LONDON (AP) — When the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers play Thursday in London, they’ll both be looking to leave a mark on the league’s global stage.
For the teams, that’s the obvious payoff.
It’ll also provide a reminder of the league’s future.
A number of the players — including Kyrie Irving and Joel Embiid — set to take the court at the O2 Arena are also likely to appear in February’s All-Star Game, some surely going to be bolstered by votes they get from those fans in London and watching worldwide. And the amount of young talent that will be on display makes this the most hotly anticipated matchup of the eight regular-season games that have taken place in England.
“I’m appreciative of all fan votes. I’m just a fan of basketball, a fan of sport and now I get to mark off my bucket of playing at the O2 Arena,” said Irving, who is averaging 24.1 points per game to lead the Celtics to a 33-10 start and the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
“I can’t wait for that experience and to have the opportunity to come here to Europe and especially London and to grow the game of basketball for the NBA.”
After the first round of fan voting for this season’s All-Star starters, which NBA followers from all over the world can participate in online, Irving led his nearest challenger among Eastern Conference guards by more than 500,000 votes, leaving him all but assured of a starting spot in Los Angeles on Feb. 18.
While the Celtics have exceeded expectations after losing free-agency acquisition Gordon Hayward to a horrific ankle injury on the opening night of the season, the 76ers have struggled to maintain consistency.
Still, Philadelphia (19-19) is very much in contention for a playoff berth, a marked improvement on recent years. The team’s development plan, or “The Process” as it was known, is finally bearing fruit.
A healthy Embiid is the main reason why.
Drafted in 2014, Embiid missed his first two NBA seasons with foot injuries and managed just 31 games last season. Thursday will be his 30th appearance this season and he is averaging 23.8 points per game.
The gregarious 23-year-old is third among Eastern Conference forwards in fan voting, but he is aware a big performance in London could elevate his chances of holding onto his spot.
“I’m a winner, I’m competitive but at the same time it’s also for the fans,” Embiid said. “I want to have fun, I always do have fun on the court and then I play better when I have fun. I’m going to play team basketball and try to put on a show too.”
Another factor in the 76ers’ improvement has been the play of Ben Simmons.
The 21-year-old Australian point-forward, a leading rookie of the year candidate, could also become an All-Star.
“That would be amazing,” said Simmons, who’s currently just under 50,000 votes off a starting place. “I honestly don’t know what I would say about that but it would just be amazing. I’d be blessed.”
The next voting update comes out following Thursday’s game, with polls closing Monday.
However, 76ers coach Brett Brown said whether Simmons or Embiid is voted into the All-Star game really won’t prove anything.
“There’s a difference between popular and championships and that’s my version of a star,” Brown said. “Are you able to get your teams to win and win championships? This is the challenge, for Ben and Joel, that’s my mission for them.”
The good thing for Embiid and Simmons, they could do both.