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May 03, 2023

What they're saying: Joel Embiid's long journey to NBA MVP

Joel Embiid's journey to the NBA MVP Award was years in the making and pushed forward by countless names who have come and gone over the years.

Just from watching the video alone, you could see the weight of the world fall off Joel Embiid's shoulders once the announcement came in and his teammates surrounded him in pure joy

Finally, after everything, he's the NBA's Most Valuable Player. 

Through two entire years lost to injury, through personal loss, through all the miserable years of The Process with only a prayer that it would work, the arrival to contention only to be met with numerous early playoff exits, and having to do every last thing and then some to even be considered in the conversation over the past several years, Embiid finally got it and earned every last bit of the honor. 

He's basketball's very best right now, and it's not even close

"I don't even know where to start," Embiid told the TNT crew Tuesday night over a video call with all of his teammates in the background. "It's been a long time coming, a lot of hard work. I've been through a lot, and I'm not just talking about basketball, I'm talking about everything in life, my story, where I come from, how I got here, and what it took for me to be here, so it feels good. I don't know what to say...It's amazing."

Embiid was sure to give everyone in that hotel conference room behind him all the credit in the world because he knew he wouldn't have reached this moment without them, but his journey to becoming an MVP was years in the making and went well beyond that room, through connections to the Sixers, and himself, that have come and gone over the years. 

Stories of that journey, and the countless names that helped push it forward, were told in spades Tuesday night once the news was made official, even though Embiid will be the first to tell you that it's far from over. 

Still, here's a small collection of excerpts from those stories and what they're saying about the Sixers now that Embiid is the MVP:

A different level

Rich Hofmann | The Athletic ($)

Billy Lange was the Sixers' assistant coach through those very, very lean years in the mid-2010s and was personally tasked with Joel Embiid's development during those first two years worth of foot injuries. 

It was brutal on both of them. Rehab-wise, with Embiid only being able to shoot from a chair for so long, the drills grew monotonous, and they had to get creative in varying things up to find ways to get through. 

But they managed, Embiid got better, and when he was finally cleared to stand up and scrimmage, Lange, now St. Joe's head coach, realized what kind of player the Sixers actually had. 

Wrote Rich Hofmann:

The Sixers lost 136 combined games in Embiid’s first two seasons. Even if “The Process” proved to be the correct team-building strategy, getting through those losing seasons is difficult for an organization. The on-court product didn’t offer much hope at all. In 2016, Hinkie resigned before Embiid, the future star he drafted, ever took the floor.

But behind the scenes, there was hope that the Sixers had a potential game-changer … if they could just get him healthy. Lange recalls a couple of postseason workouts in which Embiid scrimmaged against his teammates at the Sixers’ tiny practice facility. The other players were tired from a grueling NBA season, but after waiting all that time, Embiid was finally cleared to play.

“He was going at these guys like it was NBA Finals,” Lange said. “I mean, they were like, ‘Oh, we’re done. No one can handle this.’ And so you just saw what he was capable of because for him that was between the lines and it was basketball and ‘I have not yet played.’ And he annihilated them physically, mentally, emotionally. He just was on a different level.”

Before winning the MVP this season, Embiid was runner-up the previous two seasons. While he hasn’t avoided the injury bug completely, he has appeared in 134 combined games over the past two regular seasons. After his first few seasons, that level of durability was considered anything but a given. [The Athletic, $]

The beauty of it

Gina Mizell | The Philadelphia Inquirer ($)

Joel Embiid's MVP journey may not have even started had Luc Mbah a Moute not seen him in their home country of Cameroon. 

But the former Sixer was in the right place at the right time, and ended up with a front-row seat to the rise from its very beginning.

Wrote Gina Mizell of the two's connection:

Perhaps nobody can tell Embiid “I knew you when …” more than Mbah a Moute, who discovered Embiid in their native Cameroon and began mentoring the teenage, late-blooming player. That Embiid weighed less than 200 pounds at the 2011 BWB camp — and was not even selected as a top-20 participant — illuminates his stunning personal trajectory while providing inspiration for aspiring players in Africa.

“He’s that kid that was always pushed to the side that kept going, kept using that as motivation,” Mbah a Moute said. “To see where he’s at today, to me, that’s the beauty of his story.”

