76ers

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.”

Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell headline NBA All-Rookie first team

Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell headline NBA All-Rookie first team

Sixers guard Ben Simmons and Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell continue to be linked in the quest for Rookie of the Year. 

They both were unanimously named to the 2017-18 NBA All-Rookie first team with first-place votes on every ballot. 

Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma and Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen rounded out the first team. Tatum was one vote short of also being a unanimous selection. 

Lakers guard Lonzo Ball, Kings guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, Hawks forward/center John Collins, Suns forward Josh Jackson and Mavericks guard Dennis Smith Jr. were named to the second team. 

Simmons (15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.7 steals), Mitchell (20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.5 steals) and Tatum (13.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals) are the finalists for Rookie of the Year. The award will be announced on June 25.

The All-Rookie votes were cast by global broadcasters and sportswriters, choosing five players at any position for each team. First team votes were weighted with two points, second team votes one. 

Sixers 2017-18 player evaluation: Amir Johnson

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USA Today Images

Sixers 2017-18 player evaluation: Amir Johnson

Amir Johnson

Position: Power Forward/Center

Status for 2018-19: Unrestricted free agent

Johnson in 2017-18
The Sixers signed Johnson to provide solid backup minutes to Joel Embiid. He certainly wasn’t spectacular in that role, but that’s not who he is. He did his job.

Johnson averaged 4.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, playing in 74 contests. He averaged 15.8 minutes per game, his lowest since the 2008-09 season.

It seemed like Johnson’s name was always linked with Richaun Holmes, the younger, springier center also competing for backup center minutes (see Holmes' evaluation). While Johnson doesn’t have Holmes’ athleticism or offensive ability, Brett Brown preferred the veteran’s defense. During the regular season, Johnson had a 101.3 defensive rating, while Holmes’ was nearly five points worse, at 106.2.

At the start of the postseason, Johnson played some important minutes with Embiid working his way back from a left eye orbital fracture, and he played well. Despite Johnson not creating much of his own offense, the Sixers had no problem scoring when he was on the floor. In fact, Johnson’s 121.5 offensive rating was the best of any player in the first round of the playoffs.

Brown then drastically cut his minutes against the Celtics, Johnson’s former team, leaning heavily on Embiid. Johnson only played 17 minutes the entire Boston series, sitting on the bench for all of Game 4 and 5. He didn’t score in the series.

Signature game
In the Sixers’ 121-113 win over the Hawks on April 10, their 15th straight victory, Johnson posted 15 points, eight rebounds and five assists. That game was during Embiid’s recovery from his eye injury, which gave Johnson more of a chance to shine.

When Embiid was active, however, Johnson mainly just held down the fort while the big man got some rest.

Looking ahead to 2018-19
Johnson sometimes seems older than he actually is, mainly because of his experience and the way he carries himself. At 31 years old, Johnson has already played 13 years in the NBA, since he was the last player to be drafted directly from high school in 2005 before the league changed its eligibility requirements.

JJ Redick and Johnson were two players the young Sixers could always turn to for wisdom. Johnson never complains about his minutes, always plays hard and goes about his business like a true professional — there’s no doubt he’s a good guy to have in the locker room.

Does that mean he’ll still be a part of the Sixers’ locker room next season? Not necessarily. With the Sixers looking to acquire a superstar this offseason, Johnson would likely have to take a pay cut from the $11 million he made this year if he wants to stay in Philadelphia.

And in the long term, the Sixers may ultimately want to place their faith in Holmes, who’s seven years younger and has a higher upside. If Holmes can improve his defense, Johnson could be expendable.

On Johnson
“It was amazing, to a man, how consistent the reviews were. People skills, works his butt off, could handle sitting and swinging a towel or coming in and making a difference. He’s a good person and he’s a pro. To be able to bring him in the game, and not worry about is he happy, is he fresh, is he in shape, does he need 10 shots isn’t ever on my mind with Amir. He’s a perfect teammate.” 

- Brett Brown on Johnson after the Sixers' 107-86 win over the Jazz on Nov. 20