CAMDEN, N.J. - Joel Embiid's right hand looks like it hurts. It's still puffy and swollen over a week after he originally injured it in the Sixers' win on New Year's Eve over the Suns.
But Embiid practiced on Monday, and for coach Brett Brown, that's cause for celebration.
"Joel practicing today makes it one of my happiest days," Brown said.
"His hand's still sore. But any time we can get him to practice, to improve his conditioning and more importantly, let him interact with his teammates when it's not only in front of 20,000 people in an NBA game, that stuff is more important to me than the side note of him going up and down and getting his cardio."
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According to Embiid, his hand is more than just sore. He said it's "still bothering me a lot," still "really painful," just not enough to sideline him.
"I want to be on the court, and if I miss a game, that means something is hurting really bad," Embiid said. "The other night, obviously I was doubtful, but I felt like I could help the team win, so I went out there. I was kind of scared because if someone hits you, that's when it hurts more, so I've just got to be careful. But I want to be on the court, I want to play, so if it's not the type of pain that really bothers me, I'm going to be out there."
Despite not being pain-free, Embiid is optimistic about eventually being cleared to play in back-to-back games, though he acknowledges the medical staff has the final say.
"I think the main thing is for me to keep practicing," Embiid said. "And after games, the next day to practice and see how my body feels. And that's on them, that's their decision. Obviously I want to play, but that's their decision, and if they feel like I can sustain the intensity of game, practice, game, then I think by the beginning of February I should be playing back-to-backs."
The team's first back-to-back set next month is Feb. 2 vs. Miami and Feb. 3 at Indiana.
The other major development on the injury front for the Sixers is Markelle Fultz playing full contact 5-on-5, which he did for the first time Sunday (see story). After Monday's practice, JJ Redick said he was impressed with the rookie's progress.
"He looked great, truthfully. He looked great," Redick said. "I've been really, really impressed with him. Especially for how long he's had off and away from playing 5-on-5, I thought he's looked really good."
Brown said the main barometer for when Fultz will return is "the discomfort in his shoulder as it affects his shot." He acknowledged that Sixers fans are eager for Fultz's return, and empathized with those closely studying the short video snippets of Fultz's jumper at practice, desperate for some sort of definitive timeline.
"I think it's such a snapshot into Philadelphia fans, that they are dying, they are crying for success," Brown said. "They're curious about what's going on with Markelle. The things our fans have had to endure with the history of our high draft picks either being out for a long time or missing the year, and now wondering what's going on with Markelle, we understand the whole thing. And I think the excitement is just a snapshot in a positive way of Philadelphia fans and the genuine interest they have in the growth of our program."