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BJ Armstrong: Joel Embiid's rise to superstardom is a sporting fairytale and a miraculous story we should all celebrate

In his third exclusive weekly column for Sky Sports, three-time NBA champion BJ Armstrong explains his love of seeing the rise of superstars and why Joel Embiid's story is particularly special

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Joel Embiid tied his career high with 50 points as Philadelphia beat Orlando earlier this season

Superstar stories have always fascinated me.

The journey of the modern superstar is always interesting because any modern superstar is constantly compared to the most defining character of a superstar, which is Michael Jordan.

I remember very distinctively that I was seeing someone who was willing to do whatever was necessary, and was going to give everything that they had to this. As a team-mate it redirects you to face your fears. I realised that if I was going to win, it was going to take and require me to do something I had never done in my career up until that point, which is to give my life to this game, and be committed to that level of excellence. If you don't have that commitment, then don't expect to be the champion when you're ready to give your life. So, I saw someone that was willing to put his life commitment to the game and it inspired me.

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Michael Jordan brings the house down as he's announced during the half-time tribute to the NBA 75 team at the NBA All-Star Game!

Of course, no two superstars are the same, but the one player in the league right now who I see on that journey – and I am relishing watching it – is Joel Embiid. He epitomises the modern superstar's journey in today's NBA.

What people often forget is it's about much more than just their play on the court. It is who they are as a character, as a person, which often defines who they are.

Firstly, let me say: I think Joel Embiid right now is perhaps the best player in the league. When I say best, he is probably the most impactful as an offensive player in the NBA right now and, without question, he's one of, if not the most impactful player on the defensive end. I call it the 'You can't stop me' tour he's on right now because no-one can stop him on the offensive end at the moment.

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Check out 2021-22 NBA All-Star Embiid's mid-season highlights

He is playing the game at a very, very high level. On the interior, on the exterior, he's doing it all. He's also a player who could dominate the game and impact the game on the defensive end. There's only one other player that can do this and that's Giannis, but Joel Embiid is playing the game at the highest level right now of any player in the entire NBA. That's why if you ask me today, he's the MVP. That doesn't mean it won't change tomorrow or as the season goes on but, today, he's the MVP.

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Importance of character

What's even more fascinating than all of that is the type of man he is and the journey he has been on.

One of the things that really sticks out to me about Joel Embiid is his incredible sense of humour. With social media, it's easier to get a glimpse now into what these superhero-type figures are like as people - you certainly can with Joel - but with some guys I think that is the one thing that you don't always see. All the superstars have it though, it's impossible to go through this and just be serious. So, the thing that makes me smile being around superstars is that I love it when they have and show their sense of humour. I think that's key. It's key for their existence.

Also very importantly: he's interesting. You can't be a superstar and not be interesting, right? There has to be something a little bit different and there always has been with Joel and it's always accompanied with humour which is great and part of his fascinating character and personality.

That's only one side of it though. What he has done this year - and I've watched him grow into this - is that he has accepted the responsibility and held everyone in the organisation accountable. 'Yes, we do have problems. Yes, we are going through a lot of things. There's a lot of noise around the organisation'. They lost Ben Simmons, and there was the constant circus around all of that - but when everything was said and done, where were the 76ers? They were still one or two games out of first place.

Now to me, that lets me know he understands what's going on here and accepted that it was his responsibility to step up. We're seeing all of this play out in front of us and they're still on their journey to win a championship. Just think about that. They've had the Ben Simmons situation. They've had injuries, they've had Covid. They've experienced the ups and downs, especially losing to the Atlanta Hawks last year. They've had every reason to blame. Stop playing, to feel sorry for themselves.

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Embiid ran the show against the Milwaukee Bucks as the Philadelphia 76ers' MVP candidate scored 42 points, with 14 rebounds and five assists as the Sixers edged them out in Week 18 of the NBA

But they're still right there and what the hero gives you, the modern superstar, is the hope and belief that 'Hey, we've got a chance to win this'. And it's not fake confidence. It's real confidence. Because this team now has gone through all of these challenges, and they've survived and they came out on the other end without any doubts about what they're capable of.

Overcoming early challenges, doubt and criticism

Joel Embiid spent his entire first two years sitting on the sideline, here is pictured during a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in November 2015
Image: Embiid spent his entire first two years sitting on the sideline, here he is pictured during a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in November 2015

To give context to just how great is what Embiid has achieved, even getting to this point, I think you have to begin by looking at how that person deals with failure. Joel Embiid came into the NBA under very difficult circumstances, you know, he didn't play for the first two-and-a-half years. It's not that he played a little bit. He didn't even get to the court.

I find that interesting, because if there was a time to ever have doubt, it was there. Okay. This young man gets drafted, he's hurt. He doesn't play for the first two years. Now there's doubt, it's only natural. So, what did he do to counter the doubt to the point where you have a player who comes into the NBA under those circumstances and can ascend all the way to this level, where he has this level of confidence?

