NBA MVP Joel Embiid admits to 'being depressed' following latest time off from 76ers with injuries

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid spent two full seasons and chunks of so many others recovering, rehabbing, even resting — thanks, load management — during his NBA career that the Philadelphia 76ers star should by now almost be used to sitting on the sidelines.

The consequences of the time off from his latest injury, a torn meniscus in his left knee that needed surgery and cost him two months of the season, hit different.

“Usually, when I have injuries, I just tell myself, ‘Move on to the next one. Get better and fix it,’" Embiid said. “This one, it took a toll mentally. Being depressed. It was not a good one. Still not where I'm supposed to be, especially mentally. But I just love to play. Love basketball and I want to play. Any chance that I can be out there, I'm going to take it.”

Embiid at least felt the love in Philly.

He was warmly greeted by Hall of Famer Allen Iverson and nearly 21,000 Sixers fans that roared for his introduction and chanted “MVP! MVP!" throughout the game in his first game in nine weeks. Embiid scored 24 points, had seven assists, six rebounds and made the decisive four free throws in the final 40 seconds that led the 76ers to a 109-105 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night.

The reigning NBA MVP, Embiid was cleared to return ahead of the game and played for the first time since he was injured in the Sixers' last game of January. The Sixers plummeted in the Eastern Conference standings without him. A team playing for a top-four spot in the East before Embiid’s injury, the Sixers are 14-27 overall without him this season and 11-18 since he was injured in a Jan. 30 loss at Golden State.

Embiid — wearing a WWE T-shirt gifted to him ahead of WrestleMania by former wrestler Triple H — could not pinpoint exactly what led to his bouts with depression. But the blow of yet another injury and the struggle of watching the Sixers lose game after game without him, took a toll on his mental health.

“It took me a while to get over it,” Embiid said. “I still haven't gotten over it. I've just got to take it day-by-day. Look at the positives. I'm back. Hopefully, every single day I'll try and get better and get back to myself.”

The 30-year-old Embiid said he leaned on his wife and young son to push him through the hard days. He took his 3 1/2-year-old son, Arthur, to and from school and Embiid played with him “all day” to take his mind off the fact his NBA career was on hold.

“Basketball obviously means a lot and I love it and I love to play,” Embiid said. “It's the best thing for me. But family also comes first. It's the thing that got me through it.”

Embiid admitted to exhaustion and closed out the game sitting on the scorer's table. After a hard fall late in the game, the 7-footer lay on his back for several moments before allowing teammates to yank him up.

“I thought I could have been better,” Embiid said.

Sixers fans were ready for the All-Star center's return. His hair in braids, Embiid received a roaring ovation when he was introduced in the starting lineup. Embiid had started the day listed as out on the injury report before he was upgraded to questionable by late afternoon.

“I want to get him out there and evaluate where we’re at,” coach Nick Nurse said.

The Sixers entered Tuesday eighth in the East with seven games left this season and seem poised to make the play-in tournament. The No. 7 seed plays No. 8. The winner is in and gets the No. 7 seed for the playoffs. The loser has a second chance.

“I usually don't worry about the seeding stuff,” Nurse said. “There is some common sense here that we need to get this team ready, whatever that means, to be the best they can be, if there's a postseason.”

Embiid, a two-time NBA scoring champion, has averaged 35.3 points and 11.5 rebounds this season. He scored a franchise-record 70 points to go along with 18 rebounds on Jan. 22 in a 133-124 victory over San Antonio.

“The hype is real,” teammate Kelly Oubre Jr. said. “He's one of the most dominant players the NBA has ever seen.”

Embiid had meniscus surgery on Feb. 6 after Golden State’s Jonathan Kuminga fell on the 7-footer’s left leg. Before that, Embiid had been held out because of left knee swelling in Philadelphia’s two previous games.

All the missed games cost Embiid his shot at a second straight MVP. He just wants to help the 76ers get back to the way they played the first few months of the season as the chase their first NBA championship since 1983.

“I've learned a lot over the years,” Embiid said. “I've got to take care of myself. I've got to stay healthy because I still have a long career ahead of me. It's about now and the future.”