National Basketball Association
NBA MVP Joel Embiid focused on winning title: 'I just want to be respected'
National Basketball Association

NBA MVP Joel Embiid focused on winning title: 'I just want to be respected'

Updated May. 2, 2023 8:40 p.m. ET

Editor's note: This story originally published on March 1, 2023. On May 2, Joel Embiid won his first NBA MVP award. The story below has not been altered from its original form. 

Joel Embiid has long made it clear how much winning the NBA MVP award would mean to him. 

He has campaigned for the honor with both his words and his play. And after repeatedly falling short despite MVP-level performances the last two seasons, he has been honest about his disappointment.

But recently, Embiid has grown tired of that cycle. He now believes there’s only one path forward for him to get the recognition he deserves.


"What I can control is to try to win a championship," Embiid told FOX Sports. "And I feel like that’s the only way I’m going to get that respect. So, that’s where all the focus is."

The last two years, Embiid and Nikola Jokić were the top contenders for the MVP award. And both times, Embiid finished as the runner-up. In May, he told reporters, "I wonder what else I have to do to win it?"

Drew Hanlen, Embiid’s longtime trainer, thinks the star center’s vulnerability has led to a false narrative — specifically, that he dwells on perceived snubs. Hanlen believes that’s far from the truth, adding that Embiid has just been candid when directly questioned about the MVP award, but otherwise, he has just put his head down and worked harder.

"He was disappointed because he thought he deserved it," Hanlen said. "But that was it. I think a lot of people thought he was sulking. He just was like, ‘OK, I've just got to win.’"

That has been his approach this season with the Philadelphia 76ers, who are in third place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 39-21, 4.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Bucks

Embiid has put up eye-popping numbers trying to make his team a contender. He’s the league’s second-leading scorer, averaging 33 points on a career-high 53.2% shooting from the field and 10.4 rebounds a game. He also has one of the highest defensive ratings in the league (107.7).  

But amid arguably his greatest season, came perhaps his biggest snub. 

As his name floated near the top of every MVP ladder, Embiid wasn’t voted to be an All-Star starter until NBA commissioner Adam Silver tabbed him as Kevin Durant's injury replacement. It was such a glaring omission that it led to a widespread outcry for the league to abandon its two "backcourt," three "frontcourt" voting system.

Embiid tried to shake off his latest disappointment and focus on playing in June. 

Little did he know what was about to happen would more than make up for that slight. 

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Moments before the All-Star Game last week, as Embiid sat on a stage with 21 of the best basketball players in the world ahead of the league’s first-ever live draft in that manner, LeBron James took the microphone and didn’t hesitate with his first pick among the starters. 

The face of the league didn’t select Jokić, who’s favored to win his third MVP this season. Or Luka Dončić, whom James called his favorite player during a Twitter Q&A session last May. Or Kyrie Irving, with whom James won a championship in 2016 and has flirted with a reunion.  

Instead, James selected Embiid.

For Embiid, it was the ultimate form of validation.  

"The best player in the NBA, since he has been in the league for 20 years, he shows you that — and that's someone that's extremely smart, that knows basketball, you know, one of the smartest players ever," Embiid told FOX Sports. 

" … Often you hear the media [say] this guy, that guy is better. And then I end up not being a starter, which is cool. But then again, someone like that comes out and picks you first. I mean, it shows you that maybe some of the guys that are saying that stuff and voting, they may be wrong."

Hanlen was not surprised by James’ pick. 

"Joel is one of, if not the best, two-way players on the planet right now," he said. "He's [nearly] leading the league in scoring, and he also changes games defensively. I think that's why he's such a special player. There's no one who demands more double- and triple-teams. If you ask any NBA player who is the most unguardable player in the league, everyone would say Joel is."

Hanlen has watched Embiid transform from a high schooler who lacked so much spatial awareness that he once jumped out of bounds instead of shooting a wide open layup, to becoming a player who is in the conversation for being one of the greatest centers of all-time. 

He believes there are multiple misperceptions around Embiid. 

Among the most glaring? That he relies on his natural talent instead of hard work.  

