Em­biid plays at MVP level on both ends

USA TODAY International Edition - - NBA - Martin Rogers

Joel Em­biid has jokes for most sit­u­a­tions. But here’s some­thing about the 76ers cen­ter that’s no laugh­ing mat­ter: his can­di­dacy for the NBA’s MVP award.

The NBA chugs along fu­eled by trends and cy­cles, and Em­biid, de­spite a moun­tain of stats and metro­nomic con­sis­tency through­out the first quar­ter of this cam­paign, might not be the most fash­ion­able of choices.

LeBron James doesn’t just have the stand­ing rep­u­ta­tion as the best player in bas­ket­ball, but also the nar­ra­tive of a switch to Hol­ly­wood and the task of lift­ing an un­der­whelm­ing cast of as­so­ciates to spur his claim for the ac­co­lade.

Mean­while, Gian­nis An­te­tok­oun­mpo and his high­light-reel hero­ics earned him East­ern Con­fer­ence player of the month in Oc­to­ber/Novem­ber as he con­tin­ues his tran­si­tion from star to megas­tar. Also, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Du­rant and Damian Lil­lard are de­servedly in the MVP mix.

Yet Em­biid has a solid ar­gu­ment to be the most wor­thy, as he pro­pels the surg­ing 76ers to­ward what the City of Broth­erly Love hopes will be a se­ri­ous run at a cham­pi­onship.

If we are to as­sume the most im­por­tant bit of “MVP” is the “V,” then it is hard to find any­one more “valu­able” than Em­biid.

Through 25 games, of which Philadel­phia won 17, Em­biid av­er­aged 27 points and 13.4 re­bounds, a com­bi­na­tion not matched in the open­ing stint of a sea­son since Moses Malone in 1981-82. His three-point shoot­ing and abil­ity to get to the free throw line also add weight and ver­sa­til­ity, but that’s just part of it.

When a league be­comes fixated on some­thing as deeply as the NBA’s ado­ra­tion for all things offense, it ac­tu­ally makes the op­po­site that much more valu­able. Em­biid is a force at the other end too, to a truly elite level, with two blocked shots per game and dom­i­na­tion on the de­fen­sive glass.

The well-rounded na­ture of his game is all the more re­mark­able when you con­sider it was only seven years and four months ago that Em­biid be­gan to take bas­ket­ball se­ri­ously, fol­low­ing a camp in Cameroon ar­ranged by the Clip­pers’ Luc Mbah a Moute. Em­biid skipped the first day of the try­out to play video games in­stead and only went for the sec­ond day on the or­ders of his dis­ci­plinar­ian fa­ther, a se­nior army officer. Good de­ci­sion.

The 76ers cer­tainly think so. They have won four in a row and that would be nine if not for a head-scratcher of a home de­feat to the hap­less Cavaliers. The ad­di­tion of Jimmy But­ler has added an in­jec­tion of in­ten­sity and en­ergy.

There have been none of the per­son­al­ity is­sues But­ler had with Karl-An­thony Towns in Min­nesota, But­ler seem­ingly happy to ac­cept this is Em­biid’s team. And here is some­thing worth con­sid­er­a­tion: how strong might the 76ers look once Em­biid, But­ler and Ben Sim­mons grow fully ac­cus­tomed to play­ing with each other?

Wed­nes­day’s show­down with the Rap­tors matches the two hottest teams in the East, while pos­si­bly pro­vid­ing a con­fer­ence finals pre­view.

“I feel like if I’m an MVP can­di­date or if I win the MVP, that means we are on another level,” Em­biid told Ya­hoo Sports be­fore the sea­son. He is hold­ing up his end of the bargain, and his col­leagues are re­spond­ing around him.

The 24-year-old is an old school big guy in the post but also morphs into that most mod­ern of NBA things, a very tall man ca­pa­ble of swish­ing threes, when the mood and ne­ces­sity strike him.

All of this makes it easy to for­get that last sea­son was his first pre­dom­i­nantly healthy cam­paign, a year in which he was named an All-Star and was a De­fen­sive Player of the Year final­ist, be­fore a late-sea­son col­li­sion dur­ing a game cracked an or­bital bone and cost him some play­off effec­tive­ness.

This sea­son, ev­ery­thing is com­ing to­gether, and bar­ring an un­ex­pected loss of form it is hard to figure out how to stem his progress. Em­biid’s size, foot­work and two-way flex­i­bil­ity make him a puzzle that can’t be solved, only man­aged.

That in it­self makes him an MVP con­tender.

The league some­times works in strange ways, but it should be re­mem­bered that the MVP award isn’t a pop­u­lar­ity con­test or a longevity re­ward. It is sup­posed to do what it says on the tin, rec­og­nize the player who has been the most valu­able to his team.

The list of le­git­i­mate can­di­dates isn’t es­pe­cially long, and right now Em­biid be­longs at the top.

STEVE MITCHELL/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Joel Em­biid is build­ing a strong case for MVP, av­er­ag­ing 27 points, 13.4 re­bounds and 2 blocks per game.

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