LOS ANGELES — No one would accuse Joel Embiid of lacking confidence. The only things that can actually match Embiid’s outsized personality are his massive, 7-foot-2 frame and ridiculously diverse skill set. That combination has made him one of the NBA’s most popular players over the past two seasons, and one of the biggest attractions as the Philadelphia 76ers center approaches his first All-Star Game here Sunday.
But it was that same 7-foot-2 frame that nearly ended Embiid’s career before it began.
“My body died,” Embiid said Friday, recalling an injury in the summer of 2015, after he had already missed an entire NBA season.
The result was a second lost season. Two years into his pro career, the No. 3 pick in the 2014 NBA draft had never stepped foot onto an NBA court, and it was easy to assume he may never.
“At some points, I wanted to quit,” Embiid said. “There were surgeries after surgeries, and I didn’t really believe in myself. I didn’t feel good about my body.”
But Embiid’s NBA story didn’t end there, like other lottery picks whose bodies failed them too early, most notably Greg Oden and Sam Bowie. Embiid recovered, first playing 31 games last season — showing enough eye-popping potential that Philadelphia was willing to risk signing him to a five-year max contract extension worth $148 million in October — and now following that impressive campaign with a healthy season thus far. He’s unleashing a package of size, charisma and talent the league has rarely seen.
“He’s very fluid and he’s fun to watch because he can do a lot of things at his size that we haven’t seen maybe in a long time,” Toronto Raptors assistant coach Rex Kalamian said after coaching Embiid in the Rising Stars Challenge here Friday night. “So it’s hard game-planning against him. We try to throw a lot of different things at him and a lot of different looks because I think he’s really smart.
“You know, I like watching him play rather than playing against him, and I like being on the same side like I was tonight.”
Embiid’s talent was never in question. Despite picking up the game relatively late in life — growing up in Cameroon, he didn’t play basketball until he was 15 — he was a consensus five-star recruit after coming to the United States at 16, and in his lone season at Kansas, he showed all of the tools needed to make him a game-changing big man.
But surgery to repair a broken navicular bone in his right foot just before the draft led to him dropping to third, where the 76ers scooped him up, knowing he’d likely have to miss the entire season. What wasn’t expected was Embiid needing a second surgery on his foot.
When Dario Saric came overseas to join the Sixers in the summer of 2016, Embiid had yet to play in an NBA game. But when the Croatian forward began watching Embiid destroy teammates in practices that summer, he was spellbound by the big man’s ability to do virtually everything on the basketball court.
“When I came to practice and he was killing the players there, I was asking the coaches, ‘Will he be able to play like this in the league?’ ” Saric said with a laugh. “And they would say, ‘Yes.’ ”
They were right. When Embiid finally made his NBA debut on Oct. 26, 2016 — putting up 20 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in 25 minutes in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on national television — it was clear that Embiid had a chance to be special.
With that performance, two years of doubts vanished. Embiid’s confidence surged back.
“Once I played in my first game, I figured out I was going to be one of the best players in the league, if not the best player in the league,” he said. “So from that day, I just kept pushing and now I’m here.
“But I’ve still got a long way to go.”
There have been few players better suited to be “here” — at All-Star Weekend. He has the perfect mix of personality and talent to make him the centerpiece of anything happening during such an event. Thus, it’s fitting that, for a player that was only recently permitted to play in back-to-back games for the 76ers, he is performing in each of the three nights this weekend: the Rising Stars Challenge Friday, the Skills Challenge Saturday and the game itself Sunday.
“The guy is the modern-day big man,” Houston Rockets assistant coach Roy Rogers said. “There really is no weakness in his game.
“I mean, it’s up to him how good he wants to be. Not only can he be the best big in the league, he can be one of the best bigs to ever play the game, just because he is so talented.”
Embiid doesn’t disagree. When asked what he means by having “a long way to go,” he didn’t hesitate.
“I really feel like I have the potential, and I’m not even kidding about it, I have the potential to be the best player in the league,” Embiid said.
“I think it’s only about two years away,” he said with a smile. “I’m excited about the future.”
The days of Joel Embiid doubting himself — and his body — are over.