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October 27, 2016

‘It was special’: As season opener showed, Philly starting to get excited about the NBA again

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Joel Embiid had drawn another shooting foul on Steven Adams (and Steven Adams’ mustache), and the chant was raining down from all angles at Wells Fargo Center. In his NBA debut, the Sixers’ 7-foot-2 third-year rookie was hearing the three-word phrase that he has only recently co-opted, but always symbolized.

Standing on the free throw line, Embiid could only smile wide as he went through his shooting motion.

“It was great, ‘Trust the process’ and ‘MVP,’” Embiid said. “’Trust the process,’ that’s my motto, that was great.”

“I’ve been tweeting and been talking about it for a couple of months now,” he later said. “So having the fans chant that at first, it was special and I loved it.”

That love very much appears to be a two-way street, but it wasn’t always that way. As sound as Sam Hinkie’s rebuilding strategy is, there was never any escaping the fact that getting through three seasons with 199 losses isn’t for the faint of heart. Night after night, simply making it to the final buzzer was often a slog.

All you could do was trust the process (or not trust the process).

Nights like Wednesday are why the Sixers went through all of those 15-point losses to Milwaukee, Toronto, or whoever happened to be in town. There was Embiid, who still has so, so much to learn at the NBA level, casually going shot for shot with Russell Westbrook for a few minutes down the stretch.

The excitement level was everything that the Sixer faithful could have hoped ford in the season opener. And Philadelphia showed a national audience that if and when the Sixers are worth getting excited about again, the building is going to rock at a level we haven’t seen since Allen Iverson was making mad dashes into the lane and living at the line.

“The fans were so into that game, it was just fun,” Embiid said. “And I like having fun.”

We’re still a long way from the Sixers competing into May and June on a consistent basis. Embiid is on a minute restriction that Brett Brown may or may not have fudged a little bit — “It sucks,” as Embiid described his limited playing time — and the 22-year-old still isn’t doing much passing out of the post. “The Process” isn’t the only promising Sixer that needs some fine tuning, either. Dario Saric bricked more than a few jumpers on Wednesday, and Ben Simmons has taken Embiid’s place as the star-in-waiting.

But for the first time since Hinkie took over back in 2013, it feels like Sixers fans finally got a real glimpse into the future. Embiid shot threes effortlessly, rose up to deny drivers at the rim, and cleaned the glass when he had to:

This is the type of blue-chip talent that Philadelphia craves.

“For the city, and I can’t say this loud enough, to be rewarded with a player that we all understand has unique gifts, special gifts,” Brown said. “For him to go through all of the things that he has been through and play like he had on opening night, the city deserves it and most importantly he deserves it.”

Maybe the arena has been half-full the past few years, but there were nights where the Sixers gave their most loyal fans legit reason to cheer. The last-second loss to Golden State back January comes to mind, but every time that the underdog Sixers made a game of it down the stretch, the fans were into it.

Still, Wednesday felt different. Specifically, it felt like the Sixers belonged in that game.

There was always a major underdog factor with those teams, something that wasn’t there on Tuesday night. The Wells Fargo Center was now sold out, and instead of step-back jumpers from Ish Smith, the Sixers were simply throwing the ball to Embiid on the low block.

“By and large, to have somebody like Joel where the mystery is solved, like what do you do? You get him the ball, as much as you can,” Brown said.

The smart money is still on the Sixers losing a lot of games this season, but with Embiid now in the fold, Philly could be fully on board by the end if the season with its NBA franchise in a way we haven’t seen for a long, long time.

“It was special,” Embiid said. “I thought this moment was going to be special and it was great.”

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann