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Billy Penn Illustration

This is real: The Joel Embiid Era starts tonight

We don’t blame you if you didn’t believe. Sometimes we didn’t.

For 14 years, Big Bird had a friend nobody else believed was real. Mr. Aloysius Snuffleupagus — the larger-than-life, loveable creature with the funny voice — delighted fans for almost a decade and a half before the adults on Sesame Street saw him and, themselves, started to believe.

Fourteen years.

It only took Joel Embiid three.

The Sixers’ loveable, funny-voiced character is, without question, larger-than-life. His gregarious nature, infectious smile and social media prevalence have endeared him to basketball fans around the world, while turning him into a cult figure in Philadelphia.  Finally, as the 2016-17 Sixers basketball campaign opens — the first for a rookie year thrice removed from the season he was drafted — the rest of the world can finally see what we in Philly have known to be true for years.

Joel Embiid is real. Hey kids, he’s really real.

The last meaningful basketball game Embiid played was 970 days ago, his last appearance for the Kansas Jayhawks — Embiid had 13 points and 13 rebounds in a loss to Oklahoma State on March 1, 2014 — before missing the end of his freshman campaign with what was thought at the time to be a significant but ultimately manageable injury.

Rather than return to Kansas for a second year, Embiid opted for the NBA Draft, rolling the dice that the injury wouldn’t hamper his draft stock. After his college teammate at Kansas Andrew Wiggins went first overall to Cleveland (later famously traded to Minnesota for Kevin Love), Milwaukee opted for Duke’s Jabari Parker, leaving Embiid to the Sixers with the third pick.

The Sixers had traded for Nerlens Noel one year earlier — himself a big man who missed what should have been his rookie year because of injury — so not only was Embiid a player who didn’t fill a need, nobody was entirely sure if he would be healthy enough to play out his first contract.

Remember, Embiid only played 28 games in college (647 minutes, to be exact) so the Sixers drafted him based on little more than an informed hunch. If healthy, he projected to be a star in the NBA. If recovered, he could become the next Hakeem Olajuwon. Or he could be the next Greg Oden.

More than two years later, we are about to finally find out.

We’ll spare the trip down memory lane that chronicles the rehabs and the surgeries and the updated timetables and the setbacks the Sixers front office refused to call setbacks. Instead, we’ll let this tweet tell that part of the story.

There. That felt less horrible.

A few months back, word leaked that Embiid was going to finally be healthy enough to play this season. Though he was held out of Summer League games, Embiid did play in all seven preseason games, in limited minutes, averaging 11.4 points and six rebounds per appearance. As the preseason went along, Brett Brown gave Embiid more minutes each game, from a dozen at the start up to a pre-determined 18. The team announced this week that Embiid will be given 20 in the season opener, in four chunks. As the season goes along, the minutes should increase, but the Sixers are being cautious this year to not overwork Embiid in his first extended time on the floor.

Again, he only played 647 minutes in college — two and a half years ago — and logged 103 minutes in the preseason over the past few weeks. Even with limited minutes, Embiid will be on pace to surpass 647 minutes before the new year. It’s anyone’s guess if his body will be able to respond and recover night after night.

And yet, when he’s on the court, Embiid lights up the entire gym. He’s the reason to tune in, an excuse to ignore your family and friends to watch basketball in Philly again. ESPN announcer Mike Breen, who is calling the season opener, told me this week that fans all across the country are excited about this debut, if only to see what all the hype has been about. “That’s the thing about NBA fans all over,” Breen said, “they love watching the young stars. They love saying ‘oh I remember watching him when he was a rookie, I knew he was going to be a Hall of Famer’ stuff like that. That’s what I think you’re going to see with Embiid.”

For more than two years, all we got to see with Embiid was a string of fun tweets, jokes about taking Rihanna to dinner and drinking Shirley Temples. We had some hope, too, at times, but more than anything there was frustration and disappointment. For us, and for him.

At Sixers practice this week, Embiid was asked about his debut, and why he’s telling people he’s looking at his first NBA start as just another day at the office.

“I think when I first played my first game against Boston [in preseason], I felt like I was really excited going on the court,” Embiid replied. “Every shot I took I was kind of rushed. I’m going to make [the season opener] just an easy day. I’m just going to come and play my game and not rush anything, so if I’m as excited as I was against Boston, I’m probably going to rush a lot of shots.” When asked what he’s most looking forward to as the season starts, Embiid said, “just the grind of the season. Going through 82 games. Just fighting for every win. Just playing hard.”

For a guy who missed the chance at that grind two years in a row, Embiid has convinced everyone he gets it.

Sam Hinkie got it, too. The former Sixers GM and ‘Trust the Process’ creator  knew what he had in Embiid when he drafted him. Or, at least, he thought he knew. In his resignation letter to the Sixers, Hinkie talked about Embiid in the context of divorcing, as he put it, process from outcome.

You can be right for the wrong reasons. In our business, you’re often lionized for it. You can be wrong for the right reasons. This may well prove to be Joel Embiid. There is signal everywhere that Joel is unique, from the practice gyms in Lawrence, Kansas to Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania to Doha, Qatar where he does something awe inspiring far too regularly. We remain hopeful (and optimistic) about his long-term playing career, but we don’t yet know exactly how it will turn out. The decision to draft Joel third, though, still looks to me to be the correct one in hindsight given the underlying reasoning.

In other words, even if Embiid never becomes what he could, the chance he might was worth the decision. Now that he will finally be on the court, the rest of us will start to find out how real this is gonna get.

Playing one game does not validate anything, no, but Hinkie’s point was that it shouldn’t matter, because the outcome of Embiid’s career is, in part, inconsequential to the decision to take that chance. And yet, after two years in street clothes, the kid is finally getting his chance. The theoretical has been replaced by something real.

This. This is real.

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