Joel Embiid practices, and Brett Brown is thrilled

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NBC Sports Philadelphia

Joel Embiid practices, and Brett Brown is thrilled

CAMDEN, N.J. — Joel Embiid’s right hand looks like it hurts. It’s still puffy and swollen over a week after he originally injured it in the Sixers’ win on New Year’s Eve over the Suns.

But Embiid practiced on Monday, and for coach Brett Brown, that’s cause for celebration.

“Joel practicing today makes it one of my happiest days,” Brown said.

“His hand’s still sore. But any time we can get him to practice, to improve his conditioning and more importantly, let him interact with his teammates when it’s not only in front of 20,000 people in an NBA game, that stuff is more important to me than the side note of him going up and down and getting his cardio.”

According to Embiid, his hand is more than just sore. He said it’s “still bothering me a lot,” still “really painful,” just not enough to sideline him.

“I want to be on the court, and if I miss a game, that means something is hurting really bad,” Embiid said. “The other night, obviously I was doubtful, but I felt like I could help the team win, so I went out there. I was kind of scared because if someone hits you, that’s when it hurts more, so I've just got to be careful. But I want to be on the court, I want to play, so if it’s not the type of pain that really bothers me, I’m going to be out there.”

Despite not being pain-free, Embiid is optimistic about eventually being cleared to play in back-to-back games, though he acknowledges the medical staff has the final say.

“I think the main thing is for me to keep practicing," Embiid said. "And after games, the next day to practice and see how my body feels. And that’s on them, that’s their decision. Obviously I want to play, but that’s their decision, and if they feel like I can sustain the intensity of game, practice, game, then I think by the beginning of February I should be playing back-to-backs.”

The team’s first back-to-back set next month is Feb. 2 vs. Miami and Feb. 3 at Indiana.

The other major development on the injury front for the Sixers is Markelle Fultz playing full contact 5-on-5, which he did for the first time Sunday (see story). After Monday’s practice, JJ Redick said he was impressed with the rookie’s progress.

“He looked great, truthfully. He looked great,” Redick said. “I’ve been really, really impressed with him. Especially for how long he’s had off and away from playing 5-on-5, I thought he’s looked really good.”

Brown said the main barometer for when Fultz will return is “the discomfort in his shoulder as it affects his shot.” He acknowledged that Sixers fans are eager for Fultz’s return, and empathized with those closely studying the short video snippets of Fultz’s jumper at practice, desperate for some sort of definitive timeline.

“I think it’s such a snapshot into Philadelphia fans, that they are dying, they are crying for success,” Brown said. “They’re curious about what’s going on with Markelle. The things our fans have had to endure with the history of our high draft picks either being out for a long time or missing the year, and now wondering what’s going on with Markelle, we understand the whole thing. And I think the excitement is just a snapshot in a positive way of Philadelphia fans and the genuine interest they have in the growth of our program.”

Markelle Fultz begins final stage of rehab

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AP Images

Markelle Fultz begins final stage of rehab

CAMDEN, N.J. — There’s still no timetable.

For Sixers fans skeptical Markelle Fultz will return anytime soon, that’s the bottom line. But there’s no question Fultz is making progress.

According to the team, Fultz is cleared to begin “the final stage of his return-to-play program.” This final stage for Fultz will consist of “gradual re-integration into team practices and training, complemented with additional conditioning work to support fitness readiness for gameplay.”

What exactly does that mean? Tuesday, Fultz played half-court 4-on-4 with his teammates at practice. He also played some 1-on-1 with Jacob Pullen and James Michael McAdoo and did individual skill work after practice, including pull-up jumpers from about 15 to 18 feet (see more here).

“I think he looked OK,” Brett Brown said. “I think everybody shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves in relation to what does that mean, but it is the most he’s done with me in a while. What I saw today was just encouraging to see him playing with his teammates, and playing live basketball.”

It’s not as if Fultz is on the brink of game action, but it’s the closest he’s been since he was shut down in late October.   

Brown is confident Fultz can make a major difference once he finally does return.

“The reality of the whole thing is, the more you feel a team and coach a team, his skill set ties everything together,” Brown said. “He can make plays. And when you are missing some of those qualities in a group, things get exposed. And he can do that, he can create a shot for himself and he can create a shot for others. So when you ask, do I project out and anticipate what he can do when he gets in there? Every day.”

It’s clear that the Sixers could use another player with dynamic offensive skills. Whether or not Fultz can be that player remains an open question. The Sixers thought he fit that description well when they drafted him No. 1.

In the short term, Fultz would almost definitely be an upgrade on the Sixers’ current guard play off the bench.

Justin Anderson has been sidelined with shin splints since Nov. 15. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is averaging 6.0 points and 1.7 rebounds in 16.3 minutes per game. His 6.49 PER is 10th-worst among qualified players. Furkan Korkmaz is out indefinitely with a Lisfranc injury.

Everything is still hypothetical until Fultz actually returns, but it’s easy to see him immediately helping the Sixers once he’s back.

Like Brown, Dario Saric thinks the Sixers will be a better team once Fultz’s saga ends and he gets back onto the court.

“I think Markelle will find his spot there, and for sure he will help us a lot with his drives, with his shots, with his moves, because he is a pretty good player,” Saric said.

“And we are here to help him. He was the first pick, a lot of pressure on him, and all the guys are here to help him. It will be hard for him the first couple games to find a way to play with a new team, new roster, NBA basketball, but I think he’ll find a way and be a very, very good, excellent player.”

Sixers' game vs. Spurs just got a whole lot tougher

Sixers' game vs. Spurs just got a whole lot tougher

CAMDEN, N.J. — It's unlikely that Brett Brown will have his biggest weapon Wednesday night against his old team.

After spraining his right hand in a collision with Devin Booker and subsequent fall Sunday night, Embiid is listed as doubtful against the Spurs.

Though X-rays Sunday confirmed his hand isn't broken, Embiid said the injury seriously affected his play.

"It was numb but I'm a warrior," Embiid said after the game. "I want to push through stuff and I want to play. I wanted to be on the court to win the game and that's what we did."

At Tuesday's practice, Sixers coach Brett Brown detailed how the injury is continuing to bother Embiid.

"It was a legitimate scare, a legitimate fall," Brown said. "If you saw the palm of his hand, you'd see the bruising and the swelling and the discoloring. And if it was his non-shooting hand, you might feel more confident. But we'll all learn more tomorrow."

At the conclusion of practice, a trainer tended to Embiid's hand. Based on the team's history of caution with Embiid, you would think his hand would have to dramatically improve for him to play Wednesday night. The Sixers are 2-7 on the season without him, though they did beat the Nuggets, 107-102, on Saturday when he rested.

If Embiid doesn't play Wednesday, Amir Johnson will likely start at center and Richaun Holmes will return to the rotation. In 19 valuable minutes off the bench Saturday, Holmes had 14 points, three rebounds and three assists. Yet with Embiid back in the lineup Sunday against Phoenix, he never left the bench.

The Sixers may not be the only ones without their biggest star for Wednesday's matchup. San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard, who missed the team's first 27 games with a right quad injury, may not play on the second night of a back-to-back set after he was on the court for 31 minutes in the Spurs' 100-91 win over the Knicks on Tuesday.