After two painful years off, Joel Embiid says his game has grown

“Trust The Process,” Joel Embiid says after finishing up a 24-minute interview session at Sixers media day, eliciting some laughs from reporters in the room. Embiid has not played a game since March 1, 2014, but it appears that’s about to change.

The 22-year-old center, who has been forced to sit out the first two seasons of his NBA career due to multiple foot surgeries, says he expects to play in Philadelphia’s preseason opener against Boston on Oct. 4.

“I’ve been through a lot,” Embiid said, citing his injuries, his team’s on-court struggles and the death of his brother in Africa. “It’s been really hard.”

Embiid is in really good spirits now, however. He may be on a minutes restriction and unable to play in back-to-backs, but his self-confidence is evident.

“I haven’t played in two years, but my game has gotten so much better,” he said. “If you watch the game tape, I’m not the same guy. I’m going to make mistakes, but I’m going to be just fine.”

Embiid, a 7-footer who says he weighs 275 pounds, was chosen by former GM Sam Hinkie — the man whose process paid off in the form of high lottery picks Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and Nerlens Noel — with the No. 3 overall selection in the 2014 draft. He has the potential to be a game-changer on both offense and defense if he can stay healthy.

“From what it looks like right now, I’m going to have about a 20-year career,” Embiid said, jokingly. “I think of myself as a complete player.”

Embiid averaged 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 28 games at Kansas before injuring his back and missing the NCAA tournament as a result. He struggled with his decision to leave college after just his freshman season, he said, and was seriously contemplating a return to school before mentor Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and other NBA players convinced him to change his mind and enter the draft.

“This is a training camp that for the first time since I’ve been here I think will be incredibly competitive, relative to roster spots themselves, and we’re really excited about the guys that we have in camp who have a chance to earn a job, Kay Felder being one of those kids we anticipate will have a good run at something for us, so we feel comfortable at the point guard position as we sit, at least from a front-office perspective we do.”

In a capped system like the NBA has in place, targeting aging players on veteran minimum deals is simply the reality of fielding a full team when you already have max players taking up most of the pie like the Cavs do with James, Irving and Love.

The key is having those vets contribute in the margins, like Jefferson did last year, and not to miss on them, as was the case of Shawn Marion the season before.

Oh, and having someone like James with the body resilience of a teenager as he enters into his thirties certainly helps too.

Embiid didn’t think he could handle living on his own at such a young age, but each year he has grown and matured through adversity. He has no regrets about leaving early, and while he loves watching his old college games, he can’t stand watching college basketball anymore.

“I feel like they don’t know how to play,” Embiid said, citing a lack of spacing at the collegiate level.

Embiid is stronger, better, faster now, yearning to dominate in the post and expand his game out to the 3-point line. And yes, he has aspirations of learning how to play point guard, too, because of course he does.

During the rehab-setback-rehab-setback-rehab process, Embiid says he has learned to be patient.

Given that their team has lost 199 games the past three seasons, Sixers fans have, too. But equipped with an exciting young core of bigs, the future is brighter than ever.

Victor Oladipo: ‘No question’ anthem protests will happen in NBA

As the NBA prepares to open training camps — and the issue of athletes’ protests during the national anthem shows no signs of abating — it was only a matter of time before basketball players would be asked about what they plan to do.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Victor Oladipo was asked by Complex Sports whether NBA players are paying attention to Colin Kaepernick’s protest of racial oppression and inequality in the United States — and whether those protests would transfer to the NBA.

It’s undecided what position Yi will play.

And, above all else, it remains to be seen just how effective Yi will be, especially after playing with the Guandong Southern Tigers from 2012 to ’16 following brief but lackluster stints with the Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets, Washington Wizards and Dallas Mavericks.

But if Friday proved anything, it’s that there is plenty of interest and intrigue in the 28-year-old, who was surrounded by about three dozen media members –- local and international –- after his workout at the Lakers’ training facility.

Yi, a former No. 6 overall pick in the 2007 draft by the Bucks, expressed confidence about the upcoming season after playing in the Chinese Basketball Association, and after averaging 20.4 points and 6.6 rebounds for China in its five games in the Rio Olympics.

He also said he felt that the Lakers were a “good opportunity” and that the “timing” was right for an NBA return.

“I think I played a lot of games in China, in Asia, Olympics,” said Yi, who joined the Lakers on a one-year deal worth about $8 million, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein. “It’s a lot of experience. For me I probably got stronger and more confidence.”

He also recognized that the Lakers have a “huge” fan base in China -– thanks largely to Kobe Bryant –- as well as all over the world.

“I feel pressure, but I feel very excited for that,” Yi said.

