76ers

Joel Embiid confesses a Kansas secret that would have changed everything

Joel Embiid confesses a Kansas secret that would have changed everything

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Practice had long ended and Joel Embiid was still on the floor, putting up countless shots from every spot imaginable, the echo of each dribble seemingly bouncing off the walls of Allen Fieldhouse.

Maybe he was trying to make up for lost time, all those games he missed because of injuries.

Maybe he was just happy to be home.

Embiid returned to Kansas, where he starred for one brief season, and led the Sixers through a spirited workout before their preseason finale Friday night at Sprint Center in Kansas City.

It’s been a memorable week for the 7-foot-2 standout. He signed a five-year, $146.5 million contract extension Tuesday, despite playing just 31 games over his first three seasons, then made his preseason debut on Wednesday night, pouring in 22 points in the Sixers’ 133-114 win over the Nets (see story).

“It was a great feeling,” Embiid said of Kansas after the workout, sweat still dripping from his face. “When I was here, I don’t think anybody knows this story, but I actually decided to stay. I loved this place so much. I was actually pushed to leave. But I loved this place so much.”

Wait a minute: Embiid decided to stay? He was ready to give up NBA riches for another year in college?

Who pushed him to leave after one season in Lawrence?

“I’m not going to say,” he said with another smile, "but it was a tough choice. I still have a lot of love for Kansas, and every time I have a chance to represent, I’m going to do it.”

The lanky, raw Embiid that arrived at Kansas as an unrefined post player from Cameroon in the hot summer of 2013 hardly resembled the solid, muscular Embiid that returned on Thursday.

Back then, he was still trying to make a name for himself. He was still learning the nuances of the game, which he had just picked up a couple years earlier. And while he wound up averaging 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds, his college career ended with a thud when a stress fracture in his back forced him to miss the Big 12 Tournament and the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

The Jayhawks were eliminated before he could return to the floor.

That June, he had surgery on a broken bone in his foot, shortly before the Sixers selected him with the third overall pick. He was supposed to miss about six months but wound up missing the season, then a setback the following summer and another round of surgery caused him to miss the 2015-16 season.

“At some point my second year,” he said, “I thought about quitting, just because I had so much stuff not going my way, losing two years of basketball due to surgeries and injuries. But I’m glad I stuck with basketball. Looking where I am, I think I made a good choice.”

He certainly made a lucrative choice, signing a mega extension even though he played in just 31 games last season. He averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 boards before knee trouble ended his year early, and forced him to undergo arthroscopic surgery for a torn meniscus in his left knee.

Embiid finally looks healthy, though. He came out of his preseason debut in good shape, and Sixers coach Brett Brown acknowledged Thursday that his big man “changes everything.”

“He changes everything we talk about on offense and everything we talk about on defense,” Brown said. “His spirit is at an all-time high. His personal situation, being rewarded with the contract he just signed I’m sure changes his life and many generations of Embiids behind him, or ahead of him, and you know, he’s just a game-changer all over the place.”

Embiid was supposed to take the Sixers’ team bus to the Phog for practice, but he decided to walk over to the storied field house early. He wanted to drink in the atmosphere of college, pointing out that he still intends to return for his final three years of school, and remember what it was like to be just another kid trying to get from class to class.

Of course, these days just about everybody notices the NBA star in their midst, calling out “Trust the process!” to him as he ambled down the sidewalks leading toward Naismith Drive.

The Sixers were already scheduled to play the Heat in Kansas City on Friday night, so Brown decided it made sense to bring the team to Lawrence for practice. It would be a nice homecoming for Embiid, and a chance for backup Jacob Pullen — who starred down the road at Kansas State — to see some friends and family, and an opportunity for the rest of the team to see one of college basketball’s shrines.

“I mean, this is my first time here and I’m the son of a coach,” Brown said, “so I’ve been around the game my whole life, and the historic sort of perspective of this building combined with Joel’s history here made it a no-brainer to drive 45 minutes down the road.

“I think the team appreciated and certainly respected where we are.”

Brown wouldn’t say whether Embiid will play in the Sixers’ preseason finale, making it clear he wants to keep him healthy for the regular season. But Embiid didn’t sound like he was planning to sit things out on Friday night, not with a building full of fans on hand to see him.

“I’m back in Kansas,” he said. “Of course I’m going to play.”

Rockets extend streak as Butler exits with injury

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Rockets extend streak as Butler exits with injury

HOUSTON -- James Harden scored 31 points and the Houston Rockets won their 11th straight game with a 120-102 victory Friday night over the Minnesota Timberwolves, who lost All-Star Jimmy Butler to an apparent right knee injury.

Butler left the game late in the third quarter. After grabbing a rebound late in the third quarter, he pivoted and planted hard on his right foot before collapsing and grabbing his right knee. He was on the floor for at least three minutes before he was carried off the court by two teammates. He appeared to avoid putting weight on his right leg when heading to the locker room.

A Timberwolves official said during the fourth quarter that Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau would provide an update on Butler's injury following the game.

