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January 18, 2018

Sixers' Joel Embiid named 2018 NBA All-Star starter for the first time in his career

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He fell short of the mark in year one, but Joel Embiid was not to be denied a second time. On the strength of dominant traditional stats and the sizable impact he has on the team around him, the second-year center has been named an NBA All-Star for the first time in his career.

Embiid, who was one of the 10 starters unveiled on Thursday evening, joins some serious NBA royalty in his first crack at the midseason showcase. 

He will represent the East alongside Cleveland's LeBron James, Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, Toronto's DeMar DeRozan, and Boston's Kyrie Irving. The West group is just as stacked, featuring Golden State's Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, Houston's James Harden, and New Orleans' Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. That is elite company by any stretch of the imagination.

It remains unclear who Embiid will end up playing alongside for the game. As the two leading vote-getters on the fan side of things, James and Curry will be the captains in the revamped All-Star game, free to pick their teams at their own discretion. James being captain and potentially picking Embiid is a fun subplot for Sixers fans to watch, with the franchise hoping to lure the future Hall of Famer to Philly this offseason.

One of the bigger subplots of the lead-up was Embiid's battle for positioning with Celtics big man Al Horford, the latter of whom was given credit in some circles for simply playing more games than Embiid. A couple prominent media voters selected Horford over Embiid (and other peers) with reasoning like the following, given by The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor:

Andre Drummond is having the best season of his career, but he doesn’t space the floor and still gambles quite a bit on defense. Kristaps Porzingis got off to a blistering start, but since then he hasn’t been nearly as good. Kevin Love has been better offensively than Horford, but isn’t in the same ballpark defensively. Joel Embiid is a tough cut, mostly because of availability: He has played nine fewer games than Horford.

Other media voters were more supportive of Embiid, keeping the focus on their actual production on the court. And it's there that the debate isn't at all close, with Embiid crushing Horford in most "traditional" stat categories:

Joel Embiid 23.8 10.8 3.41.9
 Al Horford13.4 7.95.3 1.0 

The case is much more complicated than that, of course, and lineups with Horford in them for Boston have graded out in a dead heat with Embiid's Sixers lineups. But Embiid ultimately far surpassed Horford's vote total, with the Boston big man not even making the top-five in frontcourt voting amongst the players.

In the end, it was Kristaps Porzingis who posed a bigger threat to Embiid's starting position, with the Knicks center/forward beating out Embiid for the third spot in the player vote. Thankfully for Sixers fans, Embiid took the third spot behind James and Antetokounmpo in both the media and fan ballots.

Pun fully intended, but this was a process years in the making for Embiid. Long before he ever took the court as an NBA player, Embiid was being told by celebrity women that he needed to make an All-Star team in order to get her attention. It appears he would have a case to begin courting her now.

On the other side of the fence, it appears the path to this year's game for teammate Ben Simmons just got tougher. He finished a respectable fourth in backcourt voting for the East, beating out the likes of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker with a strong showing in the fan vote. But he received no consideration from the media contingent, and a sixth-place finish in the player vote left him on the outside looking in.

Now he's left to battle it out against a group of more established players for the right to make the bench. I think at this stage he's a longshot, because the coaches who select the reserves tend to reward longevity and assume young guys will eventually get their chance. Simmons cooling off after an insanely hot start will have an impact there too, as his numbers are no longer the overwhelming, historic stats they were through late November.

Either way, the Sixers have two players who are already among the most respected players in the league amongst fans, media, and their peers. That is a huge step-up for a franchise that was designed to lose games just a few years ago, and it will bolster their chances at landing a top free agent this summer.

And of course, hearty congratulations to Embiid, who got the respect of the public he so obviously deserves. After two years away from the game with career-threatening foot injuries, Embiid saw his rookie season cut short by a meniscus tear. He came all the way from Cameroon to chase his dream as a teenager, having to clear several major hurdles just to play in the NBA at all.

One dream has been accomplished. Here's hoping the big fella has the good fortune to achieve more in the years to come. 

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