On the far court, Joel Embiid gathered in a pass, took a couple of steps, windmilled home a dunk, then floated out to the corner, where he caught another pass and, in one smooth motion, dropped a corner three-pointer into the net. The drill in which he was participating on Thursday afternoon was clearly designed with a different class of player in mind. Yet there was the big man, all 7-2 and 275 pounds of him, sharing reps with Nik Stauskas and Robert Covington as they rubbed off screens set by heavy inflatable dummies and popped out to the corner and wing for catch-and-shoot threes.
The remarkable thing wasn’t Embiid’s participation but the effortlessness with which he dominated the drill, from the natural ease of his footwork while squaring to shoot to the cotton-soft touch on his release, jumper after jumper swishing through the net in smooth, graceful arcs.
To watch it was to gain a renewed appreciation for the potential that will spend the next three months simmering inside the Sixers training complex on the eastern shore of the Delaware. Even without Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and whatever additions to the roster might come with next week’s start of the free-agent signing period, the organization would still have plenty of reason to dream. In Embiid, the Sixers possess that rarest of talents, a combination of size and skill so unique that it can single-handedly alter a franchise’s trajectory. His 31 starts last season might not have been enough to impress NBA Rookie of the Year award voters, but they were more than enough to show the rest of us that he is a potential 100th-percentile player, his skill set so unique that it defies comparison. The Sixers won 13 of those games, 12 of them in the last 24. This, mind you, was a team that won only 15 of 51 games when he was not on the court.
The qualifier is as appropriate as it is constant: Those other 51 games count, too, as do the 164 others Embiid missed during his first two seasons in the Sixers’ employ. He would not be the first 7-footer to see his otherworldly potential derailed by the kinds of injuries that can plague men of his proportions. One might even argue that to avoid such a fate is to be the exception.
Which is why the Sixers are such a devil of thing to wrap one’s head around. With Embiid, the knowns and the unknowns swirl around each other like some sort of Eastern metaphor for life itself. If healthy, he has the potential to achieve the sort of transcendence that everybody else on the court simply needs to fall in line around. One does not need anything more than Simmons’ body composition and college tape to project him into a role in an offense that features Embiid. Fultz does not need to be much more than the Sixers already believe him to be in order to make the thing work. Knock down open shots, beat rotating defenders off the dribble, play some D.
Factor in Dario Saric and whatever veteran shooting help arrives by way of signing or trade and coach Brett Brown has himself a ready-made basketball team.
Yet for all of the moving parts, for all that there is to dream about the ceilings of guys such as Simmons and Fultz, the whole thing still comes down to Embiid. That can be an intimidating thought, given its all-or-nothing nature. With him, the Sixers can get very real very fast. Without him? It’s a difficult scenario to process.
Maybe you think that’s hyperbole, but watch those 31 games again and explain what it is you don’t see. Only four players in the NBA averaged more than Embiid’s 38.9 points per 100 possessions, despite his playing a style that often looked as if he was making it up as he went along (all four of those players were at least four years his senior). He had not played in sanctioned competition in two years, and it often showed, his body control vaguely reminiscent of a pubescent teen in the midst of a growth spurt, walking into door frames and stumbling up stairs. With an at-times hilariously raw low-block game, Embiid shot only .634 from zero-to-three feet. Compare him with big men such as Dwight Howard (.724), JaVale McGee (.723), Myles Turner (.721), Karl-Anthony Towns (.700), Anthony Davis (.697), LaMarcus Aldridge (.692) or Jahlil Okafor (.692).
All possess a polish with their back to the basket that Embiid will only further develop. Take, for instance, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s first four seasons, when his field goal percentage inside three feet climbed from .573 to .646 to .684 to .709. The most astounding thing about Embiid is how much room he has to grow.
The next couple of weeks will help pass the time, as Fultz travels to Utah and then Las Vegas to offer us our first glimpse of what he will bring to the table. Simmons will stay behind, leaving us to subsist on memories of last year’s summer league until training camp and the preseason arrive. Each is a mystery in his own right, with regard to both ceilings and floors. The hope is that each on his own could anchor a team. Still, it’s hard to imagine either coming close to the potential that is Embiid. Whether that sounds promising or daunting depends on your outlook. Perhaps, in reality, it’s a big dose of both.