Sports

Joel Embiid might be a world champion after all


Joel Embiid couldl shift the balance of power in international basketball.

Joel Embiid couldl shift the balance of power in international basketball.
Image: Getty Images

Joel Embiid’s best chance of becoming a champion is unlikely to happen in 2022. A concussion and right orbital bone fracture have cast doubt on his availability for the Sixers’ semifinal series against the Miami Heat. If he’s unable to play, the Sixers are doomed and The Process-era Sixers will repeat as the NBA’s darkest tragicomedy.

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In the meantime, Embiid is reportedly taking his talents to France and ring-chasing in the Olympics by applying for French citizenship to compete for the French national team. Embiid has never appeared in an international competition, which means he’ll likely be approved to don a Les Bleus jersey at international competitions as early as next summer’s FIBA Basketball World Cup.

Olympic basketball history is rife with nation-hopping hoopers in the world’s second-most popular sport for a gold medal. Some play for basketball-deficient national programs that need a boost to help them qualify for the Olympics. It’s also indicative of a softer version of the African brain drain, but with its most outstanding athletes. Sports is an economic engine that various foreign nations and even authoritarians have used to sportswash their reputations or gruesome human rights records.

Each international team is allowed one naturalized player on its roster. Nigerian-born Giannis Antetokounmpo migrated from Nigeria when he was a pre-teen. Last summer, he led Greece into the Olympics instead of captaining a Nigerian team that included Jahlil Okafor and Precious Achiuwa that defeated the U.S. in Tokyo. 2016 WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike attempted to obtain dual Nigerian citizenship after she was left off of the U.S. roster for the 2021 team. However, the appeal was denied by FIBA due to her decade of involvement with the U.S. program.

For decades, African basketball programs have aspired to reach the podium while their international peers have closed the gap on the U.S. Despite players of the African diaspora ruling the sport, no African nation has medalled in hoops at the Summer Olympics. Except for Africa, every other continent participating in the Summer Olympics or FIBA World Championships has medalled. Africa is attempting to kickstart their own basketball factory through the Basketball Africa League. Hopefully, they won’t all be Embiids. For Cameroon, his native country, Embiid could have been a critical piece alongside Pascal Siakam in making history in international competition.

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As for Embiid and France, this is the culmination of a two-decade-long vengeance mission. Twenty years ago, Vince Carter leaped over Frédéric Weis, compelling Les Bleus to put their xenophobia aside to replicate the U.S. strategy by becoming a Western country repped by athletes with African roots. Embiid will be the most significant Olympic transfer in international basketball history if all goes according to plan. Hakeem Olajuwon is the crown prince of hoops medal-chasing. However, Olajuwon’s inclusion on the Dream Team 2.0 at the ‘96 Olympics didn’t shift the balance the way Embiid’s could. Since then, France’s INSEP (National Institute of Sport, Expertise, and Performance) has assembled an international basketball powerhouse by recruiting and training young athletes of African descent. The same strategy has transformed their World Cup-winning football side into a world champion that featured 15 players of African descent.

Since Vinsanity’s “dunk of death,” France’s roster has transitioned from something more akin to the cast of Les Misérables than their projected death lineup resembling the Fab Five. In 2024, the French may be fielding a rotation that includes NBA superstars, role players, and rising stars like Embiid, Victor Wembanyama, Frank Ntilikina, Sekou Doumbouya, Théo Maledon, Nicolas Batum, Killian Hayes, Evan Fournier, and Rudy Gobert. The trio of Embiid, Gobert, and Wembanyama is a devastatingly long frontcourt that counters the U.S. rosters’ strength at guard. Victor Wembanyama isn’t a household name yet, but by the time 2024 rolls around, he may be the French equivalent of Kristaps Porzingis or Chet Holmgren. Embiid is the bonafide superstar of that group aside from FIBA Jordan himself, Evan Fournier.

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Ntilikina has Rwandan parents. Batum’s father hails from Cameroon, and Doumbouya was born in Guinea. Killian Hayes was born in Florida, but his family settled in France during his father’s hoops career overseas. Fournier is Algeria’s most prominent hardwood hero.

After barely running out of steam in the 2021 gold medal game, France has catapulted into potentially being the favorite in 2022 at the World Cup and at the 2024 Olympics. After failing to sniff a national title at Kansas, continuously left crestfallen by the Sixers, the title-less Embiid may finally have found a viable path to becoming a world champion after all.

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