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February 20, 2018

What they're saying about the Sixers: Joel Embiid cements his place among the stars

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022018-JoelEmbiid-USAToday Bob Donnan/USA Today

Boston Celtics forward Al Horford, Denver Nuggets forward Jamal Murray and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid during the skills challenge at Staples Center.

In between debates about whether the new format would help or hurt the All-Star game, Joel Embiid did his best to prove he belonged on the stage with the game's best players. As much as you can prove anything in a midseason game with questionable intensity, Embiid certainly solidified his stature among the NBA's top players.

Consider this: on two straight possessions in the final two minutes of the game, Embiid was given the ball in the post while playing alongside Steph Curry, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and DeMar DeRozan. Surrounded by former and future MVPs and the leader of the East's No. 1 seed, it was the big man who had the ball placed in his hands when winning time went down.

The Sixers, for the first time in a long, long time, finally have a guy who can go toe-to-toe with the league's other elite players. That is what this rebuilding process was always about — the pursuit of one or more pillars upon which the Sixers would build their foundation. Once a star is in place, it gets a heck of a lot easier to find, develop, or lure another one.

If you're looking for a takeaway during the All-Star break, look no further. Here's what a few writers around the league are saying about the Sixers and their franchise anchor right now.

Embiid is built for this

Adi Joseph | CBS Sports

Joseph's biggest — pun intended — takeaway from All-Star weekend? How natural Embiid looked alongside his starry peers, and how matchups with smaller, quicker players did not faze him.

Embiid was perhaps the standout player from Team Stephen, even in a 148-145 loss. He finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 20 minutes -- and he was the only starter on his team to finish positive in plus-minus.

Mostly, though, he stood up tall against the little -- err ... slightly skinnier? -- guys. Late in the game, James, Paul George and Kevin Durant tried to isolate against Embiid, but the 7-foot center for the 76ers hung with them step for step.

"They were (going at me), but I think I did a pretty good job," Embiid said. "I feel like I'm the best defensive player in the league, so if you want to attack me, good luck." [cbssports.com]

NBA players don't want LeBron James on the Sixers

ESPN

A survey of 48 NBA players was conducted by ESPN over the course of the All-Star break, primarily concerning what LeBron should and will do in free agency. Something funny happened along the way: they selected the Sixers as the top team he should not go to, even ahead of the Golden State Warriors.

Which rumored team should LeBron NOT sign with?

Sixers: 31 percent 
Warriors: 28 percent 
Lakers: 16 percent 
Rockets: 16 percent 
Other: 9 percent Others gaining votes: Clippers, Spurs, Wizards 

"LeBron is a competitor. He's the type of guy who comes in and lays his hat on the line every night. If he went to Golden State, that would cut his competitive edge out. It would take something away from the type of player that he really is." -- Western Conference center

This is a bizarre outcome to say the least. Do players think he can't win there? Are they afraid of the prospect of adding him alongside Embiid? It's impossible to say without asking each and every player surveyed. It's an interesting note regardless of the reasoning. [espn.com]

Is Embiid actually underrated?

Rich Hofmann | The Athletic
This is admittedly an oversimplification of Rich's piece, which has plenty of other goodies on Philadelphia's first half of the season. But there was one note in there I thought stood out from the others because it's an interesting thing to think about.

Including all of the injuries to LeBron’s team, there were 28 players chosen as All-Stars this season. Of those 28, the only player whose team plays better when they are on the court than the Sixers with Embiid is Stephen Curry (via Ben Falk’s great site Cleaning the Glass, which will also account for the numbers below). And while Curry is a two-time MVP still very much in his prime, he of course has the benefit of playing with three other All-Stars with championship experience.

The Warriors’ talent level shows up in the numbers when looking at Curry’s on-off differential. When Steph leaves the court, the Dubs go from a 68-win team to a 53-win team. But when Embiid leaves the court, the Sixers go from a 67-win team to a 24-win team. That drop-off is the highest of the 28 players.

You'll have to have access beyond the paywall to read the rest of Rich's thoughts on the team at the moment. Embiid is dragging the Sixers back to prominence almost by himself, and we probably don't talk about it enough. [theathletic.com]

Criticizing Sixers for Fultz unfair?

