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February 17, 2017

Embiid: I was in such a dark place, I wanted to quit basketball

Sixers NBA

Sixers center Joel Embiid won't be taking part in any of the events surrounding this weekend's NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans because he's still recovering from a bone bruise in his knee that's kept him sidelined since late January.

But that doesn't mean the 7-foot-2 rookie is staying at home and feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he'll be in the Big Easy, taking in the sights and sounds of all-star weekend, in large part because he expects to be attending such weekends in the future and wanted to see first hand what all the fuss is about.

As for the disappointment of not being able to play in the Rising Stars Challenge and Skills Challenge, after missing his first two full seasons with a foot injury, those days are in Embiid's past.

The 22-year-old was on ESPN Radio on Friday morning as part of a "Meet the All Stars" event and opened up about what life was like during those two and a half years in which he could sit and watch his team struggle to compete night in and night out. Add to that the tragic death of his brother, and it's not hard to see how things quickly got dark for the otherwise affable Cameroon native.

“The two and a half years that I missed — I missed that, and I also lost my brother. So I was in such a dark place, I wanted to quit basketball. I just wanted to go back home and just leave everything behind," Embiid said. "But, you know, coming into this season, the one thing I told myself was, ‘Come and have fun. It’s all about having fun.' So for all the dark days that I had back then, for me, now, I think it's my time to have fun.”

That point at which Embiid considered retirement came following his second foot surgery – after the first one, he said, his foot would get sore from just walking around.

"I just couldn’t do it anymore," he added. "I just wanted to, like, quit.”

Instead, Embiid took a different route. The fun one. And it's been contagious, as fans are also enjoying the development of a team who won just 10 games a year ago.

As Embiid put it, the rejuvenated atmosphere at The Center – which at times over the last three years was about as lively as an episode of Downton Abbey – “makes us want to win games.”

He's been so impressive in his 31 games so far (20.2 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.5 BPG), that even he didn't expect his return to the court to go quite this well.

“I was surprised myself. I think I’m more surprised than everybody else," he said of his early success.

Whether or not that success translates into being named the NBA Rookie of the Year remains to be seen. Prior to missing the last three-plus weeks with a bone bruise -- Embiid said he's "not worried at all" about it -- he seemed like a lock to win the award. But even if his minutes-restriction is held against him, the center believes that specific piece of hardware will wind up on the mantle of another Sixers rookie.

"If I don’t win, I think that trophy is going to stay on the team," he said. "You know, I’ve got my teammate Dario [Saric]. He’s been playing great lately. So if I don’t win, I know it’s going to stay on the team.” 

One of the ways Embiid can increase his chances of winning is by playing more often, specifically in back-to-back games, something the team has yet to allow him to do. The prevailing wisdom has been that the Sixers would continue that course of action throughout this season.

But Embiid is itching to give it a try. Can you really blame him after missing two full seasons to start his NBA career?

“I wouldn’t want to come into next season without having seen what it’s really like to play back-to-backs," he said. "Hopefully at some point this season I start playing back-to-backs. But, like I said, it’s all about winning games.”

The Sixers are 13-18 in games with Embiid (including 8-2 in their last 10) and 8-17 without him. They're currently 5.5 games out of the eighth spot in the East, so the sooner he returns, the better.

Fans should consider themselves lucky that Embiid, at 20 years old and living in a new city in a foreign country, didn't let those dark times get the best of him.

If "The Shawshank Redemption" taught us anything, it's that sometimes in life, you have to crawl through a river of – I think you know how the rest goes...

[Listen to the full interview, here.]

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin