Personality goes a long way.
When the Sixers drafted Joel Embiid--a player coming off a debilitating foot injury that was almost certainly going to cost him the entirety of what should have been his rookie year, and possibly even longer--with the #3 pick, it carried the risk of being the ultimate PR headache for the Sixers. The team already had asked its fanbase to sit through a 19-63 season, wrapped around a historic 26-game mid-season losing streak, in which the team barely tried to be competitive. Wait a year, and wait on reinforcements coming in the form of two top ten picks in the 2014 draft, and things will be much better next year, they seemed to tell the fans.
Suddenly, with the Embiid selection, that plan was put on hold for at least another year--a delay that the Sixers doubled down on by trading for Dario Saric, under contract to stay overseas for at least a minimum of two seasons, with their #10 pick. The potential for a total fanbase meltdown was there, and GM Sam Hinkie certainly took his fair share of fire from media, mostly locally but some nationally, for having two top-ten picks and not using them to get a single player who would help improve their dismal on-court product next year.
Despite the criticism, I think most Sixers fans have stopped short of outright mutiny. Some of them understand and agree with the long game, others don't, but I think three things happened this summer to really aid Hinkie (and majority owner Josh Harris, who has to actually worry about things like season-ticket renewals) in selling the fanbase on the 2014-15 Philadelphia 76ers.
The first two were under Hinkie's control. First, he filled out the rest of his draft night haul--five guys in all--with players who were potentially familiar to national audiences, and who would be able to play right away. Clemson's K.J. McDaniels, Syracuse's Jerami Grant and Tennessee's Jordan McRae were all multi-year college players who played for major teams. Pierre Jackson, acquired via trade, had passed through the Sixers system the year before on his way to New Orleans in the Jrue Holiday deal, and had since increased his profile with his prodigious output in the D-League.
Of the five players acquired via the second round on draft night, only Vasilije Micic, the Serbian point guard taken with the 52nd pick, was unlikely to contribute this season. (Micic signed a multi-year deal with Bayern Munich, and we'll see him when we see him.) The other four--McDaniels, Grant, Jackson and McRae--were all expected to fight for roster spots and genuine rotation roles as soon as next season, and indeed, all played with the Sixers' Summer League squad and made encouraging contributions. (Jackson, sadly, injured his ACL in the first game and will likely miss the entire season, but you can hardly put that one on Hinkie.)
Those four (now three) players go a way towards softening the blow of not having any top-ten picks from the 2014 draft contribute to the team this year. But Hinkie's real ace in the hole for the '14-'15 season was our top-ten acquisition from the 2013 draft, center Nerlens Noel. Injured all of last year, Nerlens also made his quasi-pro debut for the Sixers at this year's Summer League, and showed potential that at times verged on the otherworldly.
Across six games in Orlando and Las Vegas, Noel was a defensive terror, sometimes going entire quarters protecting the net more like a hockey goalie than an NBA big man. He was similarly disruptive away from the paint, stripping guards on the pick-and-roll and starting breaks the other way, and also showed better-than-expected touch in the post on the offensive end, as well as improved free-throw shooting.
The big man struggled to rebound and to briskly get up and down the court, thanks to timing and conditioning issues attributable to his year-and-a-half spent away from the game. But Nerlens showed as much promise as any Class of 2014 rookie at either Summer League, and if healthy, he could be a dark horse Rookie of the Year candidate for Philly next season. Basically, his debut was exciting enough to make Sixers fans that they were expecting him to debut alongside two other blue-chip team prospects this summer.
The four second-rounders and Noel's debut were likely all part of Hinkie's grand plan. What Our Dark Lord could not have anticipated, however, was Joel Embiid's Twitter account.
Pre-draft, Embiid's Twitter account was active but unexceptional. Lots of tweets about the NBA during the playoffs, about soccer during the World Cup, about his own pre-draft process in the days leading up to the occasion. Nothing particularly revelatory or outlandish, save for perhaps this unusual hospital selfie as he went under the knife for foot surgery.
— Joel-Hans Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) June 20, 2014
However, as you've no doubt noticed if you've spent any time on social media the past few weeks--or on news outlets who might potentially cover interesting stories in sports and entertainment--Joel has really taken the bluebird by storm of late. First, he used his account to launch a recruiting mission on the Sixers' behalf, with LeBron James the target.
@KingJames hey bro hope you're having a good day...... Want to join us in philly?? Peace
— Joel-Hans Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) July 1, 2014
— Joel-Hans Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) July 3, 2014
What's Mr Rich Paul's twitter account? That might be his agent. Whoever finds it, gets a hug. I need to holla at him (idk if that's English)
— Joel-Hans Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) July 4, 2014
Naturally, the pitch was unsuccessful, and to our knowledge LBJ never even acknowledged Embiid's @'s, but it was certainly amusing to watch our future star jump into the fray of Big Three or Four assemblage over a year before he was even likely to take the court. What's more, with the Sixers a non-entity in the LeBron sweepstakes, and with a GM who'd never be so gauche as to even admit he made overtures towards the King, it was a little refreshing to see someone who dared to dream that the NBA's best player would be willing to join the cause in Philly.
Once he acknowledged that his efforts with LeBron were in vain, Joel set his Twitter account's sights on a much different kind of recruiting target: Kim Kardashian.