Bob Ford | Philly.com

The crux of Ford's piece is that the Sixers have received no benefit of the doubt in the Markelle Fultz saga strictly because of their lack of transparency in the past.

But now the mess is in the laps of the 76ers and they are doing the best they can. They’ve been criticized for allowing the media to see him shoot at the end of practice, or for allowing him to do some drills during home game warm-ups with a few early birds in the stands.

Predictably, it’s not always pretty, but if the goal is to have him perform in front of 20,000 screaming people with a game on the line, this is how you start. You don’t put him in a cave and make him feel isolated from normality. You tell him it’s going to work out and, by the way, what’s the difference if people are watching? That’s normal. Fultz chose a profession in which people pay to watch.

How this finally turns out, however, is anybody’s guess. If the scale is from having the absolute perfect player for your roster or having no player at all, those are high stakes. In all probability, he’ll be somewhere in between. Exactly where will determine how the Sixers will be judged for their handling of the situation.

That’s not fair.

I disagree with Ford that it's not fair to criticize the Sixers for their handling of a player that is absolutely essential to their path forward. Whatever the reasons are for his current trouble — and I tried to lay out a lot of them last week — the Sixers are tasked with getting him right, and they have yet to do so through mid-February.

That said, I would agree that they have a difficult path to walk and no clear right answer in front of them. It's tough, but so is the NBA. [philly.com]

See you next year, Markelle

Tom Moore | The Intelligencer

On the other side of the coin, Moore believes there is a clear right thing to do with your No. 1 overall pick. From his point of view, the only option is to shut down Fultz and target a return next season.

Those three weeks were up more than seven weeks ago. On Jan. 2, the team said Fultz had begun “the final stage of his return-to-play program,” yet there’s still no timetable for the talented guard’s return.

The Sixers have allowed Fultz to be videotaped shooting at practices and before games. One day the shot doesn’t look too bad, then the next he’s really pushing the ball from a release point well below where he shot it in college and the July NBA Summer League games. His range has yet to extend to the 3-point line, at least publicly.

The apparent effort at transparency is interesting given that team president Bryan Colangelo halted a Feb. 9 news conference mid-question because he apparently didn’t appreciate so much attention being given to the mysterious Fultz situation. When he did speak, Colangelo contradicted coach Brett Brown with his reason why Fultz hasn’t been deemed a full participant at practice.

Once again, I don't necessarily agree with this line of thinking, because I wouldn't discount the carrot-on-a-stick effect here. If you take the possibility of a return away from Fultz, who knows that will impact him mentally. As we saw in years past with Embiid, even guys who are lauded for their work ethic otherwise can slip when the game they love is taken away from them.

But to Moore's point, it's an option that is and should be firmly on the table. [theintell.com]

Embiid, center of attention

Dan Woike | LA Times

After speaking with Embiid himself and fellow big men like Karl-Anthony Towns, Woike came away from the weekend believing big time in the man they call "The Process."

In his young career, he's already broken his right foot twice and tore the meniscus in his left knee. He played just 31 games in the first three years after he was drafted.

But as the poster child for Philadelphia's "process," Embiid's been a star now that he's healthy. Cleared to participate in back-to-back games just weeks ago, he's a big reason the 76ers are primed to make the Eastern Conference playoffs for the first time since the organization began a lengthy rebuild that required patience through extended periods of losing.

"It was special. It was probably more special than it should've been because I went through so much," he said. "This year's been amazing."

Sunday, everyone got to see why Embiid should be a big part of the league's future, too. [latimes.com]

Limitless potential

Tim Bontemps | Washington Post

How good can Joel Embiid become? Just let some people around the league — and Embiid himself — tell you what they think about that question.

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.

How soon?

“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.

I'll take this one a step further — as good as Embiid can be down the road, there is not a single team in the top half of the Eastern Conference pining to play the Sixers in a first-round series right now. They know the damage Embiid can do, and if they can avoid it, you can bet they'd rather see the Sixers matched up with somebody else come late April. [washingtonpost.com]


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