Few people would have predicted Sixers center Joel Embiid would be so good so early into his first NBA season. Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni, on the other hand, is not the least bit surprised by the meteoric rise.
D'Antoni spent four months with the Sixers as the associate head coach during the 2015-16 season, by far the shortest stop of his NBA coaching career. Despite the abbreviated tenure, not to mention the fact that Embiid was neither playing nor practicing with the team at the time, it was still long enough to realize there was something special happening.
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"Oh, yeah. You could tell," D'Antoni said of Embiid prior to the Sixers hosting the Rockets at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday.
"He was working out pretty good, and he was playing some one-on-ones and stuff. You could tell. Just talk to him. You knew he had talent, but then he has an intelligence for the game also, so it was a no-brainer."
D'Antoni was certain from his brief stint with the Sixers that Embiid would be a star the instant he was healthy enough to hit the floor.
"As soon as he could play," D'Antoni said. "He's good. He's very unique, and he's over seven feet, and he can shoot threes, he can run, has great hands, his intelligence. There's no reason why it would take him awhile."
After unsuccessful coaching gigs with the Knicks and Lakers, D'Antoni had been out of the NBA for over a year until the Sixers came calling last December.
Sixers coach Brett Brown welcomed D'Antoni in December of 2015 on the recommendation of Jerry Colangelo, special adviser to managing owner Josh Harris. After beginning the season with a 1-26 record, the team went 9-46 the rest of the way.
D'Antoni was able to parlay the job into a head job with the Rockets beginning this season, but he knew the Sixers weren't far from a turnaround when he made his exit.
"Brett's been doing a great job, and you did add some good pieces," D'Antoni said. "When you have somebody with the quality of an Embiid, it doesn't take a whole lot to turn it around, and obviously they have."
D'Antoni also weighed in on the feeling that Embiid was overlooked for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, though was quick to point out that was the decision of coaches in the Eastern Conference.
Many have theorized the minutes restrictions the Sixers have placed on Embiid hurt his chances of receiving an invitation. While there is undoubtedly some truth to that, D'Antoni thinks selectors should've considered what he's done with those minutes compared to the rest of the league.
"What he did in those minutes is more than anybody else has been doing, so I don't know," D'Antoni said. "Just everybody has their preferences, who knows, but it's no slight on him. Somebody has to be left out, and there's some great players."
Then again, D'Antoni seems certain Embiid will have plenty of opportunities in the future.
"I'm sure he's going to make a lot of them, so he'll be fine."