Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid understands the challenge of becoming a champion — Andscape
SAN FRANCISCO — It wasn’t that long ago that an oft-injured Joel Embiid was telling everyone who would listen to trust the process. The process played out quite well for the Philadelphia 76ers center, who went from injury-riddled in his first three seasons to a six-time NBA All-Star now projected as the leading candidate for the 2023 NBA MVP award.
And if the MVP does end up in the Cameroonian’s huge hands, his movielike journey from Africa to injury-riddled to NBA superstardom will be further solidified as stunning.
“I don’t like to focus on the negative, although I thought that was kind of like a blessing in disguise, because I went through a lot during that time,” Embiid told Andscape after scoring 46 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists in a 120-112 loss to the Golden State Warriors on March 24.
The positive now for Embiid is that his monster season has put him in prime position to challenge for the MVP award against back-to-back winner Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum.
This season, Embiid averaged an NBA-best 33.1 points, ranked eighth in rebounds (8.1) and blocks per game (1.7), and also was third among centers in assists per game (4.1). The 7-foot 280-pounder has campaigned for the MVP award in recent years but hasn’t done so this season. Jokic, the two-time defending MVP, has said that he doesn’t care about the award and it has been frequently debated in NBA media circles whether he truly deserved to win twice. Nuggets coach Michael Malone also weighed in on the anti-Jokic talk by saying, “They’re just tired of this non-athletic player who continues to kick everybody’s a–.”
“I keep saying I don’t care. If I win, great. If I don’t, it’s whatever,” Embiid told Andscape. “Being in the running the last three years has been cool. I’ve seen it all. It is funny. A lot has been said, and a lot of people haven’t been happy about how the whole thing has been going on, about how people keep bashing each other and all that stuff. Where was all that [sympathy for me]? People kept bashing me the last two seasons, putting me down. But now other guys are being put down, now it’s an issue.
“So that’s why I stay out of it. This year I’ve made a commitment to not put myself out there, talking about I’m the MVP, or saying I want to win. For the guys that keep saying, ‘it’s whatever, I don’t care about winning it, doesn’t matter.’ But it’s all bulls—. You want to be the MVP. That means a lot being the MVP of the league. There are only certain guys that get the opportunity to have their name on it. It would be a great honor. But I’m the point now where I’m used to [the MVP talk]. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, great.”
Joel Hans Embiid was born in Yaoundé, Cameroon, on March 16, 1994. His first sports loves were volleyball and soccer and he and his family had pro volleyball aspirations for him. Standing 6-9 and still growing, however, to his father’s chagrin, he abruptly turned his interest to basketball at age 15. A basketball coach gave Embiid a DVD of NBA legend and Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon to learn his elite footwork and postgame, and he watched it countless times and learned from it.
Embiid was discovered by then-Milwaukee Bucks forward Luc Mbah a Moute at his youth basketball camp in his native Cameroon. Mbah a Moute recalls one of his old coaches saying that he should keep an eye on Embiid when he attended his basketball camp.
“Someone threw him the ball, but it was behind him when he was running in transition,” Mbah a Moute said. “They threw the ball on the opposite side. He turned, caught the ball, put it down on the floor like a guard, and as they were trying to reach out for the ball, he just dunked it. It was so coordinated for someone who’s just started playing. You just don’t do that. I know guys playing for years and they can’t even catch that kind of ball.
“You would see, like, a few little things that just really caught your eyes if you know the game. From that time, I was like, ‘Man, this kid has a chance to be a pro. I didn’t know he was gonna get to the MVP level.’ “
Mbah a Moute, who said his family and Embiid’s are from the same neighborhood in Yaoundé, convinced him to follow in his footsteps to depart Cameroon at the age of 16 and play high school basketball at Montverde Academy in Florida in 2010. This major life change happened for Embiid as a teenager who didn’t know English just months after learning the sport.
Embiid initially started on junior varsity basketball at Montverde, was frustrated with his lack of playing time on varsity and began thinking that his worst-case scenario was using a basketball scholarship to get a college degree. He attracted notice and gained more confidence at the NBA Africa’s Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa in 2011. And after a strong AAU performance before his senior year, he transferred to The Rock School in Gainesville, Florida, and led the Christian academy to a 2013 Florida state title after averaging 13 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.
“I always say my life is a movie, because everything just happens so fast,” Embiid said. “Started playing at 16, living in a home by yourself, not knowing the language, playing JV my junior year when I got here and then having to transfer to another school to ending up at Kansas, where I thought I had no chance of making the pros or the NBA. And I was just focused on being there for four or five years, trying to get my degree to getting drafted high.”
ESPN listed Embiid as a five-star recruit who ranked sixth nationally in the Class of 2013, and he chose Kansas over Texas and Florida. He averaged 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game during the 2013-14 season with the Jayhawks. Embiid suddenly went from an unknown project just three years earlier to declaring for the 2014 NBA draft on April 9, 2014.
