At some point, the reality of his newness was bound to set in.
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Joel Embiid burst into his rookie season with such physical force and versatile talent that he made his first year in the league look easy.
Embiid attempted 16 field goals for 20 points in 22 minutes on opening night against Steven Adams and the Thunder. He dropped a career-high 22 against the reigning champion Cavaliers, including a perfect 4 for 4 from three, while facing Tristan Thompson. Those were just a few of his early highlights.
The Sixers' offense is powered by Embiid even though he is limited to 24 minutes. It hasn’t taken long for opponents to pick up on that. On Monday, the Jazz came to Philadelphia with a pair of bigs prepared to stifle the Sixers’ centerpiece.
“People are going to come at him,” Brett Brown said after the Sixers' 109-84 loss (see Instant Replay). “They recognize that he is also one of our best scorers and they are going to create a crowd around him. That’s going to be part of our evolution, is how do you play through him and have him quarterback a gym? I doubt we’re not going to touch this topic kind of forever while we’re going through this evolution.”
With 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert and 6-foot-10 Derrick Favors in their starting frontcourt, the Jazz limited Embiid. Brown thought the Jazz were effective in pressuring the Sixers' point guards, which impacted their passes to Embiid on the post or at the elbow.
Embiid finished with 14 points, but he did not hit a field goal until 4:31 remaining in the first half. He went 0 for 2 in the first quarter, 1 for 3 in the second, 1 for 1 in the third and 2 for 2 in the fourth. Embiid shot 4 for 8 from the field and 6 for 9 from the line in 19 minutes (see Embiid's highlights). He said he did not attempt a three because of the Jazz’s aggressive defense.
“They were digging a lot when I had the ball in the post,” Embiid said. “They’ve got a good shot blocker behind over there. They just did their job.”
Embiid was whistled for five fouls. He also committed five of the Sixers' 18 turnovers, and is averaging a team-high 4.4 on the season. It is errors like this that come with his acclimation to the NBA.
“I haven’t played in two years,” Embiid said. “So I’ve kind of got to simulate those type of situations, double-teams or people digging when I’m driving, handoffs. It’s just going to take time.”
The Sixers know about the importance of taking time with Embiid. He was sidelined for two years with foot injuries and the team continues to closely monitor his basketball activity. The fact he is posting 17.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in less than 22 minutes per game makes it easy to forget all of that at first glance.
“There are lots of times where it’s clear he’s still a young man that hasn’t played basketball for 2½ years and is finding his feet, all wrapped up in this big frame with a hell of a lot of talent,” Brown said.
The Sixers will continue to go to Embiid. In turn, opponents will continue to double team and pressure him. Over the course of this season and those in the future, Embiid will develop beyond his first handful of NBA matchups.
“He’s only played the games that we all know,” Brown said. “We all get excited that he’s going to come out and from the get and go be Joel Embiid and sort of play like a poised veteran, and it’s just not fair or true. Led by me, there is a level of realization to go through that we all have to grow. We’ve got to wait and watch and grow him.”