In limited minutes Joel Embiid continues to exceed every expectation, conservative or realistic.
I have sat back and re-watched every game of the so-far-winless 76ers, and you're probably wondering why I, a 76er fan, would re-watch every loss.
From the 2 blown fourth-quarter leads against the Magic and the Cavaliers, to the 32 point blow-out loss against the Atlanta Hawks on October 29th. It's not that I like to put myself through the pain, and obviously, as a hoop head writing about Hoops, re-watching games is beneficial, but there is one over-arching reason above them all. The Process.
That's the nickname of Joel Hans Embiid, a nickname that symbolizes the phrase "Trust the Process" that was embraced by truthers of the former front office regime led by then-General Manager Sam Hinkie. Embiid has taken the mantle of the dying ember that got him drafted to this team, even going as far as to ask the PA announcer to say the nickname whenever he announces the starting lineups or whenever he scores a basket. Fans whether they wanted to or not, trusted the process for 2 and a half years all while a mystery was being built that was as big as his 7'2, 275-pound frame, and as I furiously knock on wood while typing this piece, what we've seen so far from Embiid is absolutely staggering.
Going into the pre-season, I had expectations that Embiid would at least show some flashes of what made scouts label him as the easy consensus number 1 pick in the 2014 draft (before he suffered his infamous foot injury in a pre-draft workout with the Cavs), and in his first minutes of NBA action against the Boston Celtics in the preseason, he did just that. Showing obvious rust but still had a few eye-popping plays in his limited minutes, and much like he did in his freshman season at Kansas, he improved at a mind-boggling pace. With every passing preseason game Embiid displayed something new, gained more confidence in his ginormous body after not having played for 2 plus years, and started to do things like this to centers who looked like tiny human being standing next to Embiid.
As he continuously set the bar in the preseason, it culminated into what was a fantastic debut on national television against the Oklahoma City Thunder, in a packed Wells Fargo Center. His first NBA points came on a dream-shake turned into a jumper at the foul line.
Embiid finished the game with 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks, including one on the NBA's version of the terminator, Russell Westbrook.
Embiid has continued to the pass every eye test with flying colors that are so blinding that it's almost impossible to objectively watch this guy without being excited. In just 5 games he has already shown he can do so many things on the basketball court.
In terms of his potential on offense, Embiid is just scratching the surface of what he could turn into. At Kansas, he seemed to add a new move to his arsenal every game, adding a dream shake here, a mid-range jump shot there, a dribble drive to the rim, he even improved as a passer. The silver lining in his subsequent 2 year absence is that he got to work on his game some more and added more things to the package, like 2 more inches of height (growing from 7 feet to 7'2), adding weight as well a three-point shot, and extra moves when he faces up at the basket, stuff that he is now putting on display.
As you're reading this, Embiid is leading the NBA in three-point percentage at 66% (don't you love small sample sizes?) and he already had a game where he went 4/4 from three point land. When you're center can hit threes it can open up so many things for an offense, including the show and go off the dribble... by the way, this is a freaking 7'2 center doing this to one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA Paul Millsap
While his conversion rate can certainly improve, he has already shown advanced footwork and movement when it comes to the face up game and posting up, not to mention that he is so physically imposing and quick that he can either blow by you or play straight up bully ball against guys like Nikola Vucevic, who is by no means a small man.
Another nuance of Embiid's game is because of his size he draws a lot of fouls, and when he's active and moving he gets Centers like Rudy Gobert to commit five fouls on Monday, or draw Dwight Howard's 4th foul early in the third quarter. Embiid attempts 6.8 free throw attempts per game already, and amazingly enough, the referee's have seemed to give him respect because of his physicality. He is shooting 76% percent from the foul line right now making his True Shooting Percentage 60% (True Shooting Percentage combines: 2 pointers, threes, and free throws)
Doing these things after not playing in a game for 2 and a half years is mind boggling in itself and it seems like the sky is the limit for Embiid on the offensive end but it's how he already plays the other side of the court that gives him the potential to be a once in generation big man.
Some of the qualities we've seen in the history of the defensive big man are the sense of timing, the willingness to track down shots, and altering shots whenever someone drives in the paint. Because of his background in Soccer and Tennis Embiid is able to move up and down the court with ease, putting him in a class with Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Anthony Davis, who also run the floor well for their size.
Combine that with Embiid's sheer size he has already shown to be one of the rim protectors so far in this young NBA season, he has the third highest blocks per game average (2.6) in the NBA, and when he's not on the court the teams defensive rating raises from 102.6 to 108.7. Opponent's also shoot 48.7% from the field when he isn't on the court vs 44% when he is on it. He does make his mistakes, like in the 2nd quarter against OKC in the first game when he couldn't quite figure out the Russell Westbrook/Steven Adams pick and roll, or when he had trouble with the Nik Vucevic pick and pop in the 3rd quarter against the Magic. He also is inconsistent when it comes to resisting the urge to try and block every shot and taking himself out of the play instead of utilizing his size by just standing straight up to alter shots. However, these are correctable mistakes, and we need to remember he is still learning how to play basketball, he is already so good defensively you can live with some mistakes.
His physical stature, quickness and ability to run the floor gives him the ability to contest shots against even the NBA's most explosive players like Westbrook as I showed earlier, or being able to track down LeBron stride for stride in transition to smack a layup off of the backboard like a volleyball. By the way, In case you're wondering. I do not care that it was a blatant Goal-tend that was somehow not called. Like at all.
He went on to block Lebron two more times on his way to a 4 block night.
He has also shown that he can switch out to the perimeter to defend quicker guards, it's obviously not something you want to have to rely on as a defense all of the time (he still needs to get his conditioning up to par) but in a pinch he can switch out on to quicker point guards and stay in front of them. Here is what 7'2 staying in front of John Wall looks like.
His wingspan and size also grants him a larger margin for error, as he can recover and contest the shot while also no giving up the drive.
It really is amazing noticing how much more fun this team is to watch when Embiid is on the court. People have been skeptical, or even afraid of admitting how much potential this guy has, just because of the mystery and unknown that was looming due to the long layoff, but those who watched him at Kansas, knew about the limitless ceiling of this player, right not he is averaging 17.6 points/6.8 rebounds and 2.6 block on 48/66/76 shooting splits all while on a minutes restriction (21.4 minutes per game).
Now we just need to hope that his health holds up (again knocking on wood as I type) because he is just now realizing the type of talent that he could be, which is something special.