LOS ANGELES — Joel Embiid is lounging on the couch in a private home in Pacific Palisades, spinning yarns about hunting lions, offering reviews of his favorite television movies and showing a visitor how he can flex his left knee without any pain. There’s no brace, no crutches, and, he says, no problem with his left knee, which was surgically repaired on March 24.
“I feel very lucky,” he said, in his first public comments since his operation to repair a meniscus tear. “When I went into that surgery, I went in thinking I was going to have a six-month recovery. That’s what they told me: six months or more. I’m thinking, ‘No, not again.’
“When they did the MRI [before the surgery], it looked like my meniscus was fully torn. But when they got it in there, they realized that wasn’t the case. It really turned out to be nothing, just a small, little thing. So that’s very good.”
In the days leading up to his latest surgical ordeal, Embiid couldn’t help but note the “process” had a sickening feeling of familiarity to it. He had already forfeited his first two seasons with the Sixers due to lingering foot issues.
The 2016-2017 season was supposed to be his year. He started with a clean bill of health, although the Sixers informed him that he would be on a strict minutes restriction and would be prohibited from playing in back-to-back games.
Even with those constraints, Embiid submitted a dominant season, averaging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks a game. He unleashed a ferocious two-way game that prompted former Kansas teammate and current Lakers center Tarik Black to declare, “You guys are watching the best big man in the game.”
Joel Embiid is rehabbing from his latest surgery and says that though he played in only 31 games, “Look at what I did in those 31 games — averaging the amount of points I did in just 25 minutes,” as he promotes himself for the Rookie of the Year award. Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
But then Embiid landed awkwardly in a Jan. 20 home win against Portland. The initial diagnosis was a bone bruise, then a knee contusion. Embiid sat out three games and the team insisted nothing serious was amiss.
Embiid returned to action in a Jan. 27 home loss against Houston and dropped 32 points and seven rebounds on the Rockets. He also delivered a jaw-dropping chase-down block on MVP candidate James Harden that went viral on social media.
“I thought I was fine,” Embiid said.
Instead, the knee swelled, the pain returned and once again Embiid was the subject of cryptic “day-to-day” medical updates. The initial findings of the MRI, which turned out to be false, were devastating.
Embiid opted to have his surgery done by Dr. Neal ElAttrache at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles, with Sixers doctors Jonathan Glashow and Christopher Dodson in attendance.
When Embiid awoke in post-op, groggy and disoriented, the only person in the room was his attending nurse. She delivered the good news — a minor meniscus tear, as opposed to a major one — and summoned the doctor.
“I was still half asleep,” Embiid said, “but I was pretty sure I heard great news.”
Embiid said he only spent “a couple of days” on crutches. He already is working hard on rehabbing his knee. He said he will devote his entire summer to strengthening his legs so he can better absorb the wear and tear of the NBA season.
“I realize I have to take better care of myself,” he said. “I didn’t realize how good I could be. Especially seeing what I accomplished this year … I want to keep on getting better.”
Embiid appeared in just 31 games and looks forward to the day he can play without any minute limitations.
“That was frustrating, but I understood,” Embiid said. “Coach [Brett] Brown, the Sixers, they care about me. It’s all about the next 10 to 15 years. That’s what they kept telling me, and they are right. But it was still difficult.
“Some nights, we were playing in the second night of a back-to-back and we were in overtime. It’s only five minutes. I wanted to go out and help us win the game, but I couldn’t. I was in street clothes.
“I was always in a suit.”
Even though he appeared in less than half of his team’s games this season, Embiid believes he should be crowned NBA Rookie of the Year.
“I think so,” Embiid said. “I mean, no disrespect to other guys. Dario [Saric] is my teammate and my friend and I love him. And I know Malcolm [Brogdon] from when I was visiting schools. When I made my visit to Virginia, he took me around. They both had great seasons.
“I know people are saying about me, ‘Oh, he only played 31 games.’ But look at what I did in those 31 games — averaging the amount of points I did in just 25 minutes.
“I’m not sure why people want to punish me for that. Even going back to the All-Star Game. I didn’t get chosen for that, and people were killing me because I didn’t play 30 minutes a game. But here’s what I don’t understand: If I put up those numbers in less time than another guy, what’s the difference? Doesn’t it mean I did more in less time? Wait until I play as many minutes as those guys. Then you will see what I do.
“But people have their own ideas about how they vote for things.”
Embiid said he plans to return to Philadelphia in “a week or two” to continue his rehab under the care of Philadelphia’s medical team. Although he expressed displeasure earlier this season with the way information regarding his health was released, Embiid said he and the Sixers are “all good.”
“I’ve got no problem with anyone,” Embiid said. “I’m just thankful that I am OK. I can’t wait to play again.
“We’re going to be good next year. With me, Dario and Ben Simmons, you are going to like our team.”