points Embiid had already posted.

“The time that it kind of hit me was the start of the third,” Nick Nurse said postgame. “I think he had a bucket and an and-one in the first minute. And I was like, ‘Wait a minute, he’s already got 37, 38, something like that. … Geez, that’s a lot with a whole half to go.’ … I was like, ‘This is probably going to be a big number tonight.’”

When Embiid got up to 40 points with a little over nine minutes left in the third quarter, it felt like it could be one of those nights for the big fella — but it wasn’t.

No, this was something special. Even for a player who routinely makes otherworldly feats feel like the norm, what Embiid did Monday night was astonishing. As he’s been doing all season long, Embiid reminded everyone he’s the most dominant force in the NBA.

With time ticking down in the third and Embiid sitting on 56 points, the ball was in his hands. The Sixers’ offense had become a little ragged over the last couple minutes of the period, but when in doubt, get the ball to No. 21. With Zach Collins guarding against both a drive or mid-range jumper and the rest of the Spurs clogging the paint, Embiid busted out his step-back jumper, nailing a three on the left wing. That put him at 59 points, tying his career high.

Fifty-nine points.

Through three quarters.

The question then became whether the Spurs would keep the game close enough for Embiid to check back in. As we’ve seen many times this season, Embiid has done a lot of work through three quarters and Tyrese Maxey and company have allowed him to take many fourth quarters off.

“I literally had that in the back of my mind,” Maxey said. “I didn’t want us to get too much separation to where he couldn’t come back in and break the record, but we also had to keep the lead. It was a fine line.”

Monday was not an early rest night for Embiid. While it never felt like the Sixers had a chance to lose, San Antonio did manage to trim the margin to 12. That made it an easy choice for Nurse to put Embiid back in the game with 6:38 remaining.

Nurse called a timeout and the fans rose to their feet in anticipation of Embiid returning to the game. “MVP” chants rang out on almost every touch. Every basket was followed by a deafening roar. Embiid has had a complicated relationship with the fans at times, but all of those in attendance were pulling for the superstar center. To the point where Danuel House, Jr. was booed for taking a wide-open corner three.

After a steal with under two minutes to go, Embiid went coast to coast, finishing with a smooth layup around Spurs guard Devin Vassell.

Embiid had done it. Seventy points.

It was fitting that Embiid dropped 70 points on the 18-year anniversary of the late Kobe Bryant, his favorite player while growing up in Cameroon, scoring 81 against the Toronto Raptors. Embiid’s 70 points broke Wilt Chamberlain’s Sixers franchise record of 68. Only nine players in the entire history of the NBA have scored 70 points. Not even Michael Jordan or LeBron James reached that mark.

These are the names Embiid is rightfully alongside.

“I keep telling everybody we cannot take this for granted,” Maxey said. “Not just as teammates, not just as an organization, but as fans — even if you’re not a fan of Philadelphia but you’re just a fan of basketball. Can’t take Jo for granted, man. What he’s doing right now is special.”

After the game, Brown and his former pupil shared a quick word and warm embrace. Embiid went through a lot, on and off the court, early in his NBA career.

What a wonderful full-circle moment for Brown to witness this.

“It’s always good to see him,” Embiid said of Brown, “but I’m kind of glad I did it in front of him so he can kind of see the product of what he created.”

Wembanyama, who called Embiid’s performance “inspiring,” is living up to the hype. He looks every bit like the generational talent that was promised. Brown will surely be calling the Frenchman “the crown jewel” of the Spurs’ offense in due time.

But don’t forget who earned that title first.

“It’s funny because this was on the same night [Kobe] had 81, and that was my favorite player,” Embiid said. “When I started, the guys that I was looking up to, they were doing all this. So if [Wembanyama] says it’s inspiring, I hope that in a couple years — hopefully when I don’t have to guard him and I’m out of the league — he’s able to do the same thing and go out and break all these records, and possibly break Wilt’s record of 100 points.”

Victor Wembanyama looks like the future of the league, but on Monday night in Philadelphia, Joel Embiid reminded everyone who is the present.

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