Hanlen said of all of his clients — including fellow MVP candidate Jayson Tatum, Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine — he often jokes that Embiid is the neediest because he wants to work out about 50 times during the regular season, double what any of his other clients request. 

Hanlen added that Embiid also constantly studies the game, always asking for more film. 

"He has literally watched every single made field goal of Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan," Hanlen said. " ... He'll be like, ‘Do you have any more Dirk [Nowitzki] film?’ And I'll be like, ‘I've sent every single made field goal so unless he comes out of retirement and plays more, there's no more.’"

All the dedication has paid off for Embiid.

In 2020-21, Embiid led the 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference (49-21), averaging 28.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists. But the MVP went to Jokić, with many believing Embiid was dinged for having missed 31 regular season games because of injuries. 

The following season, Embiid played a career-high 68 games, while leading the league in scoring (30.6 points a game), the first center to do so since O'Neal over 20 years ago. Perhaps even more impressive, Embiid carried the 76ers to a fourth-place conference finish despite one of the most drama-filled situations in recent memory, when the team’s other All-Star at the time, Ben Simmons, was sidelined for conflicting reasons before being traded to Brooklyn in February. 

But Jokić won again, finishing with 65 first-place votes compared to Embiid’s 26. Stats may be an explanation: Jokić shot nearly nine percentage points higher than Embiid (58.3% to 49.9%), averaged more rebounds (13.8 to 11.7) and averaged more assists (7.9 to 4.2), and was ahead in nearly every advanced statistical category, including player efficiency rating (32.94 to 31.24).

Hanlen, however, believes statistics only tell part of the story. 

"The voters decided to look at spreadsheets instead of watch the games," Hanlen said, adding that a lot of what Embiid does doesn’t show up in box scores, such as the amount of times his presence intimidates people from driving to the basket or how often his teammates get open looks because he’s being triple-teamed. 

The irony of it all is that while Embiid has made it abundantly clear how significant the award is to him, Jokić has taken a starkly different approach — indifference. When asked last March what winning his second straight MVP would mean to him, Jokić told reporters, "I don’t know. It doesn’t mean anything special. I’m just trying to compete, to win games."

This season, though, Jokić is once again widely favored to win the award. But after watching him and Embiid in a head-to-head battle on Jan. 28, former NBA player and current ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins argued that voters should reconsider. Embiid finished with 47 points, 18 rebounds and five assists in the 76ers’ 126-119 win, while Jokić had 24 points, eight rebounds and nine assists.

"To be the man, you gotta beat the man," Perkins said on "First Take." "... He matched up with him — and he actually beat the man."

Perkins added that what stands out to him most about Embiid is what he does on the defensive end of the court. He pointed to a game between the 76ers and Memphis Grizzlies on Feb. 23 in which Embiid finished with six blocks (four of which he had in the second half) in his team’s 110-105 win.

"When it comes down to Joel Embiid and what he’s been bringing to the table this season on both ends of the floor … I don’t see how anybody can’t have him for the front-runner for the MVP," Perkins said.  

Of course, there are plenty of other pundits who believe Jokić is a shoo-in for the award.

For Embiid, the conversation has become exhausting. 

"It doesn’t matter anymore," Embiid told FOX Sports. " ... I just want to be respected. I’m competitive, so I play this game to be up there when you talk about the best basketball players ever. I know for that, you need awards, you need championships and all of that stuff. It’s unfortunate because I don’t get to decide on the individual awards." 

So, instead, he has focused all of his energy on trying to figure out how he can get the 76ers past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the team selected him with the third overall pick in the 2014 draft. 

This offseason, he worked on his moves out of isolations on the nail because it’s hardest for double-teams to be effective there. He concentrated on improving his handles downhill, shooting over double teams and sharpening his playmaking abilities. 

For Embiid, who was injured the last three postseasons, he said he simply wants to be healthy and finally lead his team to a championship. 

While individual accolades would be great, Embiid has decided to set his sights on something grander — and completely indisputable.

"Being in this position the last two or three years or whatever is the same thing, so it's like, ‘Eh, OK, just focus on the one thing I can control,’" Embiid told FOX Sports. "And if it happens, whatever. But if I do win a championship, that would be better than anything else."

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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