When you’re talking about professional athletes, no qualifier is more daunting than “if healthy.”
And so goes the early NBA life of Joel Embiid.
If healthy, the Philadelphia 76ers big man who missed 51 games as a rookie, has a chance to be one of the best players in league history.
If healthy, the 23-year-old who has spent so much of his second NBA season using game time as his sole source of conditioning, could make these kind of special nights a regular occurrence.
If healthy, the kid from Cameroon who turned in a never-before-seen stat line of 46 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and seven blocks in a 115-109 win over the Lakers on Wednesday night at Staples Center, could wind up rivaling Rocky as popular sports figure in the City of Brotherly Love.
Just imagine what the 7-foot, 280-pound Embiid might become if he could stop worrying about his body breaking down again.
Lest anyone forgot, this is the same Embiid whose NBA career was supposed to start back in 2014.
A broken bone in his right foot required surgery that June — but it didn’t stop then-general manager Sam Hinkie from drafting him third overall out of Kansas — and thus he had to wait until the 2015-16 campaign to get his pro career started.
The following August, after it was revealed that the bone hadn’t healed properly, a second surgery cost him a second season.
Then, during the 2016-17 campaign, after Embiid spent so much of the first three months looking like a bona fide All-Star and runaway rookie of the year, a meniscus tear in his left knee brought it all to a painful end yet again.
All of which explains the joyful reaction from the basketball universe when Embiid’s talents are on full display.
At his best, he’s nothing short of a dream to watch — so dreamy, in fact, that ESPN analyst and 17-year NBA point guard Mark Jackson was comparing him to Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon on the telecast. The only possible obstacle to his greatness, it seems, is his ability to stay on the floor.
“I’m still not there,” Embiid told reporters after the game about being in game shape. “I got a little bit tired towards the end.”
Yet now that he’s starting to build this kind of head-turning momentum, with averages of 23 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.9 blocks per game — even with a conditioning level that’s only at “69%" and the mandate to not play in games on the second night of back-to-backs — Sixers fans have every right to enjoy what could be a fun ride here.
Even beyond Embiid’s historic night, there was fellow Sixers blue-chipper Ben Simmons earning comparisons to Oscar Robertson while owning the point guard matchup against the celebrated Lonzo Ball.
There was small forward Robert Covington (12 points, six rebounds) looking worthy of the four-year, $62 million extension he's on the verge of finalizing.
And there were the Sixers (8-6), who still have No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz on the shelf as he recovers from a shoulder injury, looking fully capable of returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
If healthy, all bets are off when it comes to this tantalizing team. Maybe LeBron James (who has the same agent as Simmons in Klutch Sports’ Rich Paul) decides to join them via free agency this summer or next instead of going to Laker Land like so many have speculated.
Maybe current general manager Bryan Colangelo, who gave Embiid a five-year, $146 million extension in early October that includes some specific financial protections for the team should he get hurt seriously again, finds some other way to land a top-tier star that turns them into title contenders.
If healthy, Embiid and his Trust-the-Process Sixers are just getting started.