The NBA season is just two weeks old but one player has already stolen the highlight reel. The Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid has played only five NBA games, but he is quickly becoming the most must-see player in the league. Every second that he is on the court is an adrenaline rush.
Despite starting the season 0-7 (again), 76ers fans are hanging on every play the seven-foot Embiid makes. Every post move is greeted with oohs and aahs, every blocked shot draws cheers from the crowd. When he is in the game, it feels like something special is about to happen and more often than not, something special does happen. From elite level footwork to a surprisingly soft touch on jump hooks and jump shots, Embiid puts on a show unlike anyone else in the NBA.
And he's only a rookie!
Embiid's entertainment value might be ahead of his actual productivity at the moment, but it's certainly not ahead of his potential to be a game-changing presence on both ends of the court. Five years ago, Anthony Davis entered the league and rewrote what it meant to be a big man in the NBA. Last season, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis introduced an entirely new way to be an effective big man in this modern era of outside-in basketball. Now Joel Embiid looks to provide yet another paradigm shift in what the next wave of big men can and should look like. Let's take a closer look at his skill set.
The crux of Embiid's offense is his low-post footwork, touch, and scoring. He's drawn comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon, which is pretty fitting since Hakeem was the last superstar post-up player to utilize such an array of ball fakes, step-throughs, and fancy footwork to shake free of defenders in the post.
Embiid uses several different steps and moves to create new and unpredictable combinations. On one play he'll go to a shot-fake, jab step, and then a spin move, and on the next he'll mix it up and go to a jab step, spin move, shot-fake, pivot. Defenders are left constantly guessing which combination he will go to next and while he has his favorites, he's still showing new moves every game.
It's fairly safe to say that Embiid already has the widest range of low-post scoring moves in the NBA. That's not to say that he's the best or most efficient post scorer. He's only scoring 0.8 points per possession (PPP) on post-ups so far this season, which is right around average for post players.
One thing that Embiid does very well is mix up his power post game with his finesse game. He's great at attacking the outside shoulder of smaller defenders, a skill that helps him avoid picking up charge fouls. In the clip below, Embiid would have picked up an offensive foul had he tried to power right through the outmatched and undersized Channing Frye. Instead, Embiid uses a power move to the outside of Frye's shoulder, hits him with a ton of force, and then spins away. This combination of power and finesse is incredibly difficult to defend and it's rare that players with Embiid's limited experience have the feel of when to use both.
While Embiid's post game is the centerpiece of his offense, what makes him such a dynamic and exciting prospect is his ability to do so many other things on that end of the court, including shoot the three. He's made six three-pointers this season out of nine attempts, most of those coming as the trail man on the break or in early-offense pick-and-pops.
With Embiid's size and post game, it's important for him not to fall in love with his perimeter game. So far this season, he's done an excellent job of balancing when to pop to the three-point line, when to shot-fake and drive, and when to just swing the ball. This allows the 76ers to play four-out and five-out basketball while not giving up size and rim protection on defense. In the two clips below, look at how open the paint is when Embiid steps out for a pick-and-pop.
This spacing will be especially deadly once Ben Simmons returns to the lineup. It's almost unheard of for a team to run 4-5 pick-and-pop, but that action will be one of the staples of Philly's offense. Few teams have a frontcourt that is prepared and capable of defending the pick-and-pop, and no other team uses its power forward and center as a main duo in ball-screen situations. It might be one the 76ers' best actions and it will put incredible pressure on the defense if Embiid can knock down that shot consistently.
Embiid's offense is incredibly promising, but his biggest impact might be on the defensive end. At 7'2", he's taller than most centers in the league, yet also more mobile around the perimeter; he also has great shot-blocking instincts around the rim. He's averaging 2.6 blocks per game, good for third most in the NBA despite only playing 21.4 minutes.
More important, opponents shoot 6.3 percent worse from 0-5 feet when Embiid is on the court and 26.9 percent worse from 5-9 feet. Embiid is clearly altering shots around the basket and from the painted area, but he can probably improve his defense at the rim by being a bit more selective about which blocks he pursues, especially on dribble penetration. Great rim protectors have to learn when to go for the big play and when to settle for a well-contested shot, and one of Embiid's worst habits on defense doing too much of the former and getting suckered away from the basket.
In the two clips below, Embiid does a great job of stepping up to contest the dribble penetration but rather than settle for forcing an incredibly low-percentage contested shot, he fully commits to the block and misses. In the first clip, it results in an offensive rebound. In the second, it results in a foul.
