PHILADELPHIA — Most will remember the dream shakes and fadeaway makes, the fluid pick-and-pops and NBA Jam-like blocks.
But if you want an actual barometer for how special Joel Embiid is, and what his performance Wednesday night against the Thunder meant to the Philadelphia 76ers, their fans and the NBA as a whole, all you have to know is this:
He’s taken a hacky, Ted Talk-like corporate maxim and made it cool.
“Trust the process,” Embiid said from his locker following the Sixers’ 103-97 home loss to the Thunder, large smile stretching across his face and yellow ice bucket at his feet. “That’s my motto.”
Embiid spent the preseason repeating that phrase—the brainchild of former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie, designer of the Sixers’ previous strategy to, well, not win games—whenever and wherever he could. There were pictures of him dunking posted to his Twitter account with the caption “Processing…” He stamped nearly all his tweets with a "Trust the Process" hashtag. The word “process” appeared in myriad preseason quotes.
And so there he stood on the foul line Wednesday night, having just put Thunder big man Steve Adams through an array of post moves that would make Kevin McHale proud. Two dribbles with the left hand, a juke over the right shoulder, a spin over the left shoulder, a long stride and a drive to the rim. Adams, with no options left, slapped Embiid across the arm, leading to two free throws and Embiid barking out loud that Adams “can’t guard me.”
And then came the chants, not of “M-V-P,” which Embiid had heard earlier in the evening, but of something else and entirely new.
Trust the Process.
Trust the Process.
Of course, doing so hasn’t been easy for Embiid, or the Sixers, even if everything looked simple on a night when he finished with a team-high 20 points in 22 minutes and nearly out-dueled Russell Westbrook.
It had been 852 days since the Sixers drafted Embiid No. 3 overall in 2014, meaning he had been a member of the organization for 852 days without suiting up for a single game. He thought about this leading up to Wednesday’s game, he said, about all the pain and anguish he’s endured over the past three years—enough to break even the biggest and strongest of men.
The stress fracture in his back, suffered as a freshman at Kansas; the fracture in his right foot 16 months later, and again, another 14 months later. Then another fracture, of the same bone in the same foot, and in the middle of all that a car crash in his native Cameroon taking the life of his younger brother, at the too-young age of 13, whom he hadn’t seen in four years.
“All the ups and down, it’s in your mind,” Embiid said prior to Wednesday night’s tipoff, just hours after a Sports Illustrated profile was published. In it the writer wrote that Embiid, amid all this hardship, had considered at one point giving up basketball.
“I don't think I would have had the heart to actually make that decision because I love basketball so much,” Embiid said before Wednesday’s game. “It’s just, when you’re going through so much, loss of your brother, that you haven’t seen in like three-four years, and you just had surgery and all that stuff and my family (tragedy), so you’ve got thoughts coming in your mind.”
But Embiid decided to stick with it, to “trust the process,” as he’d no doubt say.
He worked on his handle and jumper, his post moves and his strength. His 7’2" body is now a lean 276 pounds. He’s agile and fluid, too. His Hulk-sized hands inhale rebounds as if there’s a magnet attached to them.
He corralled the Thunder’s first three errant shots and finished with seven rebounds overall. Soon after, he was sliding over into the driving lane of Victor Oladipo, then setting up a pull-up jumper at the foul with some shaking and baking.
The highlights didn’t stop there. There was a swat of a Westbrook drive and more drop-steps in the post. A pick-and-pop three.
He drilled multiple mid-range jumpers over the outstretched arms of Adams. His height, length and advanced basketball IQ transformed the Sixers into a strong defensive squad.
“For him to come out here and the fans to see what we’re all seeing,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said after the game, “for the city to be rewarded with a player that we all understand has unique gifts, special gifts, for him to go through all the things he’s been through and play like he did on opening night, the city deserves it and he deserves it.”
Not that he was perfect. He still appears allergic to passing. He still struggles leveraging his strength into strong post position. He still has the occasional defensive lapse.
He’s still being limited to 20 minutes a game, is part of a team that won just 10 games last season and is one of three lottery big men jockeying for minutes on the roster. He still has to prove he can stay healthy, that he can respond when opponents begin scouting him, take away the jumper and force him to put the ball on the floor.
He still has to get used to being part of a team.
“He wasn't really around us all that much last year,” Sixers guard Nik Stauskas told Bleacher Report when asked if he sees any difference in Embiid this year as opposed to last. “He didn’t come on any road trips, even game days he wasn’t here that often, I didn’t get to know him that well until this year.”
And so myriad questions remain.
And yet, for now, none of that matters.
Embiid might not be a perfect basketball player, but he’s the perfect basketball player for this team and its fans. He’s been there the whole way, felt the pain of all the losses and restarts. All he wants now is to play.
“The atmosphere was great,” he said postgame. “I thought this morning (that this night) was going to be special, and it was great.”
The same could be said about him.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.