It means he's faced whatever fears he's had to face. There's no training regimen that's going to do it for you, there's no coaching that's going to do it for you, he had to sit with those thoughts and figure this one out by himself. Much respect to him, because every player, whether you are a role player, or a star player, has to sit with that. Joel sat with it and he came out on the other side, confident and maintained his level and he's continuing to improve as he gets the reps in.

The other key factor to me is how he accepts criticism from outside, in particular because he's a big guy. In basketball sometimes it's the rest of us then it's the big guys, big guys are just different. I've always known that, playing with big guys, they're incredibly sensitive, because they're bigger than everyone, right? If Shaq would have gotten mad, he could have hurt somebody. Joel could really hurt someone if he gets mad. So, they're evaluated differently, we put more pressure on them.

I was thoroughly impressed with him and think it was an important point in his journey, when two guys I thoroughly respect Charles Barkley and Shaq began to be very critical of Joel Embiid. They were very outspoken about him because you can see his potential. But the most impressive part about that - and it's easy to get on television or get behind a microphone to start criticising someone - is how he responded.

He didn't clam up, he didn't say 'screw those guys'. He listened. I thought it was interesting. He may not have liked it privately. But he took what they said to heart. That to me was very mature. He looked at it and said, 'These are two of the greatest players to ever play and Shaq thinks I could be the most dominant player in the NBA and it's holding me accountable to that'.

Joel absorbed it, took it and he's doing it.

Acknowledging Doc Rivers' role

Doc Rivers passes on instructions to Joel Embiid from the sideline
Image: Doc Rivers passes on instructions to Embiid from the sideline

All great players have a little secret: they want to be coached.

Doc Rivers is coaching him, you can see it. Joel Embiid is playing the game now at the highest level - so watching his journey from someone who couldn't even get to the floor to what he's doing now has been nothing short of a miracle because those were some very dark moments in there.

Now, we're looking at him and we're just celebrating what he's doing, but for him to be able to get to this moment, and have a sense of humour is wonderful. He calls himself 'The Process'. He's processing. He's still laughing. He's still doing things that makes us laugh. To me, it's letting me know that on his journey, that he gets it. But the most important thing for him is that he's coachable because every great player knows that it's important to be coached. On this path, it's going to be tough and this young man has had every reason, especially early on in his career or this year to fold.

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Embiid with a gorgeous through-the-legs assist for the Philadelphia 76ers in their win against the Los Angeles Lakers

Rather that doing that, though, he said 'Okay, we're missing a player' and he got more aggressive. And he is a real problem because there's not many people that have the physical stature to even withstand his physicality. So, you know, it's been incredible to watch.

And that is another one of the qualities which make him a true superstar - he's comfortable in uncomfortable situations. It's clear he's perfectly comfortable when things are very uncomfortable - and that's where superstars do their work.

I think this is one of Doc Rivers' greatest coaching jobs and he's a Hall of Fame coach. I think he's one of the best coaches of all time. What he's been able to do with this team, it's been one of the more fascinating things he's done in his great career, because you're seeing human behaviour.

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Philadelphia 76ers' James Harden showed why he's an asset on both sides of the floor, picking the pocket of Julius Randle before finding Embiid for the finish

He's helped 'The Process' in his process of moulding himself into the MVP and what they just added to their team is the best number two guy in the NBA in James Harden. There isn't a number two guy in the NBA that's more impactful than he is. Watching them, it's clear to me that they have not one, but two guys now, who can score in any game. They have another guy and Embiid who can impact the game without even having to score.

James Harden appears to - after watching him in these early games - have understood what Doc Rivers wants. Clearly he's been told: 'This is how we play here. What you did in Houston, what you did in Brooklyn, doesn't matter. This is how we play here'. If they continue to play like this, this is going to be tough to beat in a seven-game series.

Embiid's story is one to provide inspiration

NBA Team Africa's Joel Embiid paints a newly-built house in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2018
Image: NBA Team Africa's Embiid paints a newly-built house in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2018

Regardless of how the season pans out though, I am here to celebrate the journey of Embiid. I love the modern superstar stories because I can identify with them just like I can identify with Jordan's story. Jordan's story was he gets cut in high school. Everyone has dealt with failure. Who hasn't failed or fallen down or gone through tough times? Joel Embiid's story contains all of that which is relatable on a human level. Then, from that story, he ascends to a level of excellence which gives cause to be celebrated.

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Embiid scores 41 points, grabs 10 rebounds, and dishes five assists as the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Boston Celtics in Week 10 of the NBA

To get from some of the low places he's been to the high he's at right now is remarkable and the journey has been fascinating because it's about human achievement. That is why I've always found these stories so relatable.

Achievement then provides even more hope and inspiration, which is something we could all do with a little more of in our lives.

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