In his first season, Joel Embiid finished third in Rookie of the Year voting despite playing in just 31 games. In his second year, the Sixers centre earned his first All-Star start, was runner-up in Defensive Player of the Year voting and earned All-Defensive and All-NBA Second Team honours. Naturally, the 24-year-old has his sights set on even bigger goals ahead of his third season.
In an interview ahead of the 2018 NBA Africa Game with Michael Lee of Yahoo Sports, Embiid was very clear on his goals for the upcoming season:
"My goal going into the offseason was to get better. I want to win the MVP. I feel like at the end of the day it might be an individual award, but when I play better, the team also does. I feel like if I'm an MVP candidate or if I win the MVP, that means we are on another level."
"When my season ended, there was a lot of talk about adding guys. I literally did not really care because I want to get better, I want to be better than those guys that were mentioned, if I'm not already better than them. That was my message, just going into the offseason, finally the first one healthy and able to do whatever I want. That was my goal regardless."
Coming into the offseason, Philadelphia was seen as an attractive destination for free agents LeBron James and Paul George as well as Kawhi Leonard, who was made available in trade talks by the San Antonio Spurs. Embiid even took to Twitter to make a "recruiting pitch" to James, who has said he thought 'long and hard' about joining the Sixers before choosing the Lakers.
While landing one of the three stars would have accelerated the team's progression, it is not necessarily all bad; Embiid once again will be the Sixers clear-cut No. 1 option and has a legitimate shot to emerge as a superstar of their calibre this upcoming season.
Last year, Embiid was 12th in the league in scoring (22.9 ppg), seventh in rebounding (11.0 rpg) and fourth in blocks (1.8 bpg). His 3.2 assists per game were good for fifth among all centres that appeared in over 50 games.
Perhaps the most encouraging stat is that Embiid appeared in 63 games last year. Per Basketball-Reference.com, it has been 40 years since an MVP appeared in less than 70 games in a non-lockout season. Entering the offseason healthier than he's ever been during his NBA career bodes well for Embiid's pursuit of a complete season and his MVP candidacy.
Last season, Embiid and Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons helped propel the Sixers to 52 wins and the East's No. 3 seed behind the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics. While Toronto looks to integrate Kawhi Leonard within its new-ish system and Boston works to re-integrate All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, Philadelphia has a shot at being the East's top team as its core from last year largely remains intact.
Embiid leading the Sixers to a first-place finish would strengthen his case as the league's Most Valuable Player. The Kansas product expressed his confidence in the roster as it stands and the team's ability to improve upon last season, which ended in a playoff disappointment at the hands of those same Celtics.
"Last year, we had a goal. Our goals throughout the season change. First, it was to make the playoffs. We had a run at the end of the year. We were like, 'We have a chance.' We get to the first round, which was pretty, I would say, easy. Then I felt like we had a pretty good chance against Boston, too. They kind of caught us off-guard, but they're a really good team. They have a lot of talent. From there after, our goal was to go to the Finals. I feel we had the right pieces. We kept telling each other, 'We can do this.' We've come a long way."
Embiid's personal approach to next season can be best described as confident, yet self-aware. While the 7-footer knows how good he can be, he also understands what he must improve upon to get there.
"I feel like I have everything. I just need to be more consistent. This is the first summer where I'm actually healthy and able to play basketball. I was pretty excited. I've already gotten so much better. It's just about working on everything, perfecting everything. Like when it comes to my 3-point shot or the ball-handling, which was a problem. I feel like I can do it. You can also say I'm kind of new to the game. I'm still learning a lot. I feel like I still have a lot of potential, a lot of stuff to show."
Averages of 22.9 points and 11.0 rebounds per game are staggering from a player that is 'new to the game' and 'still learning a lot'. If Embiid turns another corner in his development in year three, he could very well be hoisting that MVP trophy next June.