Hey I want you to come slide in my DMs @KimKardashian
— Joel-Hans Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) July 16, 2014
Oh I didn't know you were married sorry @KimKardashian just saw it from the fan's tweet... have a nice day
— Joel-Hans Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) July 16, 2014
And so it seems likely to keep going all summer. In under a month, Embiid has become the most fascinating follow in the NBA, because he doesn't seem to understand (or care) about the rules players seem to naturally follow on social media, about not drawing unnecessary attention to one's self, about not doing anything that might in any way end up causing trouble for his team.
Embiid's Twitter account has the exuberance of a guy who just discovered not only the power of the platform, but the fact that people are actually listening to him on it. It's pretty infectious and considerably endearing, especially when you see enough of it to notice the recurring themes that keep popping up in his tweets: His self-mythologizing boasting of killing a lion with a spear, his endless quoting of Chris Brown's "Loyal," and his weekly insistence that it's time for him to leave Twitter altogether, only to pop up again a couple days later with a new string of tweets about hip-hop or TV. (He likes Meek Mill and Vampire Diaries.)
If it sounds extremely frivolous, it's because it is. But people are paying attention. Embiid's followers are nearing the quarter-million mark, nearly as many as Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams combined. Many of Embiid's tweets, particularly those pertaining to LeBron, Kim and Rihanna, were retweeted in the tens of thousands. Everyone from Deadspin to USA Today has reported on the recurring amusements of Embiid's tweets, adding updates to the chronology of his high-profile pursuits as if they were breaking news stories. (At this point in the NBA's off-season, they may as well be.)
Meanwhile, the response from Sixers and NBA fans to Joel's Twitter exploits has been almost universally positive.
He the GOAT of current nba players RT @DwavY: Joel embiid gotta chill on twitter thats what i would tell cuz if i was the sixers
— Sean Hill (@_CoachHill) July 23, 2014
Oh man Joel Embiid is the GOAT of twitter I swear lol #Sixers
— Gettin Buckets (@GettinBuckets91) July 22, 2014
Display Joel Embiid's Twitter feed at an art museum.
— alex (@steven_lebron) July 18, 2014
Joel Embiid is my new favorite Philly athlete and he won’t even play a game for another year: https://t.co/Wdt1RVJpP6
— Matt Mullin (@matt_mullin) July 16, 2014
2 nice plays by Jabari Parker just now. Still less exciting than Joel Embiid's Twitter account.
— Roy Burton (@TheBSLine) July 12, 2014
Consequently, without playing a second of pro ball, Embiid has already become probably the most nationally beloved Sixer rookie since Allen Iverson crossed over Michael Jordan back in '97. It seems like fans are too busy following his latest Twitter adventures now to even worry terribly about his medical prognosis. I had a conversation with a friend of mine a week ago in which we agreed that Embiid's Twitter account alone made him untouchable as an asset.
This is all great, great news for Sam Hinkie. As much as he might prefer Embiid not to rock the boat too much with his tweeting--I doubt Hinkie could actually get in trouble for Embiid attempting to recruit free agents on his own accord, but it probably makes him at least a tiny bit uncomfortable--he must be overjoyed about how fans locally and nationally have taken to his high draft pick. It's just a distraction, but it should be a much-needed one as the Sixers continue to endure another losing season with their top-three-pick watching from the bench, if even that closely.
If you're not swayed that this stuff actually matters, consider the alternative. Two years ago, Andrew Bynum limped through his first (and only) season with the Sixers with recurring and degenerative knee and leg issues, ultimately missing the whole year. In the midst of his season on the bench, he was reclusive at best, rarely talking with media, and after his introductory press conference, never engaging with fans. (To date, Bynum has still yet to even join Twitter, at least publicly.)
So as Bynum missed game after game and his return became increasingly unlikely, all Sixer fans had to go on with the center was an increasingly bizarre series of outlandish haircuts, a whole bunch of unflattering reports and rumors (Bowling! Flamenco dancing! Neighborhood terrorizing!), and the occasional interview that revealed nothing about the person or the player. Without having any connection to him on or off the court, it was easy for the fans to turn on him, which they certainly did in force, even though Bynum never really did anything wrong during his time with the Sixers, necessarily.
Could an Embiid-like Twitter account have redeemed Bynum for Philly fans? Maybe for a while. The good will Joel has engendered with his loveable tweeting will likely get him through his rookie season, but it won't last forever. If Embiid can't make it on the court before long, or if he has a Greg Oden-like string of career-derailing injuries, or if (worst of all) he does something dumb to set back his rehab, his likeability will only buy him so much time. Eventually, if he can't get it done on the court, it's going to be hard for him to keep from being reviled in Philadelphia.
That's a problem Embiid's hoping not to have, though, and one that Hinkie's certainly not expecting either. He's not asking Sixers fans to wait forever--just another year, at least for now, until we can add the Lionslayer and likely another decent lottery pick to the mix, and start to figure out what this team is really going to be from there. And until we get to that point, Joel Embiid's twitter account is as fun a diversion from our troubles as our GM could have asked for. Between that, the second-rounders and Nerlens Noel, this season should be plenty fun anyway.