Before he knew it, suddenly, Jason Terry found himself trapped in the corner. By the time Ersan Ilyasova managed to come away with the loose ball, he took a look up the floor and recognized one of his teammates ahead of the pack.
Without hesitation, Ilyasova channeled his inner Aaron Rodgers and hurled a bomb. Joel Embiid received it just beyond the center circle, took a few dribbles, eluded Malcolm Brogdon, rose majestically and threw down a thunderous dunk that sucked the life out of Milwaukee’s Bradley Center.
Twenty-two points, 12 rebounds and five blocks later, the Philadelphia 76ers had won their sixth game in their past eight contests.
This is The Process.
Back in 1999, Jeff Van Gundy had famously fallen out with New York Knicks general manager Ernie Grunfeld. In attempting to help Patrick Ewing and Van Gundy get the Knicks over the hump, Grunfeld determined that the Knicks needed some new blood and made a few moves to make the team younger and more athletic. Among the moves was a trade completed on June 25, 1998. Grunfeld agreed to send franchise favorite Charles Oakley to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Marcus Camby.
With the Knicks struggling during the lockout-truncated 1998-99 season, Grunfeld was demoted. Camby and Latrell Sprewell—one of Grunfeld’s other prized acquisitions—would help lead the Knicks to the 1999 NBA Finals and be productive players for the franchise for many years. He just wasn’t around to see it all come to fruition.
The Knicks organization, apparently, wasn’t willing to trust the process. Neither were the Philadelphia 76ers.
Former general manager Sam Hinkie currently resides in Palo Alto, California, but his fingerprints remain on the Sixers as if he resided on Broad Street. His players, his decisions, his guts and, above all, his former draft pick, Joel Embiid.
Make no mistake about it, the Sixers have turned a corner, and it’s mostly because the Cameroonian center has proven to be worth the wait. Embiid, to this point, has delivered on every bit of his promise. His per-36-minute averages of 28 points, 11 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 3.5 blocks become all the more impressive considering when one considers that Embiid is effectively playing in his rookie season. Although he has had time to train under the rigors of NBA conditions and with its technology, his rapid ascent and production give him a very real opportunity of earning a spot as an Eastern Conference All-Star this season, which was absolutely unfathomable entering the season.
Obviously, there is no telling how good Embiid may end up being in the long run, but he has already helped carry the Sixers franchise to places it hasn’t been in several years.
With the aforementioned victory against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers enter play on January 18 having won six of their past eight games. After winning a combined total of 47 games over the past three seasons, one would have to go all the way back to November of 2012 to find such a stretch.
What’s most encouraging about Embiid, however, is something that’s intangible: his spirit.
Those who have spent time around the young center often come away from him being encouraged by and positively attracted to his attitude. Evidenced by his jovial nature on social media, Embiid strikes the difficult balance of not taking himself too seriously but approaching his preparation with maturity and a business-like focus. According to some close to the organization, he has never had trouble taking the long view and understanding that some of the minor frustrations he experiences today are in his future best interests.
What’s been most noticeable about Embiid, however, has been his impact on his teammates and on the culture in Brett Brown’s locker room. For the past few years, the Sixers have been going about their business almost like a rudderless ship. There’s only so long that young men can hear about “patience” and “process” and remain steadfast to a vision without seeing any return on their investments. But when Embiid shows up and plays, he gives both his head coach and the vision that Brown has for his team a credibility that could only be bought by using incremental success as its currency.
So that’s where we are. Embiid has lifted an entire team and fan base and has improbably risen as the chosen one of the triumvirate of Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and himself. With Ben Simmons inching toward his own debut and the young Sixers suddenly believing in their ability to compete, in Philadelphia, finally, trust abounds.
Sure, the road back to contention will be long. Entering play on January 18, the Sixers find themselves trailing the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference by six games. Qualifying appears unlikely, but that may not be a bad thing. The 2017 NBA Draft is believed to be one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, and the Sixers appear to have an inside track to another two, potentially franchise-altering picks. Aside from owning their own, they may end up with the pick of the Los Angeles Lakers, which is top-three protected.
Although there still may be a bit of losing in the immediate future of the Sixers, it’s obvious that Embiid has already done wonders for the franchise. So long as he can stay healthy, it is safe to say that the corner is being turned.
Across the country, even Sam Hinkie can see that.
Back in 2014, in selecting Embiid with the third overall pick of the draft, Hinkie took a monumental risk as he was embarking down the path of rebuilding the Sixers into a respectable franchise.
Back then, he began the process. And now, finally, the process has started to turn things around for the 76ers. His name is Joel Embiid.
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