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October 12, 2017

Joel Embiid's preseason debut was better than your wildest dreams

Sixers NBA

Joel Embiid has only played 31 professional basketball games. Joel Embiid might already be the best center in the NBA. Both of these things may be true simultaneously.

If that sounds like an overreaction, you must not have watched him play during Wednesday night's preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets. Embiid laced 'em up for his first legitimate game since January, and he absolutely bulldozed everything in front of him, reminding everyone watching back home in Philadelphia who the franchise player is.

The Sixers got off to one of their customary rough starts against the Nets, falling down 16-8 early. A bench unit featuring Dario Saric at center — which yours truly mentioned could be a thing the other day — helped push the Sixers back into the game, but things really took off when Embiid re-entered the game. As his coach has mentioned throughout the preseason, the tenor of a game changes when Embiid is involved.

Defense jumps off the page with Embiid, mostly because there's such a stark difference between his presence in the paint compared to that of his teammates. Put simply, he is a large man who does not like it when opposing drivers come into his painted area.

Crazy as it sounds, however, that sort of play is something of a given. What was most incredible about Embiid's preseason debut was that it appeared he managed to add things in his game during the offseason, despite not participating in 5-on-5 basketball until just last week.

A lot of Sixers fans were excited to see how Ben Simmons would open up the game for Embiid with his slashing ability. But it's pretty clear that Embiid's ability to space the floor will also make life easier for Simmons, who can get some offense going out of the post if teams begin to sag off him. Early in the second half, the duo took advantage of the positional weirdness, and Embiid fed a cutting Simmons for an easy dunk.

Early last season, Embiid wasn't even thinking about passing. It'll never be the focus of his game, but you can see this sort of play happening a lot when he's paired with Simmons, and towering over everyone else on the court will make it easy to throw entry passes.

As the rest of the league downsizes to keep up in the three-point arms race, the Sixers are gearing up to play bully ball with Embiid and Simmons leading the way. That doesn't mean the offense is going to be ugly. In the second quarter, Embiid had it all going for him, uncorking a couple of jump shots that garnered comparsions to all-timers like Hakeem Olajuwon and Dirk Nowitzki. They were not unwarranted.

Embiid got fouled in the second clip — of course he made it anyway — which was a recurring theme throughout the game. I promise you this isn't a misprint: Joel Embiid attempted 18 free throws in 15 minutes of action. The wonderful people at Basketball Reference, an indispensable home for basketball stats, say this is the first time since 1984 a player has made 14 free throws in 15 minutes of action.

There are not adjectives in the dictionary to properly describe how crazy this is. Yes, it's just a preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets, but come on, you're watching the same games I am. How do you not walk away flabbergasted when a 7'2" center, who was trusted enough to shoot a technical free throw during the game, can just casually do stuff like this?

If NBC Sports Philadelphia had gone through with their original plan to not broadcast the game locally, this game would have been a miniature (and modern) version of Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game. Very few people would have been able to see it, and media members probably would have had to convince fans that this all actually happened. Thankfully, Philadelphians got to see it with their own two eyes.

The final line for his first game this preseason? 22 points, seven rebounds, three assists, and one block on 4-9 shooting (14-18 FT). Ridiculous.

It wasn't just the Joel Embiid show, either. Saric was a menace against Brooklyn, knocking down five three-point attempts and doing a lot of dirty work in the painted area. If he's able to hit threes at even an average clip, it is a game-changer for the Sixers. Being able to put Saric on the court with Simmons would put a lot of passing talent on the floor at one time, and the sky is the limit from there.

TJ McConnell, ever the unsung hero, deserves a shout out of his own. He has played in a wide variety of lineups during the preseason, alongside starters and deep bench players alike, and after another strong showing Wednesday it seems impossible he'll be kept out of the rotation. He might even add a little flash to his game this year.

But even those guys have to admit who the real star of the show is. When NBCSP's Jessica Camerato caught up with Saric after the game, his reaction to Embiid's performance made the pecking order clear.

He's pure talent, just pure talent. He's got talent to be one of the best to play this game, this power with his body, how he move [sic], how he can shoot for that size, it's unbelievable... I hope, you know, he will stay healthy. If he stays healthy, I hope I will be in his team, I hope I will be part of his team.

His team. That's why the Sixers handed Embiid that hefty $148 million contract. He can disappear from the action for 8 months, but when the lights are on and he walks out the tunnel, he comes back and hoops like he never left.