Joel Embiid has taken the NBA by storm over his first 28 games. Fans have fully embraced his self-given nickname, his personality and his playing ability. The NBA was in good hands before Embiid arrived, but it’s easy to imagine what the league will look like as Embiid improves. I’ve seen Embiid play eight times in person, and it’s hard to describe what watching him play feels like. I can’t speak for before I was born. I know how exciting Charles Barkley and Julius Erving must’ve been for fans to experience. Allen Iverson was everything growing up. He played larger than life all the time, it seemed. Embiid’s different. Last Wednesday night Philadelphia somehow beat the Knicks after trailing by 10 with 2:17 left in the fourth quarter. Embiid’s the reason they won. He might not have made the final shot, but he connected on a three-point play, he banked in a triple, he made the steal and he made another basket all in 2:17. Robert Covington hit a three, Gerald Henderson made free throws and of course TJ McConnell went all Michael Jordan on the Knicks, but Philly had no chance without Embiid. Embiid’s changed Philadelphia’s perception of pro basketball, and nothing demonstrates that more than his rise as potential NBA All-Star Game starter. Sure, it’s gimmicky–Embiid, pro wrestling, celebs all promoting the Philly rookie on Twitter. It’s something the NBA should change. It’s a popularity contest, for sure, but Embiid’s also really good. And maybe there’s a reason why people want him to start. And it’s not just because he’s entertaining off the court.
Embiid alone makes basketball better again in Philadelphia. Seriously. 76ers have outscored opponents by 48 points when Embiid’s on the court. That’s incredible for a 13-26 team that won 10 stinking games out of 82 last season. It’s not always pretty. Only 11 players have turned the ball over three or more times in more games than Embiid, but it has at least a little to do with Embiid’s high usage rate. Ten times this season Embiid shot 40 percent or below from the field, but strangely enough Philly’s won five of those games. Compare that to Karl Anthony Towns. The Timberwolves have won four of 22 games when Towns shot 40 percent or below from the field. Embiid can positively impact a game on offense without scoring efficiently. When he’s on, however, he’s one of the more exciting players to watch score because he does it in different ways. It’s not just back-to-the-basket post-ups. The most impressive game of offense was against Brooklyn on Dec. 18 when he dropped 33 points doing whatever he wanted: lefty hooks, face-up pull ups from the outside, alley-oop dunks, sealing defenders for easy lay-ins, quick spin moves and his favorite pick and pop daggers. His various offensive skills were on display that Sunday night, making it a nearly perfect offensive game. Big men aren’t supposed to score from where Embiid scores.
Some games things will be more difficult, even the best shots won’t fall, and that’s why it’s encouraging to see Embiid effectively make free throws. He’s big enough where defenders sometimes foul him when they’re battling for position, fearful of given up an easy bucket. In seven of Philadelphia wins, Embiid attempted at least eight free throws. That makes sense, given Philadelphia’s emphasis to feed Embiid during fourth quarters. Only seven players average more free throws in fourth quarters than Embiid, and only four of them (Isaiah Thomas, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard) shoot a higher percentage. Four players within their first five seasons averaged at least 19 points, seven rebounds, two blocks while shooting 79 percent from the free throw line: Anthony Davis, Bob Lanier, Bob McAdoo and Tim Duncan. Embiid’s on-pace to join them.
His defense has been most impressive, however. He’s made some mistakes, especially early on. But he’s been really solid from the beginning at perfecting the verticality rule the NBA has, jumping straight up and down and absorbing contact in the restricted area. Similar to Embiid’s go-to rip-through move that Kevin Durant’s known for, Embiid studied the NBA during his two years away from it and he practiced and perfected these little nuances that change the course of games. And Embiid’s already an elite rim protector.
Only the Clippers have a better defensive rating than the 76ers in January. At 5-2 this month, Embiid’s without question the major reason why. (See: 16-point loss at Washington without Embiid Jan. 14.) Things will get tougher for Philadelphia as they play five of their next eight games against 2016 playoff teams. Maybe they’ll continue to play well. Only the Warriors have assisted on a higher percentage of baskets than the 76ers this month. They’re playing their best basketball since their improbable 2012 playoff run, and Ben Simmons hasn’t even dressed for a game yet.
Embiid’s thinking playoffs this season, and although that would be welcomed, winning even 25 games will be an achievement considered where this team was last season. If Embiid continues to show flashes of dominance, the 76ers won’t need another top-3 pick. This up-coming summer feels gigantic for Philadelphia, as they should definitely think playoffs this time next season. Embiid’s the sole reason for this optimism. It’s easy to grow giddy thinking about Embiid without a minutes restriction and playing in back-to-backs. His 3-point shooting has dipped considerably since his 50-percent November. He made 29 percent of them in December, and a lowly 20-percent so far this month. It’s too early to tell if Embiid will be an average 3-point shooter, but he’s flashed that ability, and knowing how hard Embiid worked to get to this point it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he shot better from deep the rest of this season and the rest of his career. Shooters slump routinely, and Embiid’s probably more prone to a shooting slump considering his injury history and lack of playing basketball. He’s played exactly the same amount of games this season as he did in his college career. He’s still figuring out basketball. That’s good for Philadelphia but scary for every place else.
Featured Image from Embiid’s Instagram (a must-follow).
Stats come from basketball-reference and NBA.com.