Clint Capela had 25 points and 11 rebounds for Houston, getting his 10th double-double over the past 13 games. Chris Paul added 14 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

The Rockets trailed for much of the first half before going ahead to maintain the NBA's best record.

Andrew Wiggins led Minnesota with 21 points, and Jeff Teague and Karl-Anthony Towns both had 18 points. Towns added 13 rebounds (see full recap).

Davis sensational in Pelicans’ OT victory over Heat
NEW ORLEANS -- Anthony Davis had 45 points, 17 rebounds, five blocked shots and five steals, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Miami Heat 124-123 in overtime Friday night for their fourth consecutive victory.

Goran Dragic scored 30 points and Dwyane Wade hit two runners to give the Heat the lead twice in the last 36 seconds of overtime, but Davis responded to the first with a layup as he was fouled, and Jrue Holiday answered the second with a runner in the lane with 7 seconds left.

Wade had one last shot for the win with Holiday defending him closely. It bounced off the rim to Josh Richardson, whose rushed put-back missed the basket as time expired in Miami's third straight loss.

Davis, who has scored no fewer than 38 points in a game during New Orleans' winning streak -- and 42 or more three times -- raised both arms in triumph as he looked up at the jubilant crowd, and then exchanged high fives with fans along the court.

Holiday finished with 29 points and nine assists, connecting with Davis on a couple of alley-oop dunks. Ian Clark scored a season-high 21 points and Nikola Mirotic capped his 10-point, nine-rebound performance with a crucial 3 in overtime.

Hassan Whiteside had 19 points and 16 rebounds before fouling out in overtime when he hacked Davis on a put-back attempt. Davis hit both free throws to tie it at 117, and then gave New Orleans a brief lead with his fifth alley-oop dunk of the game on a fast-break lob from Holiday with 1:10 to go. Wade had 16 points, while Richardson and Tyler Johnson each scored 15 points (see full recap).

Balanced Celtics rout Pistons
DETROIT -- Kyrie Irving scored 18 points and rookie Daniel Theis added a career-high 19 to lift the Boston Celtics to a 110-98 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Friday night.

Jayson Tatum scored 11 of his 15 points in the first half for the Celtics, who went into the All-Star break on a three-game losing streak but returned with a solid win on the road. Boston took control by outscoring the Pistons 38-21 in the second quarter.

Blake Griffin scored 17 points for Detroit but shot just 5 of 19 from the field.

Theis eclipsed his previous career high of 12 points. He played an important role after Aron Baynes, the starting center for the Celtics, went to the locker room in the first half with left elbow soreness. Baynes ended up playing only 2:39, but Theis shot 8 of 10 from the field and had seven rebounds.

Ish Smith made his first eight shots and finished with 20 points for the Pistons. Detroit led 39-37 in the second quarter before a 21-5 run by Boston. The Celtics were ahead 61-49 at halftime.

The lead was only four late in the third before Boston scored seven straight points -- five by Irving. The Celtics broke the game open at the start of the fourth (see full recap).

NBA stars taking notice of Sixers' rise

NBA stars taking notice of Sixers' rise

The Sixers have been rising steadily in the standings and players around the league are taking notice. 

The young squad improved to 31-25 with a victory over the Bulls Thursday. They have won six straight and have not lost at the Wells Fargo Center in 2018. That totals up to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, only two games behind the Wizards for the fourth spot and two games ahead of the Heat for the eighth. 

"I like them," Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler said at the All-Star break. "They've got a lot of great young talent. We do as well. But I think the way that they're going and how they play so hard and play so together, that's how you win basketball games. They're going to be really, really good for a long time."

The Sixers turned heads with a statement win over the Rockets in only their seventh game of the season. From there, they have defeated playoff teams, including a rare sweep of the Spurs, while struggling against sub.-500 opponents. 

They have 26 games remaining to make a postseason push. Of their upcoming opponents, only 10 games are against current top-eight teams in their conferences. Brett Brown has emphasized they can't take any team lightly. This is the time for the Sixers to maximize their schedule and show they learned from previous letdowns.

"They look good," Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard said. "Obviously as a young team, it takes time to learn how to win. ... The mature, really high-level teams, they find a way to get it done. I think for them, that's what their record shows. You play against them and it's hard to play against them. 

"They're really talented, they play hard, they play for a great coach. It's just those nights where you might not have it, having that understanding and that experience that'll lead you to more wins. I think once they get to that point, that's when maybe nine or 10 games that they've let slip, maybe they win those games."

The Sixers wrapped up the majority of their Western Conference schedule prior to the All-Star break. They have only the Timberwolves, Nuggets and Mavericks left to play. Those in the conference still are keeping an eye on the Sixers' progress, even if they may not face off again for months. 

"Everyone definitely sees the talent there," Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. "Any time you've got Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid to build around, they've got a very bright future. I think everyone had very high expectations, but it's hard to have high expectations with a team that's got a lot of first-, second-year guys that have never been in the playoffs. 

"But you can tell that they're going to be in the playoffs for, shoot, the next decade or so, probably be upper echelon pretty soon."