In our work both preparatory and reflective surrounding the NBA London 2018 game between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers last month, we took looks at a variety of 76ers players.
We looked at Robert Covington, former collegiate interior player who reformed his game and now serves as a three-and-D template for all other athletic forwards around his height and the teams that want to meld them accordingly. We looked at backup point guard T.J. McConnell, and how a combination of guile and relentlessness made him into a far better player that few outside of Pennsylvania quite appreciate the skill level of. And we looked at Ben Simmons, ‘rookie’ sensation guard/forward/whatever-he-is, particularly with regards to his shooting.
What we barely did was exploire the complicated majesty that is Joel Embiid.
Embiid is third the league in usage percentage, a metric designed to capture quite how many plays a player is involved in offensively when they are on the court. With a 34.0% mark this season, Embiid trails only James Harden (36.2%) and Russell Westbrook (34.2%) – this means that when Joel Embiid is on the floor, 33.9% of the plays that the 76ers run end with him either taking a shot, getting to the foul line or turning the ball over.
Indeed, Embiid’s usage rate is actually in historic territory. Since 1979 – that is to say, since records began – Embiid is the all-time leader in usage rate of all players with more than 300 career minutes. More than MJ. More than Kobe. More than Iverson. More, somehow, than everyone.
For some perspective, the league average usage rate is merely 19.8%. So how on Earth does a effective-sophomore with only 31 games of NBA experience prior to this season take up such a large offensive role?
And how on Earth does he do it without practicing?
To be sure, one of the outcomes factoring into this usage rate is still something of a problem. Embiid turns the ball over at a phenomenal rate, recording 4.0 of them this season in only 31.8 minutes per game, a rate that is still somehow down from the 3.8 he managed in only 25.4 minutes per game last season. That rate is fifth in the league, behind only DeMarcus Cousins (5.0 per game), Russell Westbrook (4.6), LeBron James (4.4) and James Harden (4.3). And three of those are three of the league’s best and busiest perimeter playmakers.
With only 3.1 assists per game to go alongside it, Embiid has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. The only other post players in the top 50 for turnovers per game are Dwight Howard of the Charlotte Hornets (1.4 assists per game to 2.9 turnovers per game), Jusuf Nurkic of the Portland Trail Blazers (1.8/2.5) and Julius Randle of the L.A. Lakers (2.3/