PHILADELPHIA (AP) LaVar Ball was holding court outside the Lakers locker room when he spotted two of his sons goofing around with the 7-footer in the white sweatshirt.
Ball, the preposterous patriarch of LA basketball’s foolhardy family, had just dissed the President in their ongoing Twitter feud. But in the presence of the player nicknamed ”The Process,” even Ball knew it was wise to play nice with Joel Embiid.
”Embiid! Come on boy, make me some noise!” Ball yelled, as he pulled Embiid in for a bro hug. ”Don’t be scared.”
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Ball placed his hand on Embiid’s shoulder and offered a bit of fatherly advice: ”Here’s the smart thing. Don’t worry about nobody on the outside. You just keep playing and doing your thing.”
Embiid nodded and laughed as he walked away from the powwow and headed down the dingy concourse, the Philadelphia 76ers center needing tips from Ball on basketball about as much as Martin Truex Jr. needs racing lessons from an Uber driver. Embiid has been doing his thing just fine as the big baller in the middle for the Sixers and has posted the kind of numbers (23.5 points/11.1 rebounds) that should turn the social media star into an NBA All-Star.
Embiid has been healthy, durable and dominant, a clutch reason the Sixers are 13-11 and in the thick of Eastern Conference playoff contention for the first time in five years.
Oh yeah, and he’s had help.
Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2016 draft, has been better than advertised in his rookie season. Simmons had already the third triple-double of his career with 12 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists against the Lakers. Simmons, fourth in the league in assists, joined Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson as the only rookies to have at least three triple-doubles through their first 23 games.
More big thrills are surely on the way.
The Sixers are still a work in process as The Process becomes something more than a code name for a demoralizing rebuild that stripped the franchise of quality players in exchange for cheap talent and draft picks.
Embiid and Simmons proved The Process can pay substantial dividends.
Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and, perhaps, 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz proved the path to a title can come with more rocky terrain ahead.
But the NBA has put on watch that the 76ers are on a playoff push.
”We have a focus on where we’re going,” team president Bryan Colangelo said. ”We have a clear definition of what that looks like.”
At its peak, it looks like it did against the Lakers:
Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma drove the lane and went high with his right hand for a layup. Embiid saw the rookie coming and barely left his feet to use his right hand and swat the ball directly to Simmons. Embiid stared at the fallen Kuzma as Simmons took off on a fastbreak. Simmons dribbled to just inside the 3-point line when he made a left-handed, no-look bounce pass behind him to a charging Richaun Holmes for a thunderous dunk that brought another raucous sellout crowd of 20,495 to its feet.
”The Philadelphia 76ers is must-see TV right now,” TNT analyst and Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal said during the broadcast. ”I’m looking at the chemistry that Simmons and Embiid is playing with, and it reminds me of a young Penny (Hardaway) and a young Shaq.”
Simmons’ attack off the dribble, rebounding, passing like a point guard trapped in a power forward’s body and ability to finish strong at the basket has already forced comparisons to Cleveland’s LeBron James, the four-time NBA MVP who has served as a mentor to the rookie.
”I think Ben is his own makeup of speed, power, quickness, ability to pass the ball and being able have a feel for the game,” James said. ”You know, Ben is Ben. And I am who I am. And so on and so on. So you guys kind of do that comparison stuff.”
Simmons and James go head-to-head on Saturday in Cleveland, with the Sixers looking to avenge a 113-91 home loss last month.
The Sixers have lost four of six games and were stunned when Brandon Ingram hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds remaining in the Lakers’ 107-104 win on Thursday. They lead the league in fouls committed per game, are turnover prone (had 18 against LA and the Lakers had 15 steals) and have little depth beyond Simmons and Embiid, and JJ Redick, Robert Covington and Dario Saric. They get beat much too often on the offensive glass.
”It’s been pretty tough,” Simmons said. ”But we can get back to where we were. Still learning. But I think we’ll get back there.”
Help could be on the way.
Fultz is close to a return from soreness and a scapular muscle imbalance in his right shoulder that has sidelined him since October. Fultz needs more than strength and conditioning work to get in basketball shape – he needs to rework a mangled shooting motion that was mocked around the NBA. For the Sixers to make a dent in the playoff race, Fultz must follow the path of fellow lottery picks Embiid and Simmons, and not a disposed Process piece such as Okafor, the No. 3 pick of the 2015 draft who fell out of favor and was traded on Wednesday.
Fultz can still have fun and trolled Embiid this week with a ”Process that ” on Twitter when his Washington Huskies upset Embiid’s Kansas Jayhawks. Simmons and Embiid are tight and attended a Jay-Z concert together last week. It’s the kind of camaraderie that keeps a locker room fun through thick and thin – a process or playoffs – and has coach Brett Brown firm in his belief that this season won’t unravel like so many others on his watch.
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