Joel Embiid and the great rewards of great risks | Bob Ford

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Sixers’ center Joel Embiid is exactly the risk-reward player Sam Hinkie described during his tenure as GM.

Sam Hinkie, the build-by-burning general manager whose vision now has the 76ers on the doorstep of contention in the NBA, liked to remind people during his tenure here that great reward  comes only with great risk attached. Since the methods he insisted upon eventually cost him his power within the organization, that’s a pretty good indication he was right about the reward/risk equation.

Hinkie was more afraid of mediocrity than failure, so he took some swings that had only moderate chances to connect but were meant to produce splashy home runs rather than the slow drip of base hits. To keep the mixed sports metaphor going, Hinkie didn’t believe in choking up.

The biggest chance he took – figuratively and literally – was on a Cameroonian center who had played basketball only a few years and had suffered not just the stress fracture in his back that cut short his only college season but also a broken navicular bone in his right foot of the sort that waves red flags when it concerns a 7-foot man who weighs upward of 275 pounds.

Hinkie didn’t care. He took Joel Embiid with the third pick in the 2014 draft, figuring he was getting not only a bargain at that slot but a chance for the singular player required for championship success in the NBA. Hinkie guaranteed it was the right move. He just didn’t guarantee it would work.

Some of the same things, to a lesser degree, could be said about trading for Nerlens Noel, whose knee injury caused him to slip in the 2013 draft; about selecting Michael Carter-Williams to be the point guard of the future; about sitting tight in 2015 to draft Jahlil Okafor with the third pick. Hinkie made all those decisions and stood by them, even though some of the results barely made the warning track.

What Hinkie knew was that in the NBA, you really have to hit only one out – and, boy, does that one appear to be Embiid right now.

“When he’s on the floor, he completely changes the gym,” coach Brett Brown said. “He’s a difference maker. You don’t give up that tag freely. He has a chance to be great.”

To make sure that chance is taken in a Sixers uniform, the team signed Embiid to a contract extension last week that potentially ties them together until the 2022-23 season at a price of $148 million. That’s a nice payday for anyone but remarkable for a player who sat out his first two professional seasons to recover from his injuries, then played just 31 games in his third season before being shut down because of yet another injury, a meniscus tear in his left knee.

Even more remarkable, however, is that Embiid is worth the risk. He’s 7-2 now, and a monstrous presence on the floor. He can defend, he can score around the basket, he can run the floor, he can pass and – here’s a bonus for a man of his stature – he might be the best shooter on the team. When he plays, as Brown said, not only is the game different, but the Sixers are different. They get better shots. They get less defensive attention. They are able to take chances with their own defense because Embiid is lurking like a shaggy mountain over their shoulders.

With Embiid, the Sixers, who will open the regular season Wednesday in Washington, are a playoff team. They won 10 games two seasons ago, and just 28 games last season. This season, bookmakers have placed the over/under for them at 42.5 wins. It’s nice that they have back-to-back No. 1 picks in Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, but the reason for the optimism is all about Embiid.

Camera icon CHRIS SZAGOLA / AP
Sixers center Joel Embiid.

The Hinkie rule of risk and reward is still in play, though. This still doesn’t have to work, and the player who hasn’t had an injury-free season since high school might never have another. The Sixers were able to pad the corners of the big contract with protections if Embiid has a recurrence of his back or foot injuries, but mere money wouldn’t fill the hole he would leave.

Meanwhile, let’s look at the teams that didn’t share Hinkie’s vision in 2014. The Minnesota Timberwolves selected first and took Embiid’s Kansas teammate Andrew Wiggins, who also just received a five-year, $148 million extension. Wiggins, a 6-8 small forward, is very good, averaging 23.6 points last season, but his box score can be deceiving. Wiggins has shown only a modest interest in defense and nitty-gritty work around the basket. He’s an incomplete player. Still, what’s a team to do? Let him walk?

The Milwaukee Bucks drafted second and they also passed on Embiid and his injury problems, selecting Jabari Parker from Duke instead, a 6-8 power forward. In his three seasons with Milwaukee, Parker has suffered two torn ligaments in his left knee, the second of which ended his 2016-17 season in February. He has played 152 of a possible 246 games for the Bucks and he also wants a max contract extension. Milwaukee has until the end of October to decide whether to offer one.

The point, as Sam Hinkie would no doubt agree, is that there is always risk, even when the risk isn’t apparent ahead of time. So, a team might as well go for the biggest reward possible. Risk will either free you or freeze you. Hinkie, whatever else his faults, didn’t shiver at the thought.

As it turned out, the biggest reward very possibly comes in the form of the biggest guy on the court, which seems appropriate. He changes things when he’s there. At this moment right now, which is the only one we can be sure of, he is out there again and it will be both fascinating and terrifying to see what happens next. Just the way Sam liked it.