Already, there have been moments when the player Joel Embiid has yet to become has emerged. Go back to Nov. 15, Los Angeles, the Sixers locked in a tight battle against a plucky Lakers team.
Fourth quarter: Embiid takes an entry pass just outside the left block, Brook Lopez on his back. He faces up, pump-fakes, puts the ball on the floor to his right, then spins left toward the baseline, sealing off the defender and, in one smooth motion, going up and under the rim for a reverse layup.
Two possessions later: Embiid takes an entry pass in the same spot. While facing up, he spots Ben Simmons cutting toward the rim on the weak side and hits him with an easy pass for a layup.
Later: Same spot. Embiid faces up Julius Randle, pumps, jab-steps right, then goes left to the baseline for a layup.
Later: Just outside the restricted area in the middle of the paint, he seals off Randle deep, takes a pass from Robert Covington, spins to his left, to his right and to his left, then goes up and under for a bucket and a foul.
When the topic is Embiid, the word process is never far behind. Usually, it is used in the proper sense, a reference to the rebuilding project that landed him in Philly. But the word maintains some relevance in its more general connotation as a means to an end. Just 94 games into his professional career, Embiid has already established himself as one of the most prodigious young talents in the NBA. He is already an all-star, a max-contract recipient, a defensive cornerstone of a team that won 52 games and a playoff series.
But he has yet to become what he could be, and that's a tantalizing thought. It's stretches such as that fourth quarter in Los Angeles that show Embiid's potential, the sorts of moments that Brett Brown has in mind when he talks about the player he has seen during workouts this summer. A player who knows that he holds the physical advantage over his opponent and who plays with a style that exudes that knowledge.
"I think he's going to be dominant this year," Brown said last week after spending part of his morning watching his big man run roughshod in the gym. "I really think that Joel Embiid is going to be dominant this year."
The remarkable thing about that statement is that it implies that Embiid was not dominant last year, when he averaged more than 36 points and 17 rebounds per 100 possessions. In the last 44 NBA seasons, only two players have accomplished those marks in a season (min. 60 games): Shaquille O'Neal in 1999-2000 and Moses Malone in 1981-82.
Not only was Embiid at least three years younger than either of those players in those seasons, he was still very much a player getting by on his unique combination of athleticism and shooting touch. Last year, Embiid was still a player who looked more comfortable and more in control the farther he got from the basket. According to NBA.com's tracking data, Embiid last season averaged just 6.3 paint touches per game, which ranked 16th of 32 qualifying centers. Among the 34 centers who took at least 400 shots last season, the percentage of Embiid's shots that came inside three feet ranked 25th (this, according to shot data cataloged by Basketball Reference).
Percentage of field-goal attempts by centers inside three feet of rim, 2017-18
Don't be surprised if that changes this season. This summer, Brown took a trip to Southern California to watch one of his big man's 6 a.m. workouts in Santa Monica. What he saw was a harbinger.
"To watch him play pickup basketball and want to dunk everything, and to play bully ball, and to just take 280-whatever pounds at 7-foot-2 and come in with that mentality …" Brown said.
He did not complete the sentence, but he did not need to. The vision of such a future completes itself. In fact, we've seen it already, that night against the Lakers.
His first two shots of the game were a face-up, midrange jumper and a three-pointer from the top of the arc. But from that point on, he sought out the big bodies who opposed him and went to work. Lopez, Randle, Andrew Bogut — all were powerless to stop him. When they helped, he passed out of it. When they didn't, he pumped and jabbed and drop-stepped his way to 46 points and 15 rebounds and seven assists. He attempted 19 free throws and blocked seven shots.
According to Basketball Reference's Game Score metric, it was the fifth-best single-game performance of the season, trailing only two by James Harden, one by LeBron James, and one by Anthony Davis.
It was the kind of night that should remind everybody the Sixers might not need a third star to reach the promised land. Go back to those seasons by O'Neal and Malone. O'Neal won a title with the Lakers that year. Malone won one with the Sixers the next. Now, go back to the potential of Embiid. In 2017-18, he averaged 1.6 more turnovers per 100 possessions than either O'Neal or Malone did. He missed an average of 3.7 three-pointers per 100 possessions; O'Neal and Malone combined for just seven attempts total in their respective seasons.
What happens if one of those turnovers and one of those missed three-pointers becomes a shot on the low block? The Sixers were 16-5 last season when Embiid made at least five shots from inside three feet of the basket. Over an 82-game slate, that projects to 62 wins (they were 25-17 in his other 42 games, a 48-win pace).
"Just looking at myself and the way I've been playing the game against guys since we've all been back, I feel like I'm so much better," Embiid said last week. "One of the main emphases was turnovers. I'm not going to average zero turnovers the whole season — you are going to make mistakes here and there — but it is all about making the right decisions. I think at times last season I made a lot of bad decisions. It's just about simplifying the game, letting the game come to me, and not forcing anything. I think that's going to be the biggest key."
The last NBA center to average at least 27 points was O'Neal, who did it four straight seasons from 1999-2003. The Lakers won three titles during that stretch. Before O'Neal, the last big men to average 27 were Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. Both finished their careers with multiple titles.