LOS ANGELES – Before the NBA All-Star Game tips off a little after 8 p.m. Sunday, Joel Embiid will have told his story countless times here.
The 76ers center just might be the longest overnight success story in the NBA. The 23-year-old will start in his first All-Star Game after playing in just 75 career games. In that short time, he has become a household name.
Yet Embiid will remind you of the pain he went through while missing his first two seasons because of two foot surgeries. The third overall pick of the 2014 draft will tell you that those surgeries, combined with the death of his teenage brother, Arthur, killed by a runaway truck in October 2014, nearly led him to leave basketball.
And the Cameroonian will bring up how folks still question his durability based on his missing a total of 62 games since the start of the 2016-17 season with injuries and not being cleared to play on consecutive nights until two weeks ago.
But since arriving here Thursday, Embiid has been one of the NBA’s biggest attractions. Not to mention one of the busiest participants in the All-Star Weekend festivities.
He finished with five points in 8 minutes, 41 seconds of action as his World team defeated the U.S. team, 155-124, in the Rising Stars game Friday night. Embiid had his minutes restricted because of his sore right ankle, which sidelined him for Wednesday’s victory over the Miami Heat. Embiid then participated in Saturday night’s Skills Challenge, losing to Chicago’s Lauri Markkanen in the big-man finals. And he’ll play for Team Stephen in the All-Star Game on Sunday night.
Embiid would have liked to do more.
“I actually wanted to participate in the three-point contest, though,” he said. “Maybe next year.”
For now, he has the loftiest of goals for Sunday.
“Depending on how many minutes I play, I want to win the MVP,” Embiid said.
It’s obvious that Embiid is trying to seize this moment, one that was far from guaranteed two years ago.
“You guys called me a bust when I missed those two years,” he said. “But I worked really hard, and I went through a lot missing those two years, losing my brother. … Being away from the court, I’m glad I kept pushing.”
He has pushed his way to being arguably the league’s best center.
Embiid is averaging 23.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.8 blocked shots this season. He has scored at least 15 points in each of his last 20 games. Embiid also posted eight straight double-doubles from Jan. 26 through Feb. 10 and leads the team with 28. He has named the Eastern Conference player of the week twice this season.
“I tell you what, the one thing good about it is he’s in the Eastern Conference and I only get to have to play against him twice,” said Roy Rogers, an assistant coach for the Western Conference’s Houston Rockets.
Rogers called Embiid a “modern-day big man.”
That’s because he can block shots, score with ease, step out and shoot three-pointers, and turn and face the basket from mid-range.
As Rogers pointed out, teams are finding out that Embiid’s 7-foot-2, 280-pound frame makes him difficult to guard.
You put a traditional center on him, and Embiid will take advantage of him in the perimeter. You put a smaller center on him, he’ll dominate the low post.
“His future is all in his hands,” Rogers said. “It’s such a joy to just watch him play.”
But people also marvel at Embiid’s presence on social media. He has been known to make light of everyone from President Trump to opposing centers.
Perhaps that’s why Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George, a Team LeBron all-star, described him as having personality: “In all caps. … He’s a big dude.”
While Embiid can be fun-loving, he thinks he has a long way to go on the court. He’s nowhere close to where he wants to be.
“But now that I’m here,” he said, “it’s sweeter being an all-star starter, too, for the first time.”