Joel Embiid Is Everything ... But An All-Star

By Josh Naso & Joe Boland

Thursday evening, the 2017 NBA All-Star Game reserves were announced, and one name was conspicuously absent. No, I'm not talking about Damian Lillard or Carmelo Anthony. I'm talking about Philadelphia 76ers rookie center Joel Embiid.

Joel Embiid isn't just the most entertaining Rookie of the Year front-runner in decades — he is everything. Philadelphia sports fans haven't had someone to hold on to like this in quite some time. The Sixers have been an afterthought since the end of the Allen Iverson era, the faces of the late 2000s Phillies juggernaut have faded, and while Carson Wentz is a shining beacon of Eagles hopelessness, no one donning the midnight green has connected with the fans since Brian Dawkins headed west.

You could argue that Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and the Flyers' young guns have captivated the audiences, but not in the way the rookie center we've waited three years on has already. He's funny. He's charming. He's active. He's approachable. Oh yeah, and he's really fucking good at basketball. So good and so entertaining that he's not only Philadelphia's savior, but perhaps already the most beloved player in the entire NBA.

During his long-awaited rookie season, Embiid has dunked, blocked and tweeted his way into the consciousness of the NBA and into the hearts of Philadelphia 76ers fans and beyond.

Obviously, the foundation of a player-fan love affair is talent. No one cares how funny or charming you are if you can’t play the game. Here, Embiid has exceeded expectations. Despite minutes restrictions limiting him to just 25.4 minutes per game, he is leading the Sixers in scoring (19.8), rebounds (7.8) and blocks (2.5), while dishing out two assists per game for good measure.

Joel has displayed a diverse offensive game. He's demonstrated a plethora of moves around the basket, a respectable midrange game and the ability to hit from behind the arc when left alone. When you consider his size and athleticism, the fact that he has only been playing basketball for seven years and the offensive prowess he has already shown, the possibilities are tantalizing.

As much as his on-court exploits have Sixers fans dreaming of parades, his personality and off-court behavior have cultivated this burgeoning love affair. Whether it’s his activity while sitting on the Sixer bench, his pre- and post-game demeanor, or his social media prowess, he has shown himself to be engaged, funny and thoroughly entertaining.

When Joel isn’t in the game, he remains engaged in what is going on out on the court. He is constantly jumping around and celebrating great plays by his teammates. He becomes the team’s biggest cheerleader, engaging the crowd and encouraging his teammates. He is having fun.

It's refreshing to see the team’s best player, a star in the making, behave that way on the bench. His energy and joy are infectious. Teammate Robert Covington commented on Embiid’s presence from the bench to CSN Philly after Friday night’s one-point victory over the Blazers: “Just cause he wasn’t out there, that don’t mean he wasn’t out there with us still. His spirit on the bench, you know, is uplifting, and he gave us that extra boost we needed to get the win.”

His pre-game and post-game behavior further add to his allure and likeability. A prime example was before the game against the Kings that ultimately got postponed due to moisture on the court. While arena staff and NBA personnel worked to fix the problem and determine whether the game could be played, most players retreated to the locker room or offered their perspective to the local media. And there was Joel Embiid, sitting courtside chatting with two young fans. It was a small gesture, but it was one that will be a lasting memory for those kids. It was something he didn’t have to do, but he did it anyway.

Speaking of the game, which was postponed but eventually played, against the Kings, here even earned the respect of one the most mercurial personalities in the league, fellow center DeMarcus Cousins:

In post-game interviews, Joel rarely talks about his own accomplishments. He is quick to mention what the team was trying to do/what it did well, or to discuss the efforts of his teammates. He often mentions the fans, either by noting the noise in the arena or by saying that he and the team are playing for them. And one of his favorite topics is how the team is progressing and where the team is going. This isn’t to say he won’t answer a question about himself or his performance but to illustrate that he always ties in his teammates and/or the fans, even when everyone knows that he is the story.

As good as Embiid is on the basketball court, he is an equally adept tweeter. If you ever need a laugh, scroll through Joel’s twitter or Instagram pages. You’ll find playful shots at himself, at his teammates and at his haters, among others.

Joel’s skills and stats grabbed the NBA's attention. His charisma piqued fan's interest. His attitude and demeanor have already earned respect from fans, coaches and fellow players alike. And his joy has won the league's heart. That last part is the key. He displays a love of the game and an absolute delight in being on the court that reminds fans of their own love of the game. It is reminiscent of the way the late Jose Fernandez played baseball.

There are always players who wow you with their skills. There are always charismatic players who entertain and others ardent fans respect. But there are only a rare few who can spark the childlike joy of the game, especially while combining the skills, charisma and game that earns respect.

It is almost impossible to watch Joel Embiid play basketball and not crack a smile. A bunch of smiles, actually. He’s almost guaranteed to do something to make you say, “Wow!” The joy of the game is all over his face. Watching him shoot free throws while basking in chants of “MVP” or “Trust the Process” has become a spectacle as Philadelphia fans recognize what they have in Embiid and want to make sure he knows it.

He does know it and has the perfect way to show it. He pays homage to Allen Iverson, the last great 76er, by borrowing his famous request for more from the Philly crowd, a cupped hand held up to his ear. Connecting this new, blossoming love affair to arguably the greatest one this city has ever seen — a love affair that spans the NBA, much in way Iverson himself did, but in an even more fun, more care-free way.

Joel Embiid may not be a 2017 NBA All-Star, but he is, without a doubt, THE 2017 NBA season's most fan-friendly star already. Joel Embiid is everything, and he is why everyone is now, finally, trusting the process.

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