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Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid is on the fast track to global marketing stardom -- NBA

ESPN.com | Updated: 2018-10-08 21:00:10

SHENZHEN, China -- Joel Embiid responded with enthusiasm to every question posed by the Asian media members who swarmed around him after the Philadelphia 76ers' practice Sunday, even elaborating after granting a request to "shout out the fans in Hong Kong" by expressing his appreciation for their support.

But Embiid especially perked up when he heard the session's final inquiry.

"Signature shoes?" Embiid said, repeating the premise of the question and a subject that has been on his mind a lot lately, as the NBA's most highly coveted sneaker free agent. "We might be able to make it happen at some point, and I'm excited about it. I'm excited.

"A lot of people, you know, always have that notion [that] big men can't sell shoes. And when I look at myself ... I can dribble, I can pass the ball, I can shoot. I can bring it up, I can be a playmaker. I'm more than a big man. So as far as signature shoes, I'm excited to come and break that."

Embiid, who has been seen wearing Under Armour throughout the preseason and hinted that an announcement could be on the horizon, is more than a multi-skilled, All-Star big man. He's a magnetic personality, which is a significant factor in his massive international marketing potential.

That's why this trip, a marketing tour packaged around preseason games between the 76ers and Dallas Mavericks in Shanghai and Shenzhen, is so important to Embiid.

A significant presence in China, where NBA regular-season games that air in the morning routinely draw eight-figure audiences, is a requirement for any basketball player attempting to maximize his brand.

Embiid's playful trolling on social media boosts his marketability in America. He gets a much higher interaction rate on his Twitter and Instagram posts than NBA players with signature shoe deals, according to data shared with shoe companies that have pursued him, including Under Armour, Puma, New Balance and Chinese brands.

Embiid insists that he uses social media primarily as a means of motivating himself. ("I've already put out there that I'm better than this person and that he can't guard me, so the next game, the next night that he's got to guard me, I can't let him go on the court and get the best of me," he said.)

However, he doesn't deny that a strong troll game benefits him as a businessman.

"Oh, yeah, it definitely helps the brand," he said. "People understand that that's my personality. That's me. That's who I am. It definitely helps a lot."

"It's way bigger than what I see in Philly. And Philly fans might be mad at me for that, but it's just the truth. Chinese fans are just passionate about the game. The love they have is just insane."
Joel Embiid, on Chinese fans' passion for the NBA

One place Twitter and Instagram can't help boost a brand much is China, which prevents its citizens from accessing those platforms. But the foundation for Embiid had been laid in China before he stepped foot in the country, which he had never visited before this trip.

He's affectionately known here by the nickname "Dà dì," which roughly translates to "The Great Emperor." One of his first stops after the Sixers' arrival was a promotional appearance for Master Kong, a Chinese tea company that has put Embiid's face on 300 million bottles.

"He has a gravitational pull," said Jessica Holtz, who heads the basketball marketing division of Creative Artists Agency, which represents Embiid. "It's international, and it's in multiple languages."

Those languages include French, English and Basaa, a Bantu dialect spoken in Cameroon. Embiid is also learning Portuguese. He might never learn Mandarin, but he certainly hasn't had trouble connecting with Chinese fans.

"The love I've gotten is something I've never seen before," Embiid told ESPN while walking to the team bus after doing an interview with Central China Television. "Like, it's way bigger than what I see in Philly. And Philly fans might be mad at me for that, but it's just the truth. Chinese fans are just passionate about the game. The love they have is just insane. ...

"With my next shoe deal, I think China's going to be a destination every summer, just coming and being with the fans. That's what I like. That's my nature."

Embiid thoroughly enjoyed being followed by a crowd of hundreds during an impromptu trip to Super Brand Mall in Shanghai hours before he scored 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in Friday's win over the Mavs. He appreciates that there are dozens of fans outside the team hotel at all hours and attempts to accommodate as many requests for autographs and pictures as possible.

A fitting symbol of Embiid's burgeoning bond with the Chinese fan base -- and a video clip sure to be used in future NBA international marketing campaigns -- occurred organically when the big man's swat of Dwight Powell's after-the-whistle jump shot accidentally ricocheted off a courtside fan's head.

After realizing what happened, Embiid immediately jogged over and apologized -- and kissed the bald head of a man wearing an Allen Iverson Sixers throwback jersey and a Chicago Bulls jacket.

"He's got such an infectious personality," 76ers coach Brett Brown said. "There's a playful side of him, there's a mischievous side of him, there's a competitive side of him. He just ticks boxes. And he is good. He plays like he's an emerging superstar.

"I just think that his qualities are universal. They're attractive to all parts of the planet. It sort of transcends language barriers because of that presence and charisma and personality -- and game.

"You can see why he's, to me, a marketer's dream."

ESPN.com's Nick DePaula contributed to this story.

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