NBA 2017: Could Joel Embiid’s Contract Still Backfire on 76ers?

At Joel Embiid’s current rate of production, his contract could end up looking like the biggest steal in professional sports.

Embiid, the Cameroon-born center who has struggled with injuries to the extent that he’d played only 31 NBA games before the start of the 2017-18 season, exploded offensively against the Lakers on Wednesday night, scoring 46 points to go along with 15 rebounds, seven assists and and seven blocks.

As ridiculous as this outburst was Embiid’s post-game assertion that he is playing at 69 percent (and that is ridiculous mostly because it’s probably true). Also ridiculous: He’s earning less money this year than Markelle Fultz.

That is ridiculous but not odd, once you remember that Embiid was drafted only third overall in 2014, and the rookie pay scale has obviously steepled since then. He’s now in the final year of that deal, which will net him $6.1 million, according to Spotrac.com.

Because Embiid can do the kinds of things he did on Wednesday night—he just hasn’t been able to do them with any kind of consistency since he was drafted—the 76ers gave him a league-maximum contract extension that could eventually go beyond $148 million, according to NBA.com. Embiid will earn $25.25 million in 2018-19, rising to $33.33 million in 2022-23 before he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

So the 76ers—who look like they could be playoff-bound, sitting at 8-6 following that Embiid-powered win over the Lakers—find themselves in a strange situation with their multi-talented big man. If Embiid keeps having monster games like Wednesday night’s effort, and if he keeps looking like the NBA’s best center by averaging 23 points per game, then the franchise has an exceptional contract for this season and very good ones for the next few years. Had Embiid’s extension kicked in this year, he would be the 15th best-paid player in the NBA, in between Jrue Holliday and Kevin Durant. (Durant took less money than he could have to keep the Golden State Warriors’ core in place.)

Embiid will be, by some distance, the best-paid center in the league, ahead of the Charlotte Hornets’ Dwight Howard. That kind of money demands production, of course—not 46 points a night, every night, but consistent scoring over a long period of time. For all his brilliance, and the promise of more to come, Embiid has yet to produce while remaining free from injury over a whole season. The 76ers front office may be jumping around joyfully on nights like Wednesday, but it won’t be breathing easily until it has that kind of evidence for a much longer duration.