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Joel Embiid Is Already on the Cusp of Being an Elite NBA Center
For the Philadelphia 76ers, it's games like Thursday's nationally televised matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves and burgeoning superstar Karl-Anthony Towns that remind them why they're embracing (enduring?) "The Process."
True, the Sixers tried distancing themselves from their divisive procedure, stripping former general manager Sam Hinkie of certain liberties and powers, basically inviting the resignation and subsequent letter he handed in last April.
But the spirit of Hinkie's vision lives on with Embiid. He is The Process—his words, not anyone else's.
"I really feel like I'm The Process," he told Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins, "like The Process is about me."
The Process, while complex overall, was simple at its core: Collect as many high-end draft picks as possible to increase the chances of landing a transcendent talent who can be under team control for nearly a decade.
The acquisition of Nerlens Noel came first, as did a flurry of other roster moves. But Embiid represents a unique swing for the fences—the surprise prodigy who didn't start playing basketball until his mid-teens yet began rivaling LeBron James' prematurely crowned heir apparent, Andrew Wiggins, on draft boards almost overnight.
That injuries sidelined Embiid for two seasons only adds merit to his self-settled moniker. The Sixers have waited on Noel (one year), Dario Saric (two) and now Ben Simmons. Embiid, however, is the most defining investment—in part because he embraces The Process like a moral compass but mostly because he has been officially and unequivocally worth the wait.
It's an aggressive and (usually) unfair label to place upon a 22-year-old not yet 10 games into his NBA career. Then again, it wasn't long ago that the mere sight of his dunking and shooting layups, mostly unguarded, incited ambitious expectations. It's only right that his early exploits do the same.
Especially when Embiid's performance matches and then supersedes the hype.
Through seven outings, Embiid is averaging 18.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks...on a minutes limit. Tim Duncan, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson and Ralph Sampson are the only rookies to ever match those statistical benchmarks, and they all cleared 30 minutes per game.
Filter Embiid's performance by his 29.3 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per 36 minutes, and he's on pace to stand alone—not just among first-year bigs but everyone in league history
Seven games is nothing over a season; Embiid needs to sustain these numbers another five months. Still, it can't be dismissed or considered a coincidence that he's the first newbie since O'Neal to rack up at least 125 points, 50 rebounds and 15 blocks through his first seven contests.
Sure, Embiid plays for the one-win 76ers. And yes, he's on course to post the second-worst turnover rate (23.5) for a rookie big man with his playing time. But he's having a profound impact on the game.
"I think when you look at the box score and just look at the plus/minus in a game that was lopsided, Joel still comes out with a plus-three," Sixers head coach Brett Brown said, per NBA.com's Fran Blinebury. "And that's with six turnovers. It's hard to do that in a game that was that much of a one-way fight. You're seeing something very unique in Joel Embiid."
Embiid is shining on the defensive end. Opponents are shooting under 47 percent against him at the rim, and the Sixers allow just 102.6 points per 100 possessions with him in the game—nearly a five-point improvement from their overall mark and one that would give them the 11th-best defense in the league.
According to NBA Math's defensive points saved, Embiid ranks as one of the most valuable players on the less glamorous end, bar none.
This puts him ahead of fellow budding towers such as KristapsPorzingis (6.7 percentile) and Towns (24.3), and within breathing distance of the more established Hassan Whiteside (94) and Anthony Davis (96.2).
For all Embiid's hiccups on offense, meanwhile, the Sixers still pump in more points per 100 possessions when he's the floor. And he's posting an above-average effective field-goal percentage (50.6) despite recording the second-highest usage rate in the league (40.2).
It turns out not a single one of Embiid's workout clips did justice to his expansive arsenal. His footwork in the post is polished and precise. He positions himself well off screens and as a pick-and-roll diver. His touch around the rim isn't great, but he's flashed an ability to maneuver through traffic.
And he has three-point range, which he leverages against his uncanny albeit still-developing ability to put the ball on floor.
Like Towns did during his rookie campaign, Embiid is keeping pace with some of the most recognized offensive bigs, contemporary or historical. While he is the beneficiary of high volume, that only pads his shot and point totals; it doesn't artificially inflate efficiency and allow him to match or rival the numbers of incumbent stars.
That part's all skill.
Pit Embiid against star skyscrapers, and he isn't going to lead in many offensive categories. But he will steal some and be right there in most others—a rookie among veterans, decidedly inferior only insofar as experience matters.
Yes, it's beyond early. And Embiid's health issues will likely be a career-long caveat. But his NBA tenure must be evaluated on an expedited scale.
He is, after all, a third-year rookie who will be extension-eligible at the end of this season.
So it is not too soon to read into what Embiid is doing. Seven games, in this case, is enough to view Embiid as one of the primary faces for the NBA's big-man uprising—an overpowering center who protects the rim, switches onto smaller players, shoots threes and takes defenders off the dribble, all with equal comfort.
The Process isn't over in Philly. In many ways, despite the team's efforts to thwart it, this is just the beginning.
Yet in Embiid, the Sixers have already actualized their end game: the acquisition of a star worth building around.