Joel Embiid and the most anticipated Sixers game in half a decade

Yes, it’s pre-season. OK, Ben Simmons is out. But it’s FINALLY all happening.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers-Media Day
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Excitement for the start of Sixers basketball season has dipped this week after the sobering news that rookie Ben Simmons will miss several months with a Jones fracture in his foot, an injury so delicate that Bob Cooney of the Daily News reported Simmons’ agent may already be lobbying to hold his client out the entire season.

So much for process to progress.

There was palpable excitement about the Sixers for the first time in years in Philly. The future of Philadelphia basketball is, finally, now. Or it was.

No. It is. And it starts today. Literally.

While Simmons being sidelined will undoubtedly set back coach Brett Brown’s plans for structuring his lineup in a way that can actually win basketball games — the Sixers were tabbed with an over/under of 27.5 wins by Vegas bookmakers in late September after winning just 10 games last season — the entire franchise, and the future of almost ever player on the roster, depends on the health of a different cornerstone rookie.

Joel Embiid is expected to be in the lineup against the Boston Celtics Tuesday as the Sixers kick off their pre-season schedule. His career is finally beginning. Today.

“I went through a lot of stuff to get here,” Embiid said, via “I worked my ass off, and I’m happy that I’m finally here, and I can’t wait.”

Nobody can wait. This is the most anticipated Sixers debut since Allen Iverson’s rookie season, and I don’t think I’m being all that hyperbolic in saying that. Brown sure seems to feel that way, too.

“I want to watch him run a floor, watch him make multiple trips up a floor, in a 76er uniform,” Brown told reporters on Monday. “I don’t care if it’s pre-season, regular season, whatever. For me personally, that’s something that we’ve all waited for for a while, and there’s just going to be a tremendous amount of pride with what he’s done to be able to do that.”

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Philadelphia 76ers
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Embiid was taken with the third pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and multiple injuries, surgeries and set-backs have postponed his debut for two full seasons.

Embiid hasn’t played a competitive basketball game since March 1, 2014, his last game in a Kansas Jayhawks uniform before being sidelined with back and knee injuries that derailed his only college season. Then came the foot problems. And the surgeries. And more set-backs. And the tanking. Oh, how there was tanking.

If Sam Hinkie died for our sins, it felt like the basketball gods have been even harder on Embiid.

But all that is done now, finally. Embiid is going to walk out on the court in a Sixers uniform and play an actual game of competitive, albeit preseason basketball. It’s happening.

It’s all happening.

Embiid will no longer be the best Sixers player to never play an actual game. He’s about to become the best Sixers player, period, to step on the floor for the first time in probably a decade. If he can stay healthy.

Iverson just went into the Hall of Fame last month. There hasn’t been a Sixers player drafted or signed by the franchise with as much palpable excitement surrounding his debut as Embiid since Iverson’s rookie year. Look it up, if you can bear the disappointment. Were you this excited to see Larry Hughes play? Did Evan Turner get you pumped like Embiid’s debut? Big MCW fan out of college, were you? Andre Iguodala?

No. None of them. The only name even close to garnering the same kind of excitement as Embiid is Simmons, and obviously we’ll have to wait a little longer for that day to come.

Embiid isn’t just hype. Or at least he shouldn’t be. He can become a literal game changer in the NBA; a skillset so unique that Brown has routinely shied away from comparisons to past greats, in part because the kid doesn’t need the pressure, but in part because in the time off from competitive games Embiid has developed skills to the point where there may not be an apt comparison.

“I struggle saying ‘Oh, Joel Embiid, he’s either a wannabe this or a could be that or a kind of like him’,” Brown told reporters when preseason camp began last month. “When you say ‘Who does all that at 7’2″, 276 pounds, that world shrinks.

“I said the same thing sitting next to Charles Barkley. It’s like, ‘You’ve done this a long time, what do you think he is?’ You both sort of struggle coming up with an example.”

It’s hard to compare a player of Embiid’s size and skills with anyone in part because, to be fair, we’ve seen all those other guys actually play. Is Embiid Hakeem Olajuwon? Is he Dirk Nowitzki? Is he Hassan Whiteside? Roy Hibbert?

Is he Kwame Brown? Andrew Bynum?

We’ve seen all those guys play (though Bynum, like Embiid, never in a Sixers jersey) so until we see Embiid out on the court, with his teammates, playing against another big man on another NBA roster, we just don’t know.

But we will start to find out, now. Finally.

Embiid didn’t start playing competitive basketball in the United States until he was 16. He played one year in college, and couldn’t even finish that season, logging 647 just minutes at Kansas. Since being drafted, the Sixers have played 164 games as a franchise — more than 7,900 minutes of basketball, give or take a few overtimes — and Embiid hasn’t so much as dressed for any of them, let alone seen the court.

The 2016-17 regular season is still more than three weeks away, but this game on Tuesday, in a 9,493-seat arena in Amherst, Mass., should be the most anticipated basketball game in Philly in the last five years.

The Sixers haven’t had a winning record since the 2011-12 season. They haven’t won more than 41 games since the 2004-05 season. Perhaps neither of those things will happen this year, especially if Simmons is out the entire season. But things are happening, and it all starts now, with Embiid finally stepping on the floor.

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