Joel Embiid played three preseason games in six days. He played 38 minutes. He scored 23 points. He had good moments (a dunk, a 3-pointer and a beautiful post-up bucket); he had bad moments (six total turnovers, an air ball turnaround and a 36 field goal percentage). Embiid’s restricted to 12 minute this preseason. It’s obvious head coach Brett Brown wants to get Embiid the ball in his limited possessions, hence Embiid’s insanely high 37.1 usage rate. Embiid faced double teams in two of the three games, and that didn’t go over too well. It’ll take repetition after repetition for Embiid to grow accustom to those double teams. But overall, Embiid’s progress has to be encouraging. After all it’s much better than him not playing.
It was reported yesterday how Brown wants Embiid to play 20-24 minutes by the regular season opener. Embiid probably won’t play six or seven minutes straight, instead he’ll enter for four-to-five minute stretches. At least until he’s fully ready to play. Brown has this seemingly impossible job to balance three lottery picks that all seem to play center, and center only. Obviously Brown will have to combine minutes somehow, but since Noel has missed the last two-preseason games, and Okafor hasn’t played yet, it’s unclear how a rotation might happen. Richaun Holmes has played better than nearly every 76er this preseason. Bryan Colangelo has made it clear he values Holmes, which would make it seem Colangelo isn’t afraid to flip Noel or Okafor before the season begins, even if the trade favors the other team.
Tonight Embiid faces Marc Gasol. Unfortunately the game won’t be televised, but it’s definitely Embiid’s most interesting match-up so far. Embiid rushed some attempts in his first two games. Maybe it was nerves. Or maybe it was expectations. He played more carefree during his best preseason game, which happened to be his latest one. He looked comfortable on the court, namely his first basket: a dunk that provided Philadelphia flashbacks of every great big man that’s played for the 76ers. The flare Embiid plays with shined brightly. It’s captivating in a way. He’ll have some boneheaded plays mixed in, but the potential of him finishing a Sergio Rodriguez alley-oop should make fans giddy. Anytime a big man gets easy baskets early the game opens up for him, and that’s no different for Embiid. It might be essential for Philadelphia to feed Embiid early if he does start most games. It obviously cannot be forced, but once Embiid successfully manages a double team he’s going to nearly unstoppable. He’s a long away from that, and it’s all about baby steps when it comes to a 7-foot-2 mammoth that has played exactly three basketball games since March 2014.
Embiid’s offense might be more of a work in progress, but his defense has been great at times during his first preseason games. He struggled in the pick and roll against Boston, but he looked way more defined on defense against Washington and Cleveland, even though Ian Mahinmi dunked on Embiid. But Embiid’s posted, albeit in limited minutes, a solid 90.2 defensive rating so far. It’s why many people would like to see Philadelphia trade Okafor. It would be nice if Philly didn’t miss a beat on defense no matter the man in the middle. If Philly could run the offense through Embiid when he’s on the floor, then surround Noel with shooters when he’s on the court, Philly could have an average NBA offense. But that scenario is too good to be true.
Embiid has seemingly improved in a different aspect in each preseason game. His continued improvement remains the number one storyline in actual games this season, and that won’t change until Ben Simmons steps on the floor. And even then the story might just be how dominant Embiid plays.