5 things to watch for as Sixers season tips off

The highly anticipated 2017-18 NBA season for the 76ers tips off in Washington tonight with the home opener coming two days later against the Boston Celtics.

Following a stretch of 75 total victories over the past four seasons, there has been a much higher level of excitement for coach Brett Brown’s fifth season. There’s finally a decent amount of talent up and down the roster.

Yet there are so many questions.

In a best-case scenario, the Sixers could reach the playoffs and give the fans a glimpse of a bright future.

In a worst-case scenario, injuries could ravage the franchise again with the Sixers winding up in the lottery again.

The season starts Wednesday night and the energy is evident. That’s a start.

Here are the top five storylines to follow as what looks to be a roller coaster season officially opens.

1. Center of attention

The Sixers likely won’t advance to the postseason without an All-Star season from Joel Embiid. For that to happen, Embiid needs to be on the court. He simply can’t play 31 games again. It has to be a minimum of 50 while 60-to-65 would be more encouraging.

Controversy is already swirling.

After practice Monday, Brown was asked about Embiid’s potential minutes in the beginning stretch of the season.

“I don’t really know if there’s a solid number,” Brown told reporters. “If you were to choose a number, it would be somewhere like in the teens.”

Embiid just returned to full court action and had a breakout performance in a preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets.

In the rigor of an NBA season, his conditioning must improve. Who knows about the long-term issues of offseason surgery? Will his repaired foot stay healthy? Will he avoid leaping into the crowd after a loose ball?

It’s obvious how much Embiid means to the franchise when you see him in the lineup. Take him out for an extended time and it’s going to be a struggle.

2. Ben is back

Ben Simmons missed all of last season after breaking a bone in his foot in last year’s training camp.

Could Simmons have returned sooner? Possibly.

Simmons looks ready to play and he’s even going to be handling the ball as the starting point guard at times. He has tremendous passing ability and also rebounds and runs the court quite well for a young player.

Shooting is a struggle and it’s easy to see that he needs a ton of work to develop a consistent jumper.

For now, the rookie will be gaining valuable experience, especially facing the likes of John Wall and Kyrie Irving in the first two games.

There will be a steep learning curve for Simmons, but at least he’s healthy. The passionate fan base must remember that Simmons is a rookie. The immense talent is there and it’s time to finally begin his NBA career.

3. Following Fultz

Markelle Fultz will start the season coming off the bench, which isn’t necessarily a troubling sign.

Yes, Fultz will join a small list of No. 1 overall picks not starting along with Anthony Bennett and Andrea Bargnani since 2006.

Fultz has worked through some nagging injuries and he’s still a teenager at 19 years old.

Why not come off the bench? It worked for Bobby Jones quite well back in the day.

Fultz’s shot doesn’t look right. He’s going to be challenged defensively. And starting two rookies in the backcourt isn’t ideal. Brown’s plan is a good one to open the season. It doesn’t mean Fultz will stay in his role in February or March.

Everyone needs to calm down a bit and understand how young the Sixers are this season.

4. Super Saric

As a rookie, Dario Saric proved his worth every night. Even with plantar fasciitis, he went out and worked as hard as he could to help the Sixers win.

Saric’s passion and grit made him an immediate fan favorite. His shooting touch looks much better now and the one season of experience will certainly help.

Saric has a chance to be a real leader for this group. The young players will benefit from watching Saric day in and day out.

As the talent improves around him, Saric will become even more valuable.

5. JJ for three

JJ Redick earned a one-year, $23 million deal for one basic reason: he can shoot.

Redick made 43 percent of his 3-pointers last season (201-of-468) and the Sixers will desperately need that type of production.

Shooting has been an issue over the past four seasons and Redick will provide a major boost from beyond the arc. Having this type of veteran player is an added bonus.

There will be nights when the Sixers struggle to score and being able to rely on Redick will be huge.

There will be other storylines to follow like Jahlil Okafor’s growth, Robert Covington’s emergence, Richaun Holmes’ recovery from a wrist injury and much, much more.

The Sixers have a chance to reach the playoffs if a number of factors go their way. That’s a big if with their injury history.

While the Sixers ideally could be performing in the postseason, look for “The Process” to last one more season.

Prediction: 37-45 and back in the lottery.

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