Joel Embiid to start Sixers' season opener, but how much will he play?

Joel Embiid to start Sixers' season opener, but how much will he play?

WASHINGTON — The first starting lineup of the Sixers' 2017-18 season will be Ben Simmons, Jerryd Bayless, JJ Redick, Robert Covington and Joel Embiid.

Brown is sticking with the group that closed out preseason competition. That group has a balance of veterans and young talent, including Simmons making his NBA debut after missing all of last season with a foot injury.

"It helps a lot (starting together in the preseason) because you're learning guys and how they move and how they play," Simmons said. "I think we have a pretty good connection going into tonight's game and it's only going to get better."

Embiid will be under a minutes restriction but Brown does not have a definitive number. The big man previously said he expected to play 16 minutes. Embiid was the last one to leave the court at the conclusion of shootaround. 

"There's a range that we'll work with," Brown said. "We're going to feel it together. We'll play Joel within some parameters and go from that base." 

Markelle Fultz also will make his NBA debut. The No. 1 pick, who has battled right knee and shoulder soreness, will come off the bench in front of his hometown crowd. 

"I'm excited," Fultz said. "It's anything you can wish for."

Exploring the Sixers' 3 options to back up Joel Embiid

Exploring the Sixers' 3 options to back up Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid will be restricted to less than 20 minutes per game early in the season, that much is known (see story). How Brett Brown fills the remainder of the minutes at the center position remains to be seen.

Brown has three healthy big men he can play behind Embiid: Amir Johnson, Jahlil Okafor and Dario Saric. Richaun Holmes, an early candidate for backup minutes, is sidelined by a fractured wrist.

“Even without Richaun, you like the depth and versatility, the variety that is available to me at the five,” Brown said Tuesday. 

Each player is unique in their skill sets and experience levels. There’s the proven veteran in Johnson, the undersized center in Saric, and the sometime-starter-sometime-reserve-sometime-DNP in Okafor. 

Let’s take a look at Brown’s options and why he may lean toward one player over another. 

Okafor
Okafor finds himself in another season of uncertainty. The third-year Sixer still doesn’t have a consistent role in the rotation. In the past, his biggest opportunity for minutes has come when Embiid is out for the entire game. Could the slimmed-down Okafor return to the starting lineup when Embiid doesn’t play? The Sixers face their first set of consecutive games of the season on Saturday. 

Brown on Okafor 
“[His role is] evolving … it’s always fluid. There are times we’ll assess Joel, say, in a back-to-back situation that might free something up. We have one in Toronto coming up. … We all respect his attitude and we respect his body. I think he’s had a good preseason.”

Johnson
The 30-year-old Johnson gives the Sixers a veteran presence and assuring presence on the court. He started in 77 of his 80 games for the Celtics last season and will be an in-game leader for younger players like Markelle Fultz in the second unit. 

Brown on Johnson
“He started for a really good team last year. He’s been in the league for a while. He’s a great pickup. Bryan (Colangelo) did a really great job of signing him. He’s good people.” 

Saric
At 6-foot-10, 223 pounds, Saric is the most unlikely candidate of the three backups. Brown has seen enough from Saric in the NBA and internationally, though, to feel confident in shifting him from the four to the five. Saric showed he can hold his own against traditional bigs when he shot 5 for 8 against the Nets in the preseason. 

Brown on Saric
“He’s stronger than you think. He’s been used to guarding behind people over in Europe on switch outs with four-five pick-and-rolls. … He gives up some weight, he gives up some height. But the trade-off might be he pulls them out and makes threes like he did against (Timofey) Mozgov. You weigh it all up. It’s a little bit unconventional but it is there in our arsenal if we choose to go there.”

Joel Embiid thinks his minutes restriction is 'f---ing BS'

Joel Embiid thinks his minutes restriction is 'f---ing BS'

CAMDEN, N.J. — Joel Embiid is letting it be known he is unhappy about his minute restrictions to start the season.

"That's f---ing BS," he said after practice Tuesday. "I wish I was playing more minutes. I think I'm ready for more than I don't know whatever number they have."

The Sixers are eyeing 16 minutes for Embiid on opening night on Wednesday. He played nearly 15 minutes in his two preseason games and feels he can handle more, adding his previously-injured left knee and ankle "felt great." 

He has expressed his feelings to the team. 

"I always think I have a voice so I'm sure they're listening to what I have to say too," he said. "But they're making a decision based on what they think. But I think that's BS."

Embiid's desire to play more minutes likely will be an ongoing situation this season, or at least early on. He expected to be cleared for 24 minutes at this point. (In comparison, he logged 22:25 last opening night.) Embiid feels the best way to get his body in game shape is to actually be in the game, not training on a cardio machine. 

"I think the concept of minute restrictions is kind of complicated," Embiid said. "I don't think there should ever be minute restrictions. I think it should always be about how my body feels and how it's reacting." 

The Sixers, however, are continuing to proceed with caution with the injury-prone big man. After missing his first two years because of his foot, he underwent season-ending knee surgery in March. Embiid also sprained his left ankle in the preseason finale. He has not played in a regular-season game since Jan. 27. 

Add that to the fact Embiid is a centerpiece of their future after inking him to a five-year, $146.5 contract extension last week.

"They know that I'm frustrated, but once again you've got to trust the doctors," Embiid said. "They care about me. It's all about the long-term view." 

The coaching staff is faced with the tricky task of managing Embiid's allotted minutes over a 48-minute span. Brett Brown is considering using up his playing time in the first half instead of spacing it out to have him available in the fourth quarter. 

Embiid estimates if he started the third, as an example, he would be resting for 16 minutes before he got the nod late in the final quarter. He said that is "tough" on both his body and on the coaches. Brown agrees after trying to balance his playing time last season. 

"You think it's smart to save four minutes to end a game with him, but the canyons in between where he just sits there and sits there and then he's got to come in and save the day, I don't know if I like that," Brett Brown said. 

"It's on my mind, do we just spend our money and we'll get you more money the next game and so on, and just play him regularly and grow it from that base versus he sits forever and then he's just got to come in and save the day. Or oops, it goes to overtime and, 'Sorry, you can't play against Memphis in overtime.'"

The Sixers will have to balance the medical staff's minute guidelines with Embiid's intense desire to be on the court and the team's record. They are looking to make a significant push in the win column, and Embiid is the driving force behind that jump.

"I think this is a big year for the whole team and me personally," Embiid said. "I feel like I've got something to prove, too. So I want to be out there with my teammates and win some games."

If it were Embiid's call, he would play until he didn't feel like he could anymore. It's not up to him, though. And so there's just one thing left for him to do.

"Like I always say," he said, "you've got to trust the process."