PHILADELPHIA – Joel Embiid has spoiled us.
He’s spoiled anyone who watches him play, along with the collection of teammates he’s had since entering the league. He’s spoiled the fervent fans of Philadelphia over the last five years with his rare collection of candor, unmatched personality, throwback trash-talk, and unique skills that separate him from his contemporaries.
Yes, it’s only been five years. Given everything that has transpired in his early career, doesn’t it feel almost impossible for the NBA universe to only been in year five of the Joel Embiid show? And doesn’t it seem borderline psychotic for him to already be at this level of sheer dominance, despite having played fewer than 250 career games?
The arc of Embiid’s journey and ascension to a top flight MVP candidate, in this short amount of time, has provided a refreshing shakeup in the league’s “big man” class.
His rapid rise to superstardom has spoiled us to such a degree, performances such as Wednesday’s offensive takeover versus Brooklyn cause everyone to shrug their shoulders. In the moment, what felt like an average, ho-hum individual showing for Embiid will quickly make you realize how he’s warped our minds.
For all but a handful of guys in the league, a night with 39 points, 13 boards, and only 2 turnovers would be close to the highlight of their career. However, for the man dubbed “The Process” because of how synonymous he is to the cultural shift within the Sixers, it was just another data point added to the remarkable effort he’s shown since December. In a season with a new head coach, a stronger fit around Embiid and Ben Simmons from a shooting and playmaking perspective, and all excuses going out the window, Embiid has done everything within his control to lead Philadelphia to the No. 1 seed in the East.
Because of where his team sits, largely due to his impact, he rightfully deserves to be a firm second throughout this year’s MVP discussion. Unfortunately, his missed time this season has added up and will likely prevent him from stealing votes from fellow big man, Nikola Jokić. Most of Embiid’s absences at the start of the season were due to health and safety protocols, but his case to win the award took a major hit on Mar. 12 when he suffered a bone bruise in his left knee. The injury cost him 10 straight games, which coincided with an all-time stretch by Jokić and the Denver Nuggets to gain a sizable advantage.
As of Thursday, Jokic had logged 18 more games and 756 more minutes than Embiid on the season. Even in an unusual year, where it was crystal clear players would miss more time because of this grueling schedule and random protocol absences, you cannot overlook the value of actually being on the floor.
Still, it’s a testament to how brilliant Embiid has played in his 37 games this season for him to remain in the mix. Zooming out, the basketball community as a whole is blessed with something we haven’t seen in nearly 20 years.
For two centers, or “bigs,” to be at the forefront of any MVP chatter, you have to go all the way back to 2003-04 when Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, and Jermaine O’Neal finished first, second, and third. In what could mirror this year’s race in favor of Jokić, Garnett received all but three of the first-place votes at the end of the season (97.6%). Due to the combination of Jokić being an animal and the availability of Embiid and LeBron handicapping their cases, that’s likely what the voting will turn out to be.
However, had Embiid been relatively close in total minutes, his two-way presence and complete ownership of his competition this season would have persuaded me to give him the nod.
There has been nobody quite like Embiid since the early 2000s. Really, not since the Lakers’ version of Shaquille O’Neal ravaged opponents every night. Shaq’s innate ability to combine the friendly and spirited personality with the wrecking ball he would turn into on the court minutes later, constantly expressing how much better he was than the opposition, is exactly what Embiid has given us during this new era of basketball.
It’s also important to remember Embiid is still young. He doesn’t have that many miles on him, despite being drafted in 2014. Due to his nagging foot injuries in the first two years of his career, he wasn’t able to get on the court until October 2016.
Embiid just turned 27 last month, giving him a fairly wide window into his prime over the next handful of seasons. If there is one thing we’ve seen transpire over the last few years in the NBA, it’s just how long these modern talents can extend their prime and remain at an all-time level with new sports science developments.
Considering Embiid was 26 for majority of this season, it’s worth taking a look at how he stacks up to Shaq’s age-26 campaign.
On a per-100 possession scale, which should be used to account for pace differences, Embiid has been just as lethal and arguably more impactful than O’Neal’s seventh overall season (and third with the Lakers):
In his 37 games so far, Embiid has shot 54.2% on twos, 38.9% from deep, and 85.3% at the line. In an effort to dial back his outside shooting to focus more on his stronger areas on the floor, he’s enjoyed a higher rate of open looks from beyond the arc. It has led to the most efficient stretch he’s ever had.
His overall true shooting mark of 64.2% would give him the most efficient season of any center in NBA history with at least 25% usage and 30 games played. Hilariously enough, Nikola Jokić is practically tied with him at 64.1% – another illustration of just how far ahead of the field those two have been all year.
In NBA history, there have been 13 seasons of a center posting a Box Plus-Minus figure of at least 8.0 with at least 30 games played. Embiid (8.2) and Jokić (11.6) are currently on pace to extend that list to 15.
Where Embiid has taken the strongest leap forward is in the mid-range. Since entering the league, he’s been thrown in the fire with unreal expectations. It’s difficult to be highly efficient from everywhere on the floor when key rotational players have come and gone, and the spacing hasn’t been ideal in most instances.
However, with the improved play of Tobias Harris this season and the addition of three-point specialists Seth Curry and Danny Green, there has been a lot more room for Embiid to operate.
