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.”

Joel Embiid puts back pain aside to get Sixers 'needed' OT win

Joel Embiid puts back pain aside to get Sixers 'needed' OT win

BOX SCORE

MINNEAPOLIS — Joel Embiid's presence was arguably the biggest factor in the Sixers’ snapping their four-game losing streak on Tuesday.

The center was especially key in the final two minutes of regulation and in overtime, as the 76ers defeated the Timberwolves, 118-112 (see observations).

Embiid assisted on Ben Simmons' go-ahead dunk with 1:17 remaining in regulation and hit the game-tying free throws with 14 seconds remaining. He then scored seven points in overtime, including a three-pointer that gave the Sixers a seven-point lead with 1:39 to go.

Embiid finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds in 39 minutes (see highlights), despite missing the two previous games in Cleveland and New Orleans with back tightness.

"I would not have expected him to play as well as he played or as many minutes as he played," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "… He obviously was massive."

Embiid said he didn't feel 100 percent going into Tuesday's game and added that his back was really tight before the game against New Orleans. He said he didn't have the lift during Tuesday's game that he typically does but that he knew his back would get tight while sitting.

"We needed this," he said of the win.

Embiid’s being in the lineup changes how the 76ers' offense operates, rookie Ben Simmons said. Embiid changes the team's spacing but also gives the Sixers an offensive presence in the post.

"You have to find your spot, but it's a big help also," Simmons said.

Simmons finished with just seven points, as Timberwolves wings Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins guarded him most of the night. However, the rookie was key down the stretch as he scored all seven points in the final 6:17 of regulation and overtime (see highlights).

Brown noted how Simmons ended up with a rating of plus-3 despite the below-average point total. He said he loved that Simmons and Embiid were able to connect for big plays late.

"It wasn't statistically one of his best games," Brown said of Simmons, " … [but] for him to help us get that win on the road, that's a good night."

The win also snapped the Sixers’ recent run of fourth-quarter letdowns. The 76ers trailed by nine with six minutes remaining Tuesday, but they went on a 14-4 run to take a 91-90 lead with 2:17 remaining in regulation. Richaun Holmes completed the run with a three-point play.

Brown said he thought JJ Redick, Simmons and Embiid executed well during that stretch and made note of a three-pointer Redick hit to start the run. 

"To me, that was the tipping point when things started to run," Brown said of the shot.

The coach added that the Sixers will need to cut down on turnovers in order to achieve their goals. The Sixers had a season-high 24, though none came in overtime.

Sixers-Timberwolves observations: Salvaging the road trip

Sixers-Timberwolves observations: Salvaging the road trip

BOX SCORE

MINNEAPOLIS — Joel Embiid scored 28 in his return, and JJ Redick added 26 points as the 76ers defeated Minnesota, 118-112, in overtime on Tuesday.

Embiid, who missed the Sixers’ last two games with back tightness, tied the game with a pair of free throws with 14 seconds remaining in regulation. He finished the night 11 for 12 from the free throw line and 8 for 16 from the field, a stat line that included a three-pointer with 1:39 remaining in overtime.

The win snapped a four-game losing streak for the Sixers (14-13), who had struggled in the fourth quarter in their recent losses. The team trailed, 86-77, with six minutes remaining in regulation Tuesday but went on a 14-4 run that culminated with Richaun Holmes' three-point play with 2:17 to go.

Holmes finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds as he played 33 minutes while filling in for the injured Robert Covington. Dario Saric added 14 points and eight rebounds in 40 minutes.

• Embiid appeared comfortable throughout the night, moving past Minnesota defenders for dunks on several plays while guarding Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng. He fell in pain late in the third quarter under the Sixers' basket but returned early in the fourth and played a total of 39 minutes, a new career high. He also nearly had a triple-double by adding 12 rebounds and eight assists. 

• Backup point guard T.J. McConnell also returned for the Sixers after missing five of the past six games with a shoulder injury. He made his first three shots and also didn't appear to have trouble with movement as he finished with seven points in 26 minutes.

• Redick was just 6 for 15 shooting but scored 16 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. 

• Ben Simmons was also surprisingly quiet for most of the night. He went most of regulation without a point as Minnesota's Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins guarded him. But Simmons scored seven points in the game's final 6:17, including two baskets in the final 1:17, and also added eight assists (see highlights).

• The 76ers struggled with turnovers throughout regulation but committed just one in overtime. They still finished with a season-high 24, many coming on errant cross-floor passes.

• The team mitigated the turnovers by limiting Minnesota to just 41.7 percent shooting in regulation, including just 3 for 24 from three-point range. Butler was the Timberwolves' most effective scorer as he finished with a game-high 38 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter. However, the Timberwolves were 4 for 12 shooting in overtime.

• The Sixers limited Minnesota's ability to drive to the basket throughout the night as they forced the Timberwolves to take lower-percentage two-pointers. The Timberwolves (16-12) had just two turnovers in the first half but finished the game with 10. Wiggins scored 20 and Towns added 17 for Minnesota.

• Veteran forward Trevor Booker scored 12 points on 6 for 8 shooting in his third game with the Sixers since joining the team in last week’s trade with Brooklyn.