The Philadelphia 76ers have served as the NBA’s version of purgatory for the past three years. With a parade of injured draft picks and rosters mostly populated by guys who had little future in the league, few fans would flock to Wells Fargo Center to see the home team play — and the ones who did were often focused more on whatever team was visiting the city that night.
“We have been through 52 players in my three years,” Sixers coach Brett Brown told reporters Wednesday in Philadelphia, “not including the ones that are still here.
“Only 11 are still in the NBA. Think of that.”
Those days, however, are over. Anyone who saw Wednesday night’s season opening game between the Sixers and the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder saw a sellout crowd utterly captivated by its team — even while this year’s No. 1 overall pick, Ben Simmons, is out indefinitely recovering from surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his right foot.
That is how powerful the cult of Joel Embiid already is. And, after making his professional debut with an emphatic 20 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots in 22 minutes in a tightly contested 103-97 loss, the furor around him is unlikely to die down anytime soon.
Embiid showed every part of his prodigious talent Wednesday, a talent that took two years for the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft to finally reach the court because of recurring foot injuries. If Wednesday was any indication, though, the wait was well worth it for the Sixers and their fans.
His first basket came on a nasty move at the foul line, pivoting swiftly into a fadeaway jumper that send the home fans into an absolute frenzy with 8:17 remaining in the first quarter. Embiid then swatted away a Russell Westbrook shot, and the love affair was on.
“You think about what you have gone through the last three years, having to get surgery, all the ups and downs,” Embiid told reporters. “But I try to stay away from [thinking about that].”
In Philadelphia, though, the only thinking is about the future. Regardless of how one feels about “The Process,” the shorthand name for former general manager Sam Hinkie’s plan to rebuild the Sixers into a championship contender over the long term, the goal was undeniable: to lose as much as possible in order to cultivate the best possible odds to land superstar talents by the most likely means available: the top of the draft.
It took three years, but now, with the combination of Simmons and Embiid, the Sixers finally have a pair of potential superstars on their roster around whom they can form a foundation. And that doesn’t include pieces like Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Dario Saric, all young talents whom could either become long-term contributors in Philadelphia or could be spun to other teams to obtain other players — namely wings and guards — to fill in the many gaps around Simmons and Embiid on the roster.
Those gaps were more than evident against the Thunder. While Embiid was terrific whenever he played, Philadelphia’s second unit left plenty to be desired. It’s going to take time for the rest of the roster to catch up to its core pieces — and for its core pieces to prove durable enough to catch up to.
Embiid himself is on a strict minutes limit, getting to those 22 on Wednesday by playing in five roughly four-minute long bursts; Okafor, coming back from knee issues of his own, only played 12. Noel and Simmons, meanwhile, are both out for an indefinite period.
The fact that all four of them, along with Saric, are best suited to play either power forward or center makes the logistics of getting them all playing time difficult, assuming they’re ever all healthy at the same time.
It only took one game, though, for Embiid to show he’s on a different level than the likes of Okafor and Noel as a long-term center for the franchise. Few players are capable of doing the things Embiid has already proven he can do in so far as making game-changing plays at both ends. As the final minutes of Wednesday’s game ticked off, the Sixers kept giving the ball to Embiid — someone who hadn’t played in a competitive game since early in 2014 while at Kansas — and he responded with two big baskets to keep Philadelphia in the game.
The fact the Sixers wound up losing the game was irrelevant. For the first time in years, basketball fans in Phladelphia have something to be excited about besides the potential of an injured player eventually returning, or the possibility of a future draft pick to solve their problems. Instead, they are buoyed by the present, and by the presence of Embiid, a 7-foot beacon signaling the promise of better days ahead.
After years of waiting for tangible things to hold onto, Philadelphia and its fans latched on to Joel Embiid Wednesday night, and won’t be letting go anytime soon. The Process has evolved, and the potential for a bright future is there for everyone to see.