By Joseph Santoliquito


PHILADELPHIA, PA (CBS) — A year ago, big pockets of empty seats dotted the Wells Fargo Center most nights the 76ers played. There was no energy in the place, because there was no hope. Face it, it was an indoor “Death Valley,” with apologies to national champion Clemson’s Frank Howard Field, for all of the wrong reasons.

No one cared.

Diehards who trusted the process would deliver someday diligently paid their dues in dreadful basketball, and other seats were often freebies.

Bill Simmons Put Joel Embiid On His All-Star Ballot

Now, the hottest team in town has a .350 winning percentage, and believe it or not, possibly the best chance to bring another championship to Philadelphia.

The Sixers are 7-2 over their last nine games, just three wins off their victory total for 2015-16. Over the last three weeks, they’ve beaten Denver, Charlotte, and Milwaukee and on Wednesday night Toronto, which had destroyed the Sixers earlier this season by 27 points. No one noticed then, because they were fixated on the Eagles losing to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers that Monday, Nov. 28.

They notice now.

They notice because of rising superstar Joel Embiid, who some are already placing in the category of Wilt Chamberlain, though he’s actually more like Hakeem Olajuwon. The similarities are pretty amazing. For one, they were both 22 playing in their rookie season. They move exceptionally well for 7-footers, Embiid being 7-foot, 250 pounds, while Olajuwon was 7-foot, 255 pounds. At his pinnacle, during the mid-1990s, Olajuwon led the Houston Rockets to consecutive NBA titles. In 1994, with Michael Jordan in semi-retirement, Olajuwon became the only player in NBA history to win the trifecta of MVP, Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season. He was also the first foreign-born MVP.

Olajuwon On Sixers’ Embiid: ‘He Could Even Take It To Another Level’

In his rookie year, Olajuwon averaged 20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks a game, which is comparable to Embiid’s 19.9. 7.8 and 2.4, though Embiid is playing in a far more limited minutes compared to Olajuwon’s 2,914 minutes played his rookie season, an average of 35.5 minutes a game. Embiid averages 25.5 minutes per contest. So a more fair assessment could be this: Per every 100 possessions, Olajuwon averaged 27.3 points, 15.7 rebounds and 3.5 blocks, while Embiid’s totals exceed Olajuwon’s in points (38.8) and blocks (4.7). The rebounding edge is slight, with Olajuwon holding a slight 15.7 to 15.1 edge.

Olajuwon also had far more help Ralph Sampson, Rodney McCray, John Lucas and Lewis Lloyd on that team.

Embiid, well, he doesn’t have anyone of that quality on this team. But, that may be soon, if Ben Simmons is ready.

Back in October, the pundits scoffed at the chance that there would be May basketball played in Philadelphia. Now with 42 games left to play, and 5.5 games out of a playoff spot, it’s not so farfetched.

Chants of “Trust the Process” should actually be “Trust Embiid.”