Embiid underwent surgery on a broken navicular bone in his right foot on June 20, 2014, and was projected to be out for four to six months. That injury news didn’t deter the Sixers from selecting him third overall in the 2014 NBA draft.
“Everything just happened so fast from the time I started playing at 16. And then at 19 years old I was getting drafted. So, it’s crazy,” Embiid said.
Embiid missed his rookie campaign in 2014-15 due to the broken navicular bone. Tragedy also struck his rookie season as his 13-year-old brother, Arthur, died after he was struck by a car in Cameroon. Embiid wrote in The Players’ Tribune that he felt like he “lost my purpose in life” after his brother’s death and he “just wanted to quit the game and go back home to Cameroon to be with my family.” In November 2020, Embiid announced on Instagram that he named his newborn son after Arthur.
“Losing my brother, obviously that was the extremely negative part of [my journey],” Embiid said.
Embiid also missed his second season due to the foot injury. He made the 2016-17 NBA All-Rookie team after averaging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists in just 31 games of another injury-plagued season.
Looking back, Embiid believes his slow start and his mother’s advice pushed him to “become what I am.” Embiid yearned to be much more than a back-to-the-basket traditional center. He started watching video with his trainer, Drew Hanlen, of Hall of Famers like Kobe Bryant and 7-1 Dirk Nowitzki to learn more about playing on the perimeter, footwork and using size to his advantage. Embiid believed he got to his sweet spots so that his offense would be “automatic,” and he could rid himself of defensive double teams.
“During that time, you had guys like, I don’t know, Shaq [O’Neal] and Hakeem talking about, ‘You got to be on the low block,’ ” Embiid said. “My mom said it’s usually like, ‘well, if people don’t think I can do something, I’m going to prove them wrong.’ That’s why I started playing like a guard and all that stuff. I think it was a blessing in disguise. Just obviously being hurt and not being able to play, that was tough.”
Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers said that when he arrived as Sixers coach in 2020, Embiid had a reputation for not working hard, passing or taking part in pick-and-rolls. Today, Rivers said he is “proud” of Embiid’s “amazing” growth, work ethic, ability to play in more games and his increase in basketball IQ. Rivers said Embiid lived up to his requests last offseason: get a go-to move that makes him hard to guard, see the floor better and dominate the elbows.
Major injury concerns are also a thing of the past for Embiid since he played a career-high 68 games last season and 66 this season.
“He has done everything,” Rivers told Andscape. “No one outworks him. All summer he works on his game. We needed him to become a better passer. He’s doing [Charles] Barkley now … He works his a– off and you see it.”
Embiid and the Sixers enter the playoffs Saturday as the Eastern Conference’s third seed hosting the sixth-seeded Brooklyn Nets (1 p.m., ESPN). While the Sixers have the talent to win a title with Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris, Embiid understands the challenge to become a champion.
“I always say that obviously I can’t win alone. And there’s only one team that gets to be happy at the end with a championship, so it’s hard,” Embiid said. “It’s funny, I was listening to what [Portland Trail Blazers star] Dame [Lillard] was talking about, how people just think it’s like, ‘Either you win, or you suck.’ That’s not the right way to think about it, because it’s hard to win. You got a lot of great teams in this league — just in the East alone, probably the two best teams in the league, Boston, Milwaukee. And then the West is crazy, too.
“From one through eight, any of those teams can make the Finals and win it all. So, the focus is just getting [in] the best shape possible, healthy and no freak injuries, and I will try to take my teammates along and just play together. Whatever happens, happens. But I’m going to do whatever it takes to win.”
The 76ers have not been to the NBA Finals since 2001 and haven’t won an NBA title in 40 years. So, what would it mean for Embiid to bring a championship back to the City of Brotherly Love?
“It would mean everything. I’ve always said that it would be nice to play for one team for your whole career,” Embiid said. “It would be fun, but sometimes you also want new challenges and all that stuff. But it would mean a lot. I’ve been here for such a long time, but it would just validate all the suffering and all the hard work that we put in.”
It would also mean everything for Embiid to help more Africans follow in his footsteps to college basketball and the NBA. He is a big fan of the Basketball Africa League, which is in the midst of its third season, and watches games regularly.
Embiid would also like to help Africans on and off the court.
“There’s so much more I want to do,” Embiid said. “I’m trying to build this team around me that can help me reach some level as far as helping people, whether it’s basketballwise or building hospitals and schools. It’s all about having the right people around. I’ve always said that there’s a lot of talent in Africa. We just don’t have the resources, and we don’t have the right people to teach us.
“I was lucky. A couple of these guys were lucky. It’s all about being lucky, but it’s going to take more than me. It’s going to take some other guys, but I like the way we [are] headed.”