Gerrit Cole’s future in question after rocky return

Pittsburgh Pirates starter Gerrit Cole entered Monday night’s outing against the Philadelphia Phillies looking to salvage something positive from a disappointing 2016 season.

But spring training began with some bad vibes when Cole expressed disappointment over his $541,000 salary for 2016. Then came the injuries. He suffered a rib inflammation in spring training, spent time on the disabled list with a strained triceps in June and has been bothered by the elbow issue for the past month. The only positive news came during a recent trip to Los Angeles, when Dr. Neal ElAttrache ruled out any structural damage and gave him clearance to resume pitching this month.

Although the Cubs continue to build upon what is now a whopping 17-game edge on St. Louis, we know that more than anything, variance can trump all at playoff time. A mediocre Cardinals campaign would be redeemed by spoiling a Wrigleyville party 108 years in the making.

With that in mind, are there any potential pitfalls that could come into play for Chicago if the Cubs and Cardinals again hook up in October? Maybe, but we lay those out with this caveat: There aren’t many. It’s almost like this Cubs team was specifically constructed to hammer on the Cardinals.

Cole recently received clearance to resume pitching after a visit to Dr. Neal ElAttrache in Los Angeles. He finishes the season with a 7-10 record in 21 starts and a 3.88 ERA — the worst of his four major-league seasons.

“There were some times where we were close,” Cole said. “There were a few highlights along the way, but it was a struggle.

“We have two weeks here to continue to try to get better. I’m not going to stop working. Just keep moving on. Obviously the mindset is different. It’s not about preparing for a start. It’s about preparing for next year. There’s work to be done, so I’ll be doing it.”

In 2015, Cole went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA, made the All-Star team and finished fourth in National League Cy Young Award balloting.

In other moves, the Pirates called up left-hander reliever Zach Phillips from Triple-A Indianapolis. The 29-year-old Phillips was acquired from the Orioles on Aug. 31. To make room on the 40-man roster, the Pirates also put catcher Elias Diaz on the 60-day disabled list with cellulitis in his left knee.

What we learned: Giants’ collapse continues in Colorado

1. It’s easy to forget now, but the San Francisco Giants had the best record in the majors at the All-Star break at 57-33, three games up on the Chicago Cubs. After another crushing loss on Wednesday — Santiago Casilla, Josh Osich, Angel Pagan’s legs and Joe Nathan combined to blow a 5-3 lead in the ninth inning in Colorado — the Giants are 17-32 since the break, the worst record in the majors. Reading Bill James Online today, there was a reader question about how unprecedented the Giants’ free fall has been. James mentioned these teams (record through 90 games and then after) that fell apart, although not necessarily from best to worst:

1977 Cubs: 55-35 to 26-46 (finished 81-81)

1995 Angels: 56-34 to 22-33 (lost one-game playoff to Mariners)

2001 Twins: 57-33 to 28-44 (finished 85-77)

2006 Tigers: 61-29 to 34-38 (still reached World Series)

Zastryzny grabbed running back Todd Gurley with his first pick (No. 6) and then two receivers, while Hinske drafted Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson No. 11 overall. Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery went in the second round, while Jay Cutler and Kevin White were “mid-round guys.”

“I’m excited to see how [John] Lackey does,” Hammel stated. “First-time player. He’s an unknown. He looked like he knew what he was doing. I’m excited to see how it plays out.”

How long are the odds Tebow ever plays at Citi Field? Pretty long, although it is not impossible if he is dedicated and applies himself for multiple seasons, given his athleticism. Michael Jordan, in his lone season with the Chicago White Sox, hit .202 with three homers and 51 RBIs in 436 at-bats with Double-A Birmingham. Would he have received a cup of coffee in the majors had he not returned to the NBA?

Last spring training, Cespedes’ daily cavalcade of cars and a horseback entry created a stir that ultimately prompted manager Terry Collins to say it’s time to put the showmanship aside and have the focus entirely on baseball. If there’s a downside to Tebow’s being around in camp, it would be all the media attention and whether that starts to detract from the team’s focus as it prepares for the season. Alderson did say there is no guarantee Tebow receives a spring-training invite to big-league camp.

The New York Yankees completed a sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays with a 2-0 victory, as Bryan Mitchell pitched five scoreless innings in his 2016 debut, Luis Severino pitched three scoreless innings and Didi Gregorius hit cleanup for the ninth time. The Yankees are winning with Didi Gregorius hitting cleanup! How can you not root for this team? (Wait, did I write that? Clear head. Remind self that these are still the Yankees, owners of 27 World Series titles, owners of MLB’s largest payroll at the start of the season … but I digress.)