Mbah a Moute has witnessed “surreal” moment after surreal moment with Embiid, beginning when he was the third overall pick in the 2014 draft approximately five years after they first met. They were Sixers teammates Embiid’s first season, when the young center observed and asked questions even while sitting out. That provided Mbah a Moute with further belief that Embiid could be “special.” And when Embiid finally took the floor as a pro, Mbah a Moute was struck by his already-fluid movement.

From there, it became “this kid is an All-Star … this kid is in the conversation for MVP … this kid is leading the league in scoring.”

“It all surprises me, in a really good way,” Mbah a Moute said, “because I don’t want to be accustomed to it.” [The Inquirer, $]

The moment you knew

Adam Aaronson | Rights to Ricky Sanchez

Like Lange and Mbah a Moute, Sam Hinkie, Brett Brown, and so many others around basketball, every Sixers fan has their own moment when they realized Embiid was someone special. 

For Adam Aaronson, that moment was the 2016 season opener and the instant connection Embiid made with the Philadelphia crowd just by being on the floor, after two years of doubt over whether he would ever play at all. 

Recounted Aaronson:

A sudden roar startled me. The date was October 26, 2016, and I was at the Wells Fargo Center, walking toward my seat in the opening minutes of the Sixers’ season-opening game. The deafening sound of cheers confused me. I looked at the scoreboard awaiting the replay of whatever highlight had just occurred.

There was never a replay, because there was never a highlight. 19 seconds into the game, Embiid rebounded a missed shot. With your eyes closed, you would have guessed he dunked on Russell Westbrook at the buzzer to win an NBA Finals game.

The vast majority of Sixers basketball over the last many years was far from exciting. But Embiid, finally making the NBA debut many doubted would exist, instantly connected with the crowd in a way that you could quickly tell was special. 

Embiid went on to nod confidently to the crowd after making his first basket. An ensuing block of Westbrook blew the roof off the place. He brought everyone in attendance to their feet with a three from the top of the key. And after more than two years on the sidelines, Embiid had solidified his special bond with the city of Philadelphia in just 22 glorious minutes.

Joel Embiid has been named the 2022-23 NBA Most Valuable Player. After two straight years finishing as the runner-up, Embiid’s dominance had finally cleared the threshold. For the rest of time, Joel Embiid will be an NBA MVP. [RTRS]

Winning the game they never do

Paul Hudrick | Liberty Ballers

Turning to the playoff series at hand – and taking one last look at Game 1 before moving on to Game 2 – the Sixers stole a critical 1-0 series lead up in Boston behind a monumental performance from James Harden and with Embiid sidelined from a knee sprain. 

As our own Kyle Neubeck has written many times over the course of the season, there's something different about this Sixers team. There's a toughness and resiliency to them that wasn't there before, and Game 1 Monday night was proof of it. 

Not having Embiid would've been enough for them to crumble a year ago, but now? They gutted it out against a Celtics team that has had a 1-up on them for years. They found a way. 

As Paul Hudrick put it, the Sixers won a game they never do, which sparks hope that this season may finally be the one that's actually different:

Way back on media day in September of 2022, Tyrese Maxey shared head coach Doc Rivers’ overarching message to the team: “This is a ‘we’ season, not a ‘me’ season.”

Sure, it was a little cheesy, but it stuck. You heard multiple players reference it throughout the season. The team also acquired multiple players who embody that phrase.

With Joel Embiid out and facing the heavily-favored Celtics in the second round, nobody would’ve been surprised if the Sixers lost. It felt like a forgone conclusion that they’d drop Game 1 and hope that the presumptive MVP’s LCL sprain would heal enough to have a chance to steal Game 2.

Instead, the Sixers turned a “here we go again” situation into a team-defining moment, winning a game they never win in Boston, 119-115, Monday.

“We didn’t come into the game expecting to lose. We are here to win,” James Harden, who had a virtuoso 45-point performance, told reporters in Boston. “Even after this game, I told the guys, ‘Don’t get too happy. We’re even-keeled. We’re coming in here to get Game 2 as well.’ So that’s the mindset we have as a unit. Whether Jo comes back or not, we’ll be ready to go. Obviously, he’s everything for this team. But whoever’s on the floor, let’s go win the game, and that’s what we did tonight.”

Look, Sixers fans. Doc Rivers deserves credit. You might have to grit your teeth while you give it, but it’s deserved. [Liberty Ballers]

And with Embiid reportedly "on track" to play Game 2 Wednesday night, the Sixers have a real chance to make good on it and take a tide-turning 2-0 lead back to Philly. 

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