Joel Embiid’s best shot at becoming champion probably won’t come in 2022. A concussion and a fractured right eye socket have cast doubt on his availability for the Sixers’ semifinal series against the Miami Heat. If he can’t play, the Sixers are doomed and the Process-era Sixers repeat themselves as The Sixers The NBA’s darkest tragic comedy.
Meanwhile, Embiid is reportedly taking his talents to France and chasing at the Olympics by applying for French citizenship to compete for the France national team. Embiid has never appeared in international competition, which means he’s likely to wear a Les Bleus jersey in international competition as early as next summer’s FIBA Basketball World Cup.
The history of Olympic basketball is full of nation-hopping hoops in the world’s second most popular sport for a gold medal. Some play for basketball-deficient national programs that need a boost to qualify for the Olympics. It’s also indicative of a gentler version of the African brain drain, but with its most outstanding athletes. Sport is an economic engine that various foreign nations and even authoritarians have become accustomed to sportswear their reputation or their atrocious human rights records.
Each international team is allowed to have one naturalized player in their roster. Nigerian-born Giannis Antetokounmpo emigrated from Nigeria as a teenager. Last summer, he led Greece to the Olympics instead of leading a Nigerian team that included Jahlil Okafor and Precious Achiuwa defeated the US in Tokyo. 2016 WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike attempted to gain dual Nigerian citizenship after being dropped from the US roster for the 2021 team. However, the appeal was denied by FIBA because of their decades of involvement in the US program.
For decades, African basketball programs have strived to get onto the podium while their international counterparts have closed the gap with the United States. With the exception of Africa, every other continent participating in the Summer Olympics or FIBA World Championships has won a medal. Africa is attempting to start its own basketball factory through the Basketball Africa League. Hopefully not all embiids are. For Cameroon, his home country, Embiid could have been a crucial piece alongside Pascal Siakam to make history in international competition.
As for Embiid and France, this is the culmination of a two-decade revenge mission. Twenty years ago Vince Carter overtook Frédéric Weis and forced Les Bleus to put aside their xenophobia to copy US strategy and become a Western country represented 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 basket medal hunting. However, adding Olajuwon to the Dream Team 2.0 at the 1996 Olympics didn’t change the balance the way Embiid might. Since then, France’s INSEP (National Institute of Sport, Expertise, and Performance) has built an international basketball powerhouse by recruiting and training young athletes of African descent. The same strategy turned their world champion soccer team into a world champion that includes 15 players of African descent.
Since Vinsanity’s “Dunk of Death,” France’s roster has changed from something more akin to the cast of Les Misérables than their proposed Death cast, which is akin to the Fab Five. In 2024, the French may field 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 devastating long forecourt that counters the strength of the US squad in defence. Victor Wembanyama isn’t a household name yet, but in 2024 he could be the French equivalent of Kristaps Porzingis or Chet Holmgren. Embiid is the real superstar of this group alongside FIBA Jordan himself, Evan Fournier.
Ntilikina has Rwandan parents. Batum’s father is from Cameroon and Doumbouya was born in Guinea. Killian Hayes was born in Florida, but his family settled in France during his father’s career abroad. Fournier is Algeria’s most prominent hardwood hero.
Barely out of breath in the 2021 gold medal match, France have catapulted themselves into the potential favorites for the 2022 World Cup and 2024 Olympics. After failing to sniff out a national title in Kansas that the Sixers consistently crushed, untitled Embiid may finally have found a viable path to becoming a world champion after all.