As a Sixers fan of the Sam Hinkie era, it's been important for me to approach our many blue-chip rookies and young players with a healthy dose of practical skepticism. Michael Carter-Williams was bound to struggle when he first came into the league as he honed his jumper. Nerlens Noel was a raw talent, sure to be ghastly on offense as he figured out how to harness his skill and athleticism. Jahlil Okafor would need need to learn to hold his own on defense and on the boards against NBA-level speed and size. Even Ben Simmons, he'll certainly take a few years before he has any idea how to score. "The Process" was nothing if not gradual, and I was going to keep expectations low, reasonable, patient as the pieces came together.
It took me about a quarter into his first preseason game to be positive Joel Embiid was going to be dominant from the second he entered the NBA.
Maybe not even that long, to be honest. I still remember watching his first game for Kansas in 2013, when us amateur scouts were still supposed to be watching for mega-hyped wing Andrew Wiggins, and Embiid had a mostly nothing stat line - two points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench - but made a couple gorgeous, next-level passes that had me checking and re-checking his various draft profiles to make sure I'd read the part right about how he'd just started playing the game a couple years earlier. Over the course of the college season, I would become handily convinced he was the best prospect in his draft class, but I think that first game alone was enough for me to intuitively understand how special he truly was.
I spent all this preseason yelling at anyone who would listen (and many who wouldn't) that Embiid would win this year's Rookie of the Year. I was incredulous, if not downright dumbfounded, at all the experts who found reasons to predict someone besides "JoJo" - teammate Dario Saric, Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield - for the honors. The most gob-smacking to me was the idea that his minutes limit (currently 24 per night, though likely rising over the course of the season), instituted to slowly acclimate his body to the NBA's rigors after two years lost to surgery, would depress his counting numbers, thus allowing some inferior player to put up stats that would look more superficially impressive and sway voters.
It's hard to imagine anyone who predicted that could've watched Embiid in the preseason, or they would've seen that it doesn't matter how much PT he gets: When he's in the game, he's the Sixers' entire universe. They run virtually every play for him, and even when they don't he still finds ways to tower over the action, on both sides of the ball. He played less than 15 minutes per game in the preseason, and still ranked second on the team in scoring, rebounds, and blocks. And guess what? Averaging just over 20 minutes per night for the Sixers, he's not only comfortably leading the team in scoring (17.3 PPG), rebounds (6.3) and blocks (2.7), he's easily pacing all rookies, as well - doubling the entire field in some cases. Dunn? Not even Tom Thibodeau could play these guys enough minutes to make up the difference.
But you know what else? The numbers are virtually irrelevant. More than any other player I've ever rooted for, Embiid's greatness is self-evident. You don't need to go trawling in the advanced stats to find his hidden value, you don't have to pull up player profile comparisons (or lack thereof) to illustrate his singularity, you don't need to find quotes from his teammates and coaches to point to his true hoop character. All you have to do is watch. I guarantee it will take no more than two minutes to see him do something - pump-fake and drive from the 3-point line, nail a fadeaway jumper as the shot clock expires, erase an opposing guard's layup from out of nowhere (and then get the rebound) - that you just don't see other big men do. No going behind the numbers needed to argue that Beyonce is the best pop star of the 21st century; you just witness her in action, and she is. Same with Embiid.
The only remaining credible threat to Embiid's pre-destined ROY campaign doesn't come from the field, or from his bench - hurry back and try to make a case if you want, Simmons, but I watched you play this summer and I have zero doubt who my franchise player is - but from his own lower hemisphere, where his legs remain a flimsy pair of chopsticks that you'll never totally trust not to snap in half whenever they're in use. But whatever, even if Tuesday night was the final game of his season (knock on an entire arboretum), NBA voters would likely find another rook to anoint, but in their hearts, they'd still yearn to elect Embiid.
So I say let's just give it to him now. Forget concerns and health and the random cruelties of the universe; we already know who the best rookie this season is. Let's do the right thing and never have to pretend otherwise.