Embiid 50 night, Sixers-Magic

Joel Embiid was on a rollercoaster.

The Sixers’ star center was coming off a forgettable 2019-20 campaign that saw him miss 31 games and his team — albeit missing Ben Simmons — falling woefully short of expectations. He was speeding down the track.

Then, in September of 2020, his son, Arthur Elijah De Paula Embiid, was born, and the cart powered upward. Embiid didn’t want that exhilaration to end. So, he decided it was time to make a change — for himself, for his team and for his little boy.

“We all just lost in the first round. We got swept. Bubble was not a great experience,” Embiid said after his 50-point outing on Wednesday night.

“So yeah, I was extremely disrespected, especially when it came to, whether it’s All-NBA and all this stuff. So just felt like, between Drew — my trainer — and nutritionist, we needed to find a way to make sure I felt great about my body and also about my game. I also saw it as an opportunity to kind of actually make use of the talent that I have. And obviously, becoming a father is probably the biggest part of it because I want my son to look at his dad and I want to set the bar high for him.”

Embiid gives the diplomatic answer more often than not. But, his occasional references to individual accolades tell you that he cares about those tokens of recognition. And when he’s snubbed, he takes it quite personally. You might call it selfish, being motivated by individual awards. But for the ultimate competitors, it sometimes takes those low moments to catalyze greatness.

Actions always speak louder than words, and Embiid did more than tell his close confidants that he wanted to be better following his team’s dismissal at the hands of the Boston Celtics in August of 2020.

“It goes back to two summers ago. You know, before last year, when I really decided to work on everything — my body, working with a nutritionist, having a team around me to try to figure out the best way my body needed to be,” Embiid said after his team’s victory over the Magic on Wednesday.

“I didn’t lose any weight. We just changed a bunch of stuff, especially when it came to what I was eating, you know. We didn’t change anything I eat, we just changed the way it was made. I’m thankful for that. She told me I hadn’t lost any weight, that that was not the goal. The goal was just to make sure my body felt great to be able to be available every single day, every single game. It was great. That’s something I need to keep on working at. I’m still getting better. I’m not perfect. From time to time, it’s going to happen. But it’s all about every single day trying to be better.”

Embiid has gotten better, and then some. Since the sweep in the bubble, he is averaging a career-high 28.45 points per game with career-best three-point, effective field goal, and true shooting percentages. The scoring and shooting metrics are not as elite this season as they were in 2020-21, the first season post bubble. But this season, he’s on track for the best assist-to-turnover ratio of his 6-year career. So, Embiid has balanced his elevated scoring prowess with a new tier of playmaking.

Perhaps most important of all, his durability has improved since that transformative offseason. After missing 31 games in 2019-20 and 21 in 2020-21, Embiid has only missed 11 games this season — 9 of which were related to the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol. He’s played 26 of the team’s last 27 games. The only other such stretch of availability was 26 consecutive games to start the 2018-19 season.

Embiid knows that it’s not about how he starts, but how he finishes. Last season, his MVP candidacy was washed away with a bone bruise suffered in a game against the Wizards immediately following the All-Star break.

And from the sounds of it, Embiid is going to do whatever he can to not let that happen again.

“It’s extremely early. The main thing with me has always been health. I feel like if I played 10 more games than I did, I probably end up winning, especially being the first seed and the numbers that I was putting,” Embiid said on Wednesday.

“So, the main thing is just being healthy. And then, obviously, this year we’ve had so much going and missing our second best player. It’s been a lot to do, and I love it. I love the challenge. My teammates have been there for me, and I love the challenge. It’s up to you guys to figure it out [who should win MVP]. But, based on the circumstances and the way I’ve been playing for the past whatever games. [Pause] I don’t know, it’s up to you guys to decide. But, I just play at the best level possible that I can, as well as being the best player in the world. For us to win, I have to be that guy every single night.”