The Sixers opened the exhibition portion of their most anticipated season in recent memory at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night and that was a good thing, if only because it kept Joel Embiid off the streets of Philadelphia for a good portion of the evening.
Two nights before, after playing tennis on asphalt under the lights, Embiid had apparently jogged through Center City, which is not the sort of thing a man of his stature can do surreptitiously. You have to say “apparently,” because in this made-for-video age it’s hard to tell what is real and what is performance art. With Embiid, you never know.
I do know this much: The potholes, cracks and broken curbs of our municipal streets are very real, and the torque of twisting and turning on a hard-surface tennis court is also real. If a man can navigate all that, full-court basketball doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, particularly for a basketball player. But the wait for Embiid’s recovery from the “minor” arthroscopic surgery performed on his left knee six months ago continues.
In the end, if the regular season begins and Embiid is ready, the frustration of the wait won’t matter. He should get back as soon as possible, however, because watching the Sixers play defense without him – at least in the first glimpse on Wednesday against the Grizzlies – wasn’t pretty. Some of that is the nature of the early exhibition season. The game is really just a run, and the intensity of the real games hasn’t arrived, but, man, watching the Sixers without Embiid cleaning up the mess of teammates who can’t stay in front of their men wasn’t comforting.
Coach Brett Brown said he had a short list of things to accomplish in this first outing, and that was mostly about trying different combinations of players on the floor together and getting an idea of what appeared to work and what didn’t. The first item on the list was playing back-to-back No. 1 picks Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz together, two heralded point guards in a game with only one ball.
Brown also wanted to see how newcomer J.J. Redick fit with the youngsters, whether Jerryd Bayless could be the offensive spark off the bench he envisioned, and a few other rotation questions he needed to start assessing. His take on Embiid’s nocturnal workouts was a shrug, as was the matter of when the big man might actually play.
“I understand why people might think [about] cobblestones and tripping and all that, but Joel is Joel,” Brown said. “I admit it’s a little bit out of the ordinary, 7-foot-2 running down the streets of Philadelphia, but Joel is unique.”
Brown said the medical staff would decide on Embiid’s indoor availability, and trying to divine when that might be is just time wasted. It will happen when it does.
Meanwhile, the feature of the evening was seeing the 6-10 Simmons running the point almost exclusively, even in the company of Fultz, and it was intriguing to watch. He can get himself wherever he wants to be on the court, and pretty quickly at that. For the most part, he got himself into the paint, whether in transition or taking the ball out of the basket.
Simmons never appears to hurry or lose control and he can really pass. None of that is news, but it was all that could be determined on Wednesday. The Grizzlies made only moderate efforts to get in front of him or halt his progress. That will change. NBA teams are not going let him glide to the basket on a whim.
Even though he is technically a rookie, Simmons doesn’t look like one, which can’t be said yet about Fultz, who did some good things but had trouble finishing among the taller trees of the forest. Fultz was 2-for-13 from the field (Simmons was 2-for-8) and there’s going to be some of that this season.
“Clearly, a lot to work on,” Brown said after the 110-89 loss. “All over the place, our defense was poor. We were challenged defensively.”
Again, some of that was because there wasn’t a defensive presence like Embiid on the court – although Jahlil Okafor, faint praise or not, was more active at that end than in the past – and because Dario Saric was held out of the game. Those are two big pieces for this team, even though Simmons and Fultz are getting most of the attention right now.
Eventually, however, Embiid will put his tennis racket away and do his running indoors, and we’ll get a lot better idea how good the Sixers can be with him. On Wednesday, even with the hot rookies on the floor, what was on display was how bad they could be without him.