At first glance, Joel Embiid’s offensive game defies logic.
He practically prances around defenders, powers through them, does a first-class Hakeem Olajuwon imitation in the low post and, at least this season, shoots 40 percent from three-point range.
According to Embiid, his mid-range game is what unlocks his diverse bag of tricks. Embiid has made 53 percent of his two-point shots not at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass. His previous career-high was 41 percent. As a point of comparison, Kevin Durant shot 53 percent in his best mid-range season, the 2018-19 campaign.
“I think that’s what makes me unguardable,” Embiid said after posting a career-high 50 points, 17 rebounds and five assists Friday night in the Sixers’ 112-105 win over the Bulls. “If you’re going to crowd me, I’m going to find my way to the free throw line or I’m going to end up at the basket. If you’re going to back up on me, I’ve got that hesi — that hesitation shot. And I’ve also got my favorite pull-up shot, just an easy shot that I always get on the post. It’s hard. … And also off the dribble, just dribbling the ball and just making things happen.
“I’ve been adding a lot to my game and it’s been working well. But I’m excited because that’s what you need in the playoffs, especially when you’re going to play a team four to seven times and they’re going to game plan. Sometimes I’m going to have to shoot over double teams; sometimes I’ve got to pass it; sometimes I’ve got to figure out how to play through double teams and triple teams. Those types of shots, you can’t guard. You can’t guard a step-back. You can’t guard a catch-and-shoot shot. So, I think it’s going to go a long way. But I think, also, those shots are going to help me play for the next 10 to 15 years.”
As his words indicate, Embiid has a savvy, systematic way of thinking about basketball. It’s one reason why he’s attempted an NBA-leading 9.9 free throws per game, making 85.3 percent. The play isn’t graceful in a conventional sense, but Embiid is happy to take a slap on the wrist whenever a defender leaves a loose hand in his vicinity. For someone who didn’t start playing until he was a teenager, he’s learned the game at warp speed.
The fadeaway jumper was one new tool Embiid worked on during the NBA’s hiatus last year as a method to counter the aggressive double teams he would inevitably encounter. Thaddeus Young’s isolation defense on the left wing and an oncoming double team from Garrett Temple kept Embiid far away from the paint, but they couldn’t prevent him from stepping back, lofting a jumper and giving the Sixers a six-point lead with 41.3 seconds to play.
“It really just feels like he’s unstoppable,” Matisse Thybulle said. “It’s hard to really know, because we’re not trying to stop him — we’re just trying to feed the beast. Going into a game knowing that this team knows that my man’s averaging 30-plus a game and they’re trying to make sure he doesn’t, but night in and night out, he does … you start to think that’s maybe there’s just no answer for him.”
The Bulls identified a few ways in which they could’ve guarded Embiid better, although third-year center Wendell Carter Jr. captured a reality evident to anyone that’s watched Embiid through his first 24 games: He tends to be the one in control, not the opposition.
“Great player,” Carter told reporters, per NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C Johnson. “He knocked down a lot of shots. There is not really much else I can say about it. Very skilled. Very big player. There’s only so much you can do. It’s tough. They’ve got really good shooters around him, so double teaming is kind of hard to do. He’s just a tough guard. You know what I’m saying? I don’t know how else to say it. Tough guard.”
Embiid also acknowledged the work done by president of basketball operations Daryl Morey this offseason to add shooting in the form of Seth Curry and Danny Green. Though the Sixers are actually taking and making fewer three-pointers on average than last year, Embiid is predictably finding life easier when he’s not playing next to another big man in Al Horford.
Strategic tweaks have helped, too, among them head coach Doc Rivers using Embiid in “Delay” actions at the top of the key and calling plays for him over and over again until the defense stops him.
However, it wouldn’t be accurate to say Brett Brown was using Embiid foolishly. The 26-year-old posted up more than any other player last year (8.3 times per game) and recorded the highest points per possession mark of anyone averaging at least four post-ups (1.10). He again holds those distinctions so far this season.
To hear Embiid explain it, he’s ascended to an MVP level mainly through personal development, both in terms of skill and in terms of mindset.
“It just feels like the game has slowed down for me,” Embiid said. “The only difference from this year to last year, it’s not so much about coaching, it’s more about me being willing to just dominate every single moment that I’m on the floor. Last year I was going through a rough time — it was just not there. And then also, the moves that Daryl made, adding all that shooting is also helping a lot. But, like I said, it’s not so much about coaching, it’s just about me turning a corner and just being willing to dominate every second on defense and on offense.”
Whether Embiid can sustain or even further elevate his game is a fascinating question. He’s trending up, clearly, but Embiid is a player listed at 7 feet tall and 280 pounds who’s dealt with back tightness recently and has experienced few extended stretches of good health in his NBA career.
The Sixers are enjoying this for however long it lasts. Nobody knows when that will be although, based on Embiid’s comment about playing another 10 to 15 years, he seems to have his late 30s or even early 40s in mind.
“I’ll tell my kids one day I was playing with Joel Embiid,” Tobias Harris said. “When they ask, ‘Who’s the best player you played with?’ I’ll say, ‘It’s Joel Embiid.’ It’s an honor to be out there with him on the floor.”