Sixers set for No. 1 draft picks Simmons, Fultz to make debut
PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid braided his hair for a fashion statement and got his basketball shorts in a bunch over his latest minutes restriction on opening night.
Embiid styled his hair like former Philadelphia 76ers great Allen Iverson and was as outspoken as him, too, using some profanities describe coach Brett Brown’s decision to confine his minutes to the teens in the opener tonight against the Washington Wizards.
Embiid’s career has been defined by injuries and limited minutes in the games he’s been healthy enough to play. Brown often started his press briefings last season with the magic number of minutes that Embiid, the 7-foot center, could play. Eight months after minor surgery to repair the meniscus tear in his left knee, Embiid still isn’t ready to go 25, 30, heck, even 20, minutes in his first regular-season game since January.
Brown and the Sixers are still handling their $148 million man with care — even if it makes Embiid mad.
But Embiid will start against the Wizards in a game where the Sixers will become the first franchise in NBA history to have two No. 1 overall draft picks make their debut in the same game: 2016 pick Ben Simmons will start after missing last season with a broken foot and 2017 pick Markelle Fultz will serve as one of the top reserves off the bench.
Yes, the first pick is a second-teamer, in large part because of shoulder and knee ailments that limited him to two preseason games.
The franchise player is irked over his limited playing time.
The No. 1 pick with the herky-jerky shot is a bench warmer.
The mood in Philly?
Nothing but optimism for a franchise that has real playoff hopes for the first time in six years. Brown told the Sixers in one of his first speeches in training camp that he expected them to make the playoffs. True, “Trust the Process” has become every bit a tired catchphrase as “Cash Me Outside,” but whether fans agree “The Process” is over because the team no longer tanks or that it won’t end until a championship is won, this much is certain: Philly is all in on the Sixers.
Ticket sales are booming, sponsorship deals are up, and fans may empty pet rescue shelters with their frivolous celebratory ritual of raising cats after each victory.
The fun only goes as far as Embiid’s brittle body allows.
Embiid, who played 31 games last season, said he should play at least 30 minutes to start the season. He missed his first two NBA seasons because of surgeries on his right foot and is understandably antsy to prove he is one of the elite players in the NBA.
Mike Dunleavy, who coached four NBA teams, was awed the first time he saw Embiid in 2014 at a pre-draft workout held by former agent Arn Tellem.
“This guy was a cat,” said Dunleavy, in his second year at Tulane. “You watch him play, how quick he was off his feet. His ability to shoot the ball with range, run the floor and do the things I saw him do, we haven’t seen a guy like this in a long time.”
In an era of extreme 3-point shooting, pick-and-roll reliance and guard dominance, Embiid has shown prowess as a big man who can stretch the floor.
“He’s one of the greatest talents I’ve ever seen,” Dunleavy said.
The Sixers can’t wait to find out over a full season.
Jerryd Bayless starts for the 19-year-old Fultz, with Embiid, Simmons, Robert Covington and $23 million free agent J.J. Redick rounding a starting five that seems like a Hall of Fame lineup compared to what Brown had when he was hired in 2013.
The Wizards’ aim is much higher: The franchise is trying to win 50 games or reach the conference finals for the first time since Washington did both back in 1978-79.
“I’m ready for it man,” guard Bradley Beal said. “This is going to be a big year for us.”
John Wall, a perennial All-Star, Beal are the 1-2 punch in the backcourt Fultz and Simmons hope they can become.
“These guys that we’re playing tomorrow, they’re going to be good,” Beal said.