25-under-25: Joel Embiid at No. 6


The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 players under the age of 25.

Since he entered the NBA, 76ers big man Joel Embiid has been a hot subject. He missed his first two seasons with a broken navicular bone and over that time watched his team tank, spawning the unrelenting doubts on the efficacy of The Process and Embiid’s availability long-term.

Then in 2016-17, Embiid, finally on the floor, jettisoned the Sixers toward competency, had a city fall in love with him and, more importantly, had fun doing it as he became one of the best follows on social media. He was the generational talent The Process was all about. The player whom the Sixers’ NBA Finals contention runs through and the player Sam Hinkie died for … only he missed 51 games, leaving him in familiar territory for 2017-18.

Embiid is a superstar-elect. He’s a defensive stalwart whose ability to communicate and feel for the game crushed opposing offenses and left ridiculous metrics in its wake. He has the ability to do everything on offense. He’s a great athlete who can also shoot 3-pointers, drive to the basket, run pick-and-roll/pop and rebound. Good luck moving him at 7-foot-2 and 275 pounds.

There are holes in his game. For example, he hasn’t seen a shot he didn’t like. He had the third highest usage percentage in the NBA and the fourth-worst assist-to-turnover ratio among centers who averaged at least 25 minutes per game, near the bottom with players like Steven Adams, Andre Drummond and Jonas Valanciunas, older players Embiid is better than.

Like all young players, Embiid is expected to have issues on the floor, but they’re nonexistent in relation to the uncertainty surrounding players in his age group. At 23-years-old, Embiid is already more polished than some players in their prime. And his game improved each month, peaking with a plus-16 net rating in January. His assists rose. His turnovers are still a problem, but with better playmakers and less of a burden on offense, they should flatten or decrease.

But that’s the thing; Embiid’s hasn’t stayed on the floor. Embiid didn’t play after January. He didn’t play even half the season. He didn’t play in at least one game of a back-to-back. He didn’t last until the All-Star Game. He didn’t play much more than 25 minutes per game.

Every conversation about the potential height of Embiid’s impact plummets into concerns about his health. He’s missed 215 games since joining NBA, which puts him on a worse course than 2007 No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden, who missed over 160 games his first three seasons and became the new face of injury-prone big men.

Embiid’s injury history stretches to his days at Kansas, when he missed the NCAA Tournament with a stress fracture in his back. Then he broke his foot. Then he tore his meniscus in January and missed February on. As of now, Embiid hasn’t been cleared to play five-on-five or one-on-one, and the continued vague updates from the Sixers’ front office haven’t shined any light on Embiid’s recovery.

There are two ways to look at Embiid’s injury history, depending on your level of optimism. The first is his lower body is a legitimate issue and the weakness of the joints continues to be the curse of human physiology. Worse, stress fractures aren’t freak accidents, but steady chisels against certain parts of the body. They’re always a threat. The second, and the one I’ve subscribed to, is Embiid’s problems have all been separate issues. The problem for big men has always been recurring injuries. Oden had bad knees. Bill Walton and Yao Ming had bad feet. Sam Bowie had bad tibias. We saw Embiid’s foot and back both held up last season. Does an injury carry the same concern if it isn’t directly related to a prior injury? It’s certainly possible that stress fractures could be Embiid’s “bad knees.”

In 2017-18, Embiid’s goal is to play in at least 60 games. It’s possible he’ll have no minutes restrictions as long as his body holds up. Everything else is gravy. He’ll mesh with Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, while being the security blanket during their inevitable defensive lapses as they adjust to the NBA. His job this year is show he can maintain his level — and style considering he’s a bad lander — of production over an 82-game schedule. And keep the turnovers down, of course. It won’t be easy. Embiid will have to double his games played and play more minutes than ever before.

But the NBA set out to end the grueling schedule to combat star rest that plagued the NBA since sports science revealed an inverse relationship between exertion and player performance. Star rest peaked last season when both the Cavaliers and Warriors sat their best players during primetime matchups.

Subsequently, the NBA pushed the season up a week, eliminating four games in five nights and limiting schedule crunches like 18 games in 30 days and one-game road trips.

The questions surrounding his availability don’t seemed lost on him either. Recently he posted a tweet about his motivation toward silencing anyone who doesn’t believe in The Process — the colloquial term for the Sixers’ plan to use the bottom as a jumping point to the top with him as the focal point.

The schedule changes were serendipitous to both Embiid and the Sixers. The Sixers have a back-to-back the second and third games of the season, but won’t have another until December. With a less burdened 82-game schedule, the Sixers can better afford to play Embiid more than his 25-minute cap while Embiid gains a better opportunity to adjust to the wear and tear.

Next: 25-under-25 -- The best young players in the NBA

Embiid’s 31 games showed he belongs in the NBA. He did enough that writers pegged him as the Rookie of the Year. Jake Pavorsky of NJ.com wrote Embiid forced the Sixers to have to commit to him despite his lack of games, considering if he continues his level of performance this season, he could warrant 30 percent of the cap, instead of 25 percent if they signed him today. Yet it still shows our and the Sixers’ future commitments are built more on faith than certainty.

It’s up to Embiid to change that.