Joel Embiid is a quantum basketball player. Thanks to persistent injuries, the Philadelphia 76ers center has only played 94 games since being drafted in 2014, but there is enough evidence to suggest he’s warped the NBA’s spacetime. Pro basketball circa 2018 exists as two simultaneous yet divergent dimensions: The one in which Embiid is injured, and the one in which he plays and is unstoppable.
On Thursday, we got a glimpse of that latter dimension. Game 3 of the Sixers’ first-round playoff series with the Miami Heat was Embiid’s first-ever playoff game and his first on-court appearance since March. He was a gravitational force, and he finished with 23 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 blocks. Embiid’s presence didn’t just change the Eastern Conference’s postseason landscape, it has liquified the soil upon which it once stood.
No one knew whether he would even appear in Game 3 until a few hours before tip-off. Last month, his teammate Markelle Fultz accidentally kneed Embiid in the face and broke his orbital bone—a freak accident that relegated the freakish 24-year-old to the sidelines. Embiid was only able to play thanks to a cutting-edge carbon and polycarbonate mask with built-in eyewear. If great strides have to be made in industrial chemistry to ensure that he plays, so be it. Embiid is just that good.
The futuristic mask’s durability was tested early when it fell to the ground during the second quarter and Miami’s Justise Winslow did his best to destroy it.
After the game, Embiid told reporters, “Justise stepped on it and tried to break it with his hands. But little do they know is that I have about 50 of them. It’s going to take much more than that to get me out of this series. I’m going to be a nightmare for them, too.” That’s another reason Embiid is so valuable. At 24, he is already one of the best interviews in the league.
Charismatic and cocky, Embiid is just a ton of fun. Rare is a 7-footer who can drain a 3-pointer in your face; rarer still is one who will shush the crowd while trotting back on defense afterward, as Embiid did against Miami.
Like climate change, we talk about Embiid in evidence-based hypotheticals. When he made his debut in 2016 after missing two years with a broken foot, he was so impressive that USA Today declared that his “per-36-minute numbers are historically elite.” He had only played 10 games up until that point.
Embiid exists in a world of extrapolated and speculative statistics. According to ESPN, when Embiid is on the court, “the Sixers had the scoring margin of a 68-win team this season—which would have given them the best record in the NBA.” When he clocks more than 35 minutes in a game, something he has only done 10 times this season, he averages 28.9 points and 11.6 rebounds. It’s a small sample size, but those numbers are in line with the greatest centers of all time.
The NBA, and the playoffs specifically, are all about adjustments. Something’s working for your opponent? Make a few changes, swap a defender here or there, and see if they can counter. This year, the most teams have been able to do against Embiid is hope one of his teammates knees him in the face. Now that he’s wearing a protective mask, they can throw that strategy out the window.
At the time of publication, we are in the dimension where Joel Embiid plays basketball. With any luck, quantum mechanics will allow fans to stay here for a while and enjoy it. Who knows how long it will last?