Ford: Only Embiid can solve logjam at center

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Joel Embiid sits on the court during the Sixers' media day on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016 in Camden.

Joel Embiid, who has grown to 7-foot-2 and 276 pounds while waiting to play his next basketball game, isn't short on confidence, either.

"I think, personally, that I can do anything on the court," he said this week as the 76ers began their preseason training camp.

He passed much of the time during his long rehabilitations sitting sidelined at the Sixers games the last two years, sullenly taking in loss after loss. When he needed a lift, he would watch replays of his games with the Kansas Jayhawks.

"To this day, I still watch my college stuff because I love watching myself," Embiid said. "I'll watch myself probably every day."

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Those games aren't on kinescope, but they might as well be. It has been more than 30 months since Embiid's last game, a road loss at Oklahoma State. It was March 1, 2014, and Embiid was sidelined with a stress fracture in his back after that game. He has now sat out more consecutive months than the number of collegiate games he played, which was 28.

There is great anticipation for the coming Sixers season, and for the next step in the famous "process" that was birthed by Sam Hinkie and taken over in adoption by Bryan Colangelo. Ben Simmons, the top draft pick, is exciting. The addition of Dario Saric is exciting. The acquisition of a fairly legitimate backcourt is exciting. The idea they might actually win a few games is exciting.

But amid all that excitement, the fact remains that nothing is more important to the team's ascendancy than the strength of the tiny, brittle bone in Embiid's right foot that has been repaired twice. If there is a third time, that won't be a charm for the Sixers but a chasm in the middle of the court.

While Nerlens Noel bemoans the "logjam" among big men on the roster, a crowded situation that includes Embiid, Noel, and Jahlil Okafor - and don't forget Richaun Holmes, as Colangelo quickly pointed out - the only reason there is a logjam is the uncertainty regarding Embiid's health.

If the Sixers knew for sure whether Embiid will be able to play, or whether he will break down again, then they would have already decided between keeping Noel or Okafor, and that decision would have become apparent during the dealing frenzy of draft day.

With a healthy Embiid, the Sixers should have more than enough offensive power around the basket, and it would make sense to move Okafor. Without Embiid, Okafor's low-post scoring is necessary, and it would be Noel headed out the door.

Noel is apparently trying to speed up the plot. He said all three of them are worthy of playing 30 minutes a night and noted that won't be possible the way things are. That's even before you factor in the minutes that Simmons and Saric will get in the frontcourt when Brett Brown chooses to use them there. And, of course, don't forget Richaun Holmes. Colangelo directed that undisguised shot toward Noel as a way of indicating that getting minutes might be even tougher than he thinks. Keep talking.

It was learned last season that Noel and Okafor aren't compatible on the court together. Or at least it was learned that Brown couldn't figure out how to do it. Okafor is a very talented low-post player on offense, and Noel is the same at the defensive end. The problems arose when Okafor had to play defense away from the basket and Noel had to give room for Okafor on offense. Neither flourished in his new location.

Then there is Embiid, who, as he will mention, can do it all.

"I see myself as being the scorer they're going to need, as being the playmaker they're going to need, as being the defensive player they're going to need," Embiid said. "I can do literally anything on the floor."

Of course, that's been true since he was drafted, with the possible exception of walking on it.

If Embiid's assessment is remotely close, however, then a whole lot will change. Okafor will be traded, and Noel might still not be happy. He could become a defensive stopper off the bench, playing 18 to 20 minutes a night and lucky to get it on a team dominated by Embiid and Simmons.

That would be the next step in the process, and it won't arrive at least until the trade deadline in February. The Sixers are going to cautiously watch Embiid until then, starting him off with limited minutes and going from there. The extreme caution is worrisome only because Embiid is nearly 14 months post-op from a procedure that requires six months of rehabilitation for most people. It's also true that most people aren't 7-2 and required to run and jump for a living.

"I expect to have a 20-year career," Embiid said.

In terms of durability, the Sixers would accept that. Until it is established, though, there will be that "logjam" in the middle that apparently annoys Noel. He will just have to get used to it. After what's been going on around here the last three years, a little annoyance is nothing.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports