“I don’t do anything but play video games, I don’t go out” – Joel Embiid
For all of the amazing and still underrated intangibles that Ben Simmons brings to an NBA team, it’s hard to escape the notion that the Philadelphia 76ers go only as far as Joel Embiid takes them. The 7′ center is a defensive prodigy and an offensive load. Joel Embiid commands double teams consistently on the low block despite all analytics saying it is one of the least efficient shots in the game. There is no getting around the fact that Embiid is the cornerstone, centerpiece, and superstar that makes the 76ers so unique and compelling in the modern NBA. At a time when everyone is going smaller, the Sixers have decided to go big or go home.
Big Man, Big Personality
Joel Embiid’s production rivals some of the all-time great NBA big men. At just 25, his resume is beginning to look like many Hall of Famers who have come before him. Embiid has been called “Shaq with soccer feet” by coach Brett Brown. He also has drawn comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon since his freshman year at Kansas. At that time he had played basketball for just 3 years. And that is important. Joel Embiid did not grow up playing team sports from the age of 6 like many others. He did not live the AAU travel ball life that many of his peers have. His truly impressive IQ has allowed him to become likable and funny in multiple languages, but there may not be a deep foundation of team dynamics to understand that a team means more than simply doing a job.
And while many big men are outgoing and gregarious, Joel Embiid has always been reclusive off the court. He is a marvel on social media and is often seen in the community being “just a normal human being.” But as charismatic as Embiid can be on camera or social media, he is not known for being a connector on his team when it comes to off-court activities. Make no mistake, people like Joel Embiid. The Joel fans see is not an act. But like many introverts, Joel seems to be emotionally drained by being “on” and uses his time alone to recharge.
Joel on Joel
“I won’t lie; I’m not that type of guy. I’m more reserved, you know. I keep everybody close as family, and all I want to do is really play video games. The last time I did something was probably four years ago,” said Embiid recently about his preference to go home from practice and stay in the hotel when traveling. “I just don’t like doing anything some guys do. I don’t have any hobbies. I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t do anything. So we all different, I’m different.”
Joel Embiid continued, “But basketball brings us together. And we’ve had the opportunity to be with each other, to understand each other, to know each other, and we got another eight games to get back into that… before we actually get into it [NBA playoffs]. So I’m excited. I’m excited to play.”
Brett Brown’s Take
On Saturday I asked Brown if the NBA bubble has helped the reclusive Embiid come out of his shell a bit. Brown agreed strongly that it had. “He and I talked a lot about that yesterday. And he was the one that brought it to me,” said Brown about Embiid. “It’s hard to explain the sort of the forced camaraderie, because of the environment, togetherness. You really don’t have anybody else,” said Brown on the overall team molding camaraderie.
How do you form a team? – Brett Brown heading into the NBA restart
“Joel, we all understand he comes in, and he brings it in practices, a game, and then he goes home,” said Brown. “There are a lot of players that are like that. I’m kind of like that. And so this environment here, I just think, is surreal.”
“In the fact that you got no choice. Here you are, you’re with each other, and I love it, I love it, love it, and I think guys have. Most importantly, (they) appreciate each other’s company.”
So Joel Embiid is the inescapable presence over this entire team’s fate. When he is on the defensive end of the floor, he allows his teammates to play loose and with the knowledge that he will be there to protect the rim. Offensively, the team knows that when he is locked in, he cannot be guarded one on one. That creates open looks for others if he knows where they will be and can make quick decisions. He has a gravity that could rival that of Steph Curry if he can find open men and force teams to pick their poison. But to do that, he and his teammates must be connected. They must form a cohesive unit. It seems like the NBA Bubble in Orlando may have accelerated that chemistry in a very meaningful way. If so, there is no limit to what the 76ers can accomplish.