Joel-Hans Embiid, Ghost In The Twitter Machine

Not the scary kind of ghost. The hilarious and wonderfully goofy kind of ghost.
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Joel Embiid is seven feet tall and weighs 250 pounds. He's also incredibly skilled at basketball, which is why—despite a foot injury that’s worrisome in a player his size—Embiid was picked third overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in a loaded NBA Draft. Embiid has already exhibited dreamy, Olajuwonesque footwork and startling athletic efficiency at the green age of 19 in his one year at Kansas; he’s new to the game, still improving (and quite possibly still growing), and is in most every way about as exciting a big man prospect as the league has seen in years. None of this really matters.

It matters for the 76ers and their fans, and it will matter to the NBA, of course. But Embiid’s savant-grade work on Twitter has ensured that, as terrific as he may end up being on the floor, he'll have a hard time outdoing his recent performance on social media. In his brief time in the spotlight, Embiid has made NBA followers feel cranky, jealous, stupefied, awed, respectful and respected all at once. The Cameroonian has a reputation for being as humble, receptive and good-natured as any NBA rookie could be, but Joel-Hans’ online persona has revealed itself as a strange, swaggering digital beast. Embiid may someday be a great NBA player, but he is already a seriously great follow.

Embiid’s emergence started with his days-long recruitment of LeBron James during the tense and rumor-wracked weeks before James his eventual return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Embiid recruited LeBron to the Sixers on his account relentlessly, amusingly, and with the sort of sprung semi-earnestness that defines his best Twitter work. This particular piece of his plea made me wonder if my Twitter was broken:

I didn't know anyone could use the platform just this way until Embiid landed the tweet. It's funny, but it's also quite bold. Embiid pretty clearly draws attention to the fact that he's below James' status, drawing empathy from his audience as they realize that they are, themselves, more than familiar with what he's experiencing: receiving nothing in responses to our own tweets at players. There was, throughout the micro-saga of Embiid’s one-sided pursuit of LeBron, both a weird pathos and a spirit of good-natured trolling.

All of which, needless to say, is not a thing often found among professional athletes on Twitter. Appearing broken or pathetic, even with a tongue firmly in cheek, is not something NBA players do. Offering daps to The King, unsurprisingly, is, but such obsequiousness is a familiar courtesy. By bringing us into his sadness, feigned or not, Joel-Hans made his address to LeBron stand out amongst the lot of them. He was heard in a singular way despite not yet touching professional parquet. It didn’t work, of course, but neither did anyone else’s tweet-wooing.

Embiid's act truly evolved when he started "flirting." He started, as things on the internet tend to, with Kim Kardashian:

Like James, Mrs. Kardashian-West never responded. Embiid played it salty before cutting his losses, bouncing back, and putting Rihanna into his heart's crosshairs:

These tweets kept us enticed; it was heartening to see that Embiid was not yet spoiled by the vast amount of negative feedback he surely caught, as a big spike in Twitter popularity always begets such vitriol. He was going to continue to chase the giggles, his own and everyone else’s. This was, in retrospect, a sort of tipping point; Embiid could have gone in any direction after the LeBron gambit, and decided to just keep Doing Embiid.

Then, Rihanna followed him back. Embiid came at us with this tweet, aided by a pro bono fan photoshop:

And then these:

And then he gave us this new avatar:

And so it continues, whatever this awesome thing is. If professional sports have ever seen someone turn a modicum of fame into such a captivating internet parafiction, I surely haven't heard of it. (All due respect to Brandon McCarthy, of course.)

Embiid has deftly turned the airless non-space of Twitter into a hospitable realm of his eccentric wit, bouncing happily between Twitter’s planet-sized celebrities and leaving some graffiti in funny places. The result is every bit as catchy as a new Chad Ochocinco end zone creation, but so much less self-regarding or desperate; Embiid seems to be having fun, in a way that more attention-hungry athletes (and Twitter people) so seldom are.

Embiid's meta-removal is hilariously compounded by the fact that he won't be taking the floor for a long a while, on a team that's quickly gaining a reputation for harvesting non-players and treating roster space like a reservoir for theoretical value. If you look for it, there’s a critique of that in Embiid’s Embiid-ery, too—here is a Personnel Asset that refuses to stop acting like a goofy human being.

Embiid is quite possibly a future All-Star and the icon of everything gestate and changing in the league; he's the prized investment of a front office that acts more like a hedge fund than a team-builder; he's the teenager who flirts more visibly than anyone despite never quite speaking to his flirtee. Joel-Hans seems sent from the future, to hack our network's sensibilities and maybe eventually play some basketball. Joel-Hans is the best. Follow him, for he is going someplace good.

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