Embiid, who nearly quit basketball, has evolved into of the NBA’s more dominant rising stars
It’s a testament to the meteoric rise of Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid over the past two years that the transcendent 23-year-old is the first player since Anthony Davis in 2014 to be on the roster for both the All-Star Game and the Rising Stars Challenge during the same season.
And yet it’s wild to think that during his first two injury-riddled seasons in the league — he didn’t play a single game during those first two seasons with the 76ers — Embiid was close to calling it quits and moving back to his home country of Cameroon.
“I wanted to quit basketball,” Embiid told CBS Sports as he was preparing for the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday evening in Los Angeles. “Just not being able to play the game I loved, the game I was passionate about — I just wanted to quit basketball and go home and forget everything.”
He paused. The foot injuries, the surgeries, his younger brother’s death at age 13: All of this mixed into a toxic stew with basketball pundits calling him a bust. It nearly broke Embiid. He nearly quit the game that made him a millionaire.
“I’m glad I didn’t,” he said.
So are the Sixers. Embiid has become everything they hoped he’d become when then-general manager Sam Hinkie rolled the dice on him with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft. He’s averaging 23.7 points and 11.1 rebounds this season. He’s still blocking a lot of shots (1.8 per game) while learning to play smarter team defense. Most importantly, he’s played in 44 of Philadelphia’s 55 games, averaging 31.4 minutes per game, swatting away those early-season minutes restrictions like he’s swatted away so many of his opponents’ jump shots.
It’s a far cry from those depressing first few couple of seasons in the league, where you, me and even Embiid wondered whether he’d become the next Hakeem Olajuwon, who was the first NBA player he tried to emulate as a teenager … or the next Sam Bowie, the player who was taken between Olajuwon and Michael Jordan in the draft but whose career was marked more by injury-led disappointment than by any sort of achievement.
“Especially thinking about where I came from, then missing my first two years, everyone calling me a bust, saying all this stuff about me — it’s so much more sweeter to actually be here now with all the All-Stars,” Embiid said. “I just want to go out there and just have fun because you never know when it’s going to be taken away from you.”
This brings us to the most recent drama in the 76ers’ universe: The strange saga of Markelle Fultz. Through an injury or poor practice techniques or a mental block, or some combination of all three, the 2017 No. 1 overall pick has forgotten how to shoot. Like Embiid, the story of his first season in the league has been whether he’s going to become an all-time bust instead of becoming an All-Star.
Embiid’s close with Fultz. It’s been painful for Embiid to watch another young player live through a sequel to the same early-career frustrations he lived through. He’s spoken with the 19-year-old frequently about his own experiences — the frustrations with injuries, with unfulfilled expectations, with having to be patient and persistent — and is confident Fultz will pull through this difficult stretch just like Embiid pulled through his own difficult stretch.
“I know what it feels like having everyone call you a bust but knowing that you actually can be really, really good,’ Embiid said. “It’s just about confidence. It’s hard being a 19–year-old in the league. But he’s going to be great. He’s going to figure it out. I gotta help him. We all gotta help him. And I’m going to make sure we stand by him through all this.”