HOUSTON, TX – The presence of an iconic NBA player loomed high above Joel Embiid and the 76ers Sunday, as they went through practice at Toyota Center. And that’s saying something, given the 23-year old big man’s size.
But way up in the rafters of Houston’s arena, where the Sixers take on the Rockets Monday (8:00 PM EST; NBC Sports Philadelphia, 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network), were two banners, prominently hung. Both flew as symbols of the spectacular career enjoyed by Hakeem Olajuwon.
One banner was for the two-time champion’s retired jersey No. 34. The other, in an opposite corner of the building, commemorated Olajuwon’s record-setting achievement as the league’s all-time leader in blocked shots.
If not for Olajuwon, also of African origin, leaving such a strong impression on Embiid in the nascent days of his exposure to basketball, who knows how far the Sixers center’s interest in the sport would have ultimately gone?
“Hakeem was the main guy,” Embiid said Sunday following Sunday’s light workout.
The Cameroonian also cited Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks’ lifer who Embiid faced for the first time during parts of Saturday’s 112-110 victory at American Airlines Center, as an influence. But, more than any other player, it was the Nigerian-born Olajuwon, whose old footage Embiid digested intently.
“I had a tape that I watched from the first day I started playing to my freshman year [at Kansas],” said Embiid, coming off his third straight 20-point performance, and averaging 20.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.6 assists in 27.6 minutes per game.
During that period, said Embiid, his routine – which he repeated almost daily – was to study film of Olajuwon, get on a court, and try to mimic some of the same moves he had just watched.
Here’s a nice clip tape that SLAM Magazine produced on a few of the eerily parallels that have already surfaced in Embiid’s game. Given his intrigue in Olajuwon, it would be hard to argue the similarities are coincidental.
Embiid’s reasons for being so captivated by Olajuwon aren’t limited to a simple admiration for the The Dream’s two-way dominance at 7-feet tall, or their mutual ties to the second largest continent on the planet. It’s deeper than that, Embiid explained Sunday.
Like Olajuwon, Embiid didn’t start to formally play hoops until his late teenage years. Furthermore, Embiid was adept at other sports, too, such as soccer, volleyball, and handball. So was Olajuwon.
“I played almost every sport possible, and felt like I was athletic and I could move kind of the way he did,” said Embiid. “I felt like we had kind of like the same history, so I wanted to follow his path.”
By the time Olajuwon’s 18-year run in the NBA ended in 2002, his resume was littered with lofty accomplishments. On top of winning two titles (1994, 1995), he was twice named Finals MVP, earned overall MVP honors in 1994, racked up a pair of Defensive Player of the Year Awards (1993, 1994), and was named to 12 All-Star Games. The 1984 No. 1 pick currently ranks 11th all-time in points (26,946), 13th in rebounding (13,748), and ninth in steals (2,162).
Embiid said Sunday that while he’s had the chance to connect with Olajuwon on a handful of occasions over the years, especially around the time Embiid was determining whether to enter the 2014 draft, he’s yet to meet his idol in person. He hopes that changes.
“That was the guy,” said Embiid, “so that’s where I kind of got into basketball and started following it. To be in this [city], where he played, is amazing.”
Entering play Monday, the Houston Rockets (5-2) owned the third-highest winning percentage in the still very-young NBA season. Last Wednesday, they edged the Sixers, 105-104, on Eric Gordon’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
“It was a heartbreaking loss,” Joel Embiid said following Sunday’s practice at Toyota Center. “We should have won that game, but there’s a lot of stuff we need to adjust. End of games, we needed to do a better job. I thought [in Saturday’s win at Dallas] we did a little better job at the end of the game. It’s good. I’m excited.”
After escaping South Philadelphia with a victory, Houston beat Charlotte by 16, then dropped a 14-point decision to one-loss Memphis. The Rockets are attempting a league-high 44.2 threes per 100 possessions, nearly 10 more than the second-closest team in that statistical category.
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