PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid yanked the rim with such force on a two-handed dunk that he managed a quick pull-up before he let go and snapped it back into position.
“He’s going to break the rim, right there,” a 76ers employee said, laughing.
The rim was sturdy during a pregame drill.
So now, is Embiid.
Embiid has teased the Sixers since he was picked third overall in the 2014 draft with the expectation he would become the cornerstone center that would lift the Sixers to — well, let’s start with 20 wins.
What he became instead was a flawed symbol of a so-called “Process” that saw a losses-into-lottery methodology leave the organization as the worst in the NBA. The Liberty Bell crack would seemingly heal quicker than the broken bones in Embiid’s right foot. He had surgeries in consecutive years that cost him his first two seasons and relegated his double-doubles to snappy Snapchat and Instagram posts.
The wait for Embiid is over.
He is not only healthy enough to have his minutes bumped to a preseason-high 20 on Saturday night against Detroit, the Sixers have considered backing off their plan of holding him out one game of back-to-back sets. The Sixers first set of consecutive games is Nov. 1 and 2 and they have 17 this season.
“We would have guessed that back-to-backs would have been off the table, that they wouldn’t have happened,” coach Brett Brown said. “I feel like where we now are at watching him, it’s stuff we are completely considering. To say it will happen, I can’t say that.”
Embiid caused a scare when he landed awkwardly on his right foot in the first half Saturday, but he played in the second half for the first time in six preseason games and wowed the crowd by faking a spin before a left-handed layup and emphatic first pump for part of his 15 points.
“I like the pressure, I like the responsibility,” Embiid said.
Brown, in his fourth season, said he would take a cautious approach with Embiid’s minutes.
“There are some times just with normal aches and the other parts of his body that you pay attention. It’s still a 275-pound, 7-foot-2 man going up and down the court,” he said. “How about his motor, when he puts his mind to it? How about his lateral quickness, when he puts his mind to it? To get that stuff, just harder, longer, makes you think we have to take this course.”
OK, so Embiid is back for the 10-win Sixers.
But who will join him in the frontcourt?
Once thought to have a logjam in the paint, the Sixers instead have more mystery. Big men, big questions: Who is ready for the 76ers?
Jahlil Okafor led the Sixers with 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in his rookie year before he was shut down in March for surgery on a torn right meniscus in his right knee. The Sixers said he was expected to resume basketball activities in about six weeks.
Six weeks has stretched into seven months. Okafor, the 6-foot-11 center out of Duke, has yet to play in the preseason and the Sixers are hopeful he can play in the Oct. 26 opener against Oklahoma City.
“The movement at times produces some things that make us feel like we don’t want to push it forward too much,” Brown said. “There is some biting, there is a little bit of pain. We just pull him back.”
Nerlens Noel, another key cog in the rebuilding process, hasn’t played since the first preseason game because of a strained left groin. Noel complained about the glut of big men (“I don’t see a way of it working”) as he entered training camp.
Oh, and there’s the little matter of No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons sidelined indefinitely with a broken bone in his right foot.
Robert Covington started at power forward against Detroit and Dario Saric, another ’14 draft pick yet to play a regular season game for the 76ers, was at small forward. And, yes, it’s preseason, but the Sixers were still crushed 97-76 by the Pistons, and another lousy season is on tap in Philly.
Embiid could make it a smidge brighter. He was 5 of 8 from the floor with five rebounds and an ugly seven turnovers before a crowd that cheered his every move. Nothing fancy, but spotting Embiid’s name on a stat sheet instead of an injury report is a rare reprieve from the gloom that dooms the 76ers.
“We all see how good we think he can be,” Brown said.