Embiid is 108-of-216 on mid-range jumpers this season, giving him the highest conversion rate of his career:
2016-17: 43-of-104 (41.3%)
2017-18: 129-of-293 (44.0%)
2018-19: 83-of-230 (36.1%)
2019-20: 96-of-239 (40.2%)
2020-21: 108-of-216 (50.0%)
An increase of nearly 10 percentage points from last year (on high volume) has been phenomenal for his individual growth as a player, and only makes him a tougher threat to worry about. As if he wasn’t already a handful.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed, either, as opposing coaches are realizing there’s no formula to “shut down” a player as gifted as Embiid.
“Consistency and shot-making,” Nets’ head coach Steve Nash said when asked what he’s seen out of Embiid this year. “He’s been incredibly accurate scoring the ball. We know what a dominant physical presence he is, but he’s been really accurate in the mid-range and very capable from three as well. So I think his accuracy and shot-making ability has taken another step.”
When the mid-range looks aren’t there, or he doesn’t feel like settling, his strength has now reached the point where he’ll simply bulldoze you into the lane, use his subtle shoulder-bumps to knock you off balance, and finish through contact.
At the very least, he’s either drawing a foul or getting too deep of a position for any rim contest to affect him. He has drawn 167 shooting fouls in only 37 games, which is absolutely insane compared to his 177 in 51 games last year.
Embiid is directly behind Shaq’s most incredible season, 2000-01, in terms of free throws attempted per 100 possessions. But among the top-five, his efficiency makes it more of a trainwreck when defenses foul him. Since 1973-74, these are the leaders in free throws per 100 possessions:
- Shaquille O’Neal 2000-01: 17.4 FTA per 100 possessions, made 51.3%
- Joel Embiid 2020-21: 17.3 FTA per 100 possessions, making 85.3%
- Dwight Howard 2010-11: 16.4 FTA per 100 possessions, made 59.6%
- Shaquille O’Neal 2004-05: 16.2 FTA per 100 possessions, made 46.1%
- Shaquille O’Neal 1997-98: 16.1 FTA per 100 possessions, made 52.7%
Embiid’s free throw attempt rate of .642 – meaning he’s shot 430 free throws to his 670 total field goals tried, is the third-highest ever for any player with 1,000-plus minutes in a season.
While he does get to the line more than anyone in the league, the beauty in his game comes from his refined footwork and recognition. In Wednesday’s victory over Brooklyn, the only center option the Nets had was DeAndre Jordan.
As much as Jordan can match up with him physically, there is nothing a defense can do when Embiid gets deep on the left block, puts his body into you, and elevates:
The first shot above was a result of terrific balance and composure, realizing Jordan was comfortable living with a baseline fadeaway over getting embarrassed at the rim. In just year five, Embiid has mastered the art of facing up, reading his defender, and making them pay in various ways.
On the second shot, notice how Embiid took his time to size up Jordan. He offered a jab-step with his right foot, forced Jordan to back up, and then sold the pump-fake because of the damage he inflicted in the mid-range earlier. It led to an uncontested dunk. This is where his game will continue to build, and it’s a perfect encapsulation of how valuable it is to have the mid-range pull-up in your arsenal.
The unpredictability and calm nature of never getting rushed when he’s in his spots are the chief reasons why he’s leading the NBA – by a wide margin – in points per possession on post-ups (among centers). He averages 9.3 post-ups per game, which is 3.4 more than the next-highest player, and scores 1.08 points per possession on them.
He has even shown an improved touch around the floater range, especially out of these impromptu pick-and-rolls:
Shooting 47% in the floater range this season, Embiid has a career-high mark there, as well.
Another key component of his sky-high efficiency this year has come from a better understanding of space. I particularly enjoy when the Sixers use Embiid as a corner spacer in this modified “Pistol” action, with Simmons and another guard operating out of a dribble-handoff:
When the guard gets around the quick screen on the handoff, the opposing center (Jordan) has a decision to make. If he helps off the corner, Embiid can knock these down.
The development and maturation of Embiid’s offensive prowess has opened up a plethora of options for the Sixers’ halfcourt style. They are better equipped to attack defenses that will try to take advantage of Philly’s weaknesses. It has also shined through Embiid’s enhanced passing out of double-teams, whether it be soft doubles or hard traps in the post. He has only committed a turnover on 11.8% of his possessions. It sounds like a lot, but that’s actually the lowest percentage of his career.
Doc Rivers, who has coached more superstar-level talent than most head coaches in the league, has even been surprised at how polished Embiid is offensively since they joined forces.
“You don’t know a player until you coach one, or until you play with one,” Rivers said. “Everything he has done that I had seen on film (last year) – he’s better at it. You know, it’s hard to judge a guy’s basketball IQ unless you’re in the gym every day. And that’s what has stood out to me, his ability to read situations. He’s just really talented and skilled, but a very smart basketball player.”
Much like Shaq proclaimed to be the most dominant big man during his era and nobody refuted it, Embiid is on a similar path. He scores more efficiently than any high-usage big man before him … in a larger variety of ways. That’s in addition to his genius defensive skills around the rim.
Basketball junkies are blessed to see two superstar centers leading the MVP discussion with both in their (early) prime.
While Embiid’s knee injury was a heartbreaker in regards to his award chances, he has bigger plans for himself and the Sixers. With his advanced offensive repertoire, he may be the most unstoppable singular force in these upcoming East playoffs.
Nobody is excited to play this version of Embiid.