Joel Embiid’s play could’ve spoken very well for itself Wednesday night.
He was, however, in a talkative mood after putting up 40 points and 19 rebounds in the Sixers’ 131-123 overtime win at Wells Fargo Center over the Jazz. Specifically, Embiid wanted to respond to the notion that he’s afraid of well-regarded opposing centers such as Utah’s Rudy Gobert.
The four-time All-Star did so in emphatic and sarcastic style, targeting a couple of local reporters who he believed had questioned his desire to play against other big-name big men. Embiid was sidelined for the first Sixers-Jazz matchup of the year by back tightness, one of six games he missed in the first half of this season.
“Well, first of all, according to (reporter), I’m scared of (Gobert) and I’m scared of top centers. As we saw tonight, it looks like I was very, very scared of him. Yeah, keep talking. Going against him, one of my goals is to also be Defensive Player of the Year. When you go against those types of guys — he’s a great player; he does a lot for his team that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet — but when you go up against those guys, it brings something else to my game. I want to dominate on the offensive end but mainly on the defensive end, because that’s the goal I set for myself at the beginning of the year. And then obviously I’ve got one of my teammates that has the potential to be the Defensive Player of the Year.
“But those are the matchups you want to go out and just dominate, and prove to everyone that we have a great team. And then individually, (prove) that I should be up there when it comes to those rankings and stuff. Hopefully that can clear that up with (the reporters).”
As an aside, Embiid’s “First of all” preamble should perhaps have been a sign that memorable, unfiltered comments were to come. He began the same way two years ago when he called veteran forward Jared Dudley, then of the Nets, a “nobody.”
Through his first 30 games, Embiid has averaged 30.2 points on 52.1 percent shooting from the floor, 41.6 percent from long range and 85.6 percent from the foul line. His scoring and the possibility of him earning the league’s MVP award will draw ample attention, though Embiid has insisted he cares most about Defensive Player of the Year.
“When I came into the league, I never thought I would be that good offensively,” he said. “I always focused on the defensive side, and that’s always my goal — to win it. … Obviously the scoring and offensive side has taken over, but I keep going back to the same thing: You can’t be in those conversations without winning.
“Right now, we’re winning. We’re first in the East and we just beat the best team in the league. I’ve got a bunch of teammates that are doing a great job. You see Tobias (Harris) — that’s why I’ve been preaching for him to be an All-Star. You look at nights like tonight, he dominated in overtime. As a team we just play well together, we move the ball and we defend well.”
Embiid confirmed Wednesday that he’s planning to participate in the All-Star Game on Sunday night. He’ll be coached by familiar faces, with Sixers head coach Doc Rivers and his staff leading the team drafted by Kevin Durant. LeBron James and Durant will select their teams Thursday night.
Though Embiid has expressed that he values keeping himself and his family as safe as possible during the coronavirus pandemic and said last year he didn’t think the NBA’s decision to restart the 2019-20 season in a Disney World “bubble” environment was a good idea, he’ll be heading to Atlanta, Georgia. Ben Simmons, the teammate Embiid accurately referred to as a Defensive Player of the Year contender, will join him in the All-Star Game for a third consecutive season.
“I can never take those occasions for granted,” Embiid said. “It’s a great feeling to be part of the best players in the world. I’m just looking to go out there, stay safe — first thing — and just have fun in the best game in basketball.”
We assume Rivers won’t give Embiid a heavy workload, although his star center clearly wants the world to know he’s eager to play the highest caliber of competition possible.