The best version of Joel Embiid
The 76ers star is a man on a mission in 2022
BY DAVID THORPE
2022 brings another story: Joel Embiid on another level. On offense, the word that comes to mind when watching him is joke. As in, it’s a joke to see a man that large and powerful be so nimble and skilled. Orlando Magic-era Shaquille O’Neal had an obviously breathtaking combination of size and agility, and a subtler factor locked away in his mind. He played the merry old giant who would one day be a beloved and silly studio host. But in reality he tried to destroy anyone near him in the paint, and the rim too. I call it a “disposition to dominate.” 2022 Joel Embiid has Shaq’s mindset, with far more skill.
And for the moment at least, he’s destroying the league.
The Sixers are a hodgepodge of slow-footed shooters and athletic but inexperienced or unskilled wings. Much of the season has been disappointing, and they find themselves in fifth in the East. But after this recent surge, winning nine of ten, the Sixers are just two-and-a-half games out of first place in the East—and they have yet to bring back Ben Simmons, or whoever they’ll get for him in trade. Embiid is the lone hammer on a court full of nails.
In the season’s opening months, Embiid was good, averaging 26 points a game on 47 percent shooting, with 11 rebounds, four assists, and 1.4 blocks. Most importantly, the Sixers steadied the ship, and established they could be a playoff team even without resolving the Simmons situation. Then Embiid—looking as nimble and athletic as ever—turned it up a notch. In January, Embiid’s doing more. His field goal percentage is up to 53 percent, his scoring north of 30 per game, and he’s getting two more assists per game. This could yet prove to be his finest season.
Digging into the video is fun. The first thing you notice: Defenses know where he is and where the ball is typically going, but it does not matter.
Here we see Embiid recognizing he has inside position on a teammate’s shot, then hammering his man out of the way while also deftly sidestepping Kyle Lowry’s prodigious rear end to snatch the rebound and get a three-point play. Few men have that kind of power, agility, soft hands, and great feel. Fewer know how to use all those talents together.
Embiid averaged 1.6 offensive rebounds in the first part of this season. But in 2022, he has nearly doubled that, to 2.9 offensive rebounds per game. It may not seem like much, but when Embiid is active in every part of the game, it helps to wear down opponents which shows up in all the stats. Until 2022, the Sixers were barely an average defensive team after being elite last year. In January, they rank second in defensive rating and are top 10 in opponents points in the paint and opponent second chance points. Embiid isn’t the only reason, but he’s the biggest. (His play on defense inspired this whole story. Watching him lately I notice he is playing with the energy and movement of a small forward. He often covers two or more players simultaneously in the paint. He’s everywhere, and it shows up in numbers like offensive rebounds.)
Picture an incredible offensive rebounder. Who did you come up with? Dennis Rodman? Andre Drummond? Steven Adams? There are exceptions, but usually the heroes of the offensive rebounds are not go-to scorers, and there are good reasons for that:
If you want to end up with an offensive rebound, it helps to start the possession without defenders all over you.
Players like Embiid expend incredible energy leading their teams in scoring while also anchoring the defense. After a teammate shoots is the best time to steal a quick few seconds of rest—rather than flying around the court wrestling people.
Embiid pulverizes defenses by using their size and strength around the rim. Typically it’s on post moves, inside seals, rolls following ball screens, or drives into open gaps. But now he’s adding another category of bucket, and it’s helping his team immensely. (As a sign of the big man talent around the league, Embiid is not alone in being a primary scorer with incredible offensive rebounding numbers right now. Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic are doing similar things, but that’s a story for another day.)
Now that Joel Embiid moves like a small forward, he can play one on offense. On this crossover pull up, he doesn’t look exactly like Kevin Durant, but close. Knowing he can bully people down or even beat them to the rim, defenders hope Embiid just “settles” for these shots. The problem is, like Dirk Nowitzki back in the day, when he finds his groove these are almost like layups. As this shot splashed through, Miami’s play-by-play announcer said: “that’s money for him.”
It’s not the best year for a big man ready to hammer everyone around the rim. Changes in refereeing let defenders swarm aggressively. A lot of players with his skillset might stay on the perimeter, but Embiid is channeling his desire to dominate. As he backs his man into the paint, he sees as many as four Heat defenders within a few feet. By getting into the paint he gave himself a better chance at getting a foul. He is averaging more than 11 free throws a game in 2022, better than his career best 10.7. Embiid probes for an angle to the rim. When none emerge, he moves smoothly into a fall away jumper that he can make all night.
It’s impossible to know what will happen to Embiid’s numbers if Daryl Morey finally trades Simmons. But one thing is clear: This Embiid can star, and win, alongside anyone. If the Sixers climb high into the East standings heading into the playoffs—first or second is certainly possible—it will be because of Embiid’s athletic emergence. There are many deserving MVP candidates this year (with condolences to Kevin Durant, whose knee injury may remove him from serious contention). Embiid has long heard MVP chants, this year he’s playing like it.
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