Embiid is averaging 5.5 fouls per 36 minutes, and the 76ers are giving up 2.4 more offensive rebounds when he is on the court than when he is off. Both of those stats point to a rim protector getting pulled into too many shot-blocking pursuits.
As is the case with his offense, what makes Embiid's defense so intriguing is that he has the tools to become an elite rim protector and a great pick-and-roll defender. He has fairly good timing and instincts on drop coverage in pick-and-rolls going toward the middle of the court, especially when he is disciplined enough to avoid over-pursuing the ball. Look look at how overwhelming he is when guards try to attack on side pick-and-rolls. Embiid loves surprising guards by jumping out to trap the defender. More often than not, it works.
Embiid is second in the league in usage percentage: 40 percent of all 76ers possessions that Embiid is on the court result in an Embiid shot, turnover, or assist. Part of the reason that his usage is so high is because the 76ers are calling his number a lot. When he is on the court, the team deliberately looks to play through him in the post. Per Synergy, he has the tenth most post-ups already this season despite playing half of the minutes of everyone else in the top ten.
However, even those possessions end up in a shot or turnover far more frequently than they should. It varies depending on how effective a post player is and also whether a team is defending him with single coverage or if they are sending early help, but a good general rule of thumb is that most effective post players only shoot once out of every four post touches. That is because in aggregate, kickouts and drop-offs from the post tend to produce better looks than shots out of the post. One way to think of it is that a post player should be good enough in the post to force a double-team and bend the defense. Once that happens, it's all about finding the best shot available, whether that's through the post or on a kickout. In that regard, low-post passing is often as or more important than low-post scoring.
Right now, Embiid has an excellent chance at becoming the best low-post scorer in the game. He has a lot of work to do on becoming an excellent low-post passer. He has a 21.4 percent turnover ratio, meaning over a fifth of his possessions end in a turnover, with most of those coming from the low post or mid-post. Part of it is timing and making quicker reads, but he also needs to learn how to draw the double-team away from the paint to open up room for cutters.
In the first two clips below, Embiid is late to read the defense and makes lazy passes that are easily intercepted. In the third clip, Embiid successfully dribbles out of the double-team but doesn't pull the weak-side defender out of position. Great post passers know how to force help-side defenders into fully committing to either helping or staying home. On too many possessions, Embiid gets stuck somewhere in the middle and doesn't open up a shot for himself or others.
In many ways, Embiid looks like a guy who has spent the past two years mastering individual skills but hasn't had the opportunity put it all together in a five-on-five setting. For instance, he struggles with basic two-man action on ball reversals. All centers in the NBA are used to making ball reversal dribble hand-offs and side pick-and-rolls, yet Embiid has a surprisingly high turnover rate out of this basic action. In the clips below, you can see how he is late to pivot away as a sort of ball screen and instead picks up the cheap foul. In the second clip, Embiid takes a very bad angle on the ball reversal and gives up a fairly easy steal.
Embiid will eventually learn to cut out some of the more forced, low-efficiency shots that are dragging his overall efficiency down. He tends to "feel it" a bit too much, especially early in the shot clock. In the two clips below, you can see Embiid make very pretty moves from mid-range early in the shot clock. However, in both instances he was almost certainly going to get a better look later on in the possession if he picked his spots better. The second clip in particular stands out because it came late in the game when the 76ers were starting to give up their lead.
It's not surprising that Embiid isn't used to the speed and stamina required to play in the NBA, but he will need to improve his conditioning in order to take the next step. Right now he is very inconsistent as a rim runner in transition, a trait that sometimes infuriates point guard Sergio Rodriguez, who loves to push the ball in transition.
Embiid is also very inconsistent on the defensive end and on the glass. In the clips below, he shows his potential to show and recover on one possession but then gets completely blown by on the other two. This is likely tied to his conditioning and focus on that end of the court, which isn't surprising given that he is just now learning how to play real minutes in the NBA. He's averaging just 24 minutes per game now, and has a long way to go before he can be relied upon to play regular starters minutes.
Fortunately for the 76ers, they are in no rush to bring him along. They are comfortably in the early stages of the process and Embiid won't be forced to skip any steps along the way. But it is important to note that some players excel at the rare skills and never fully put together the more simple ones. In 2009, Dwight Howard seemed headed toward becoming the most dominant big man in the league for a decade to come. Seven years later, he's still goal-tending for no reason, turning it over in the post, and missing free throws. Embiid shows a lot of promise and is already good at the things few players are good at. The next step will be becoming good at all of things every player must be good at.
For now, though, the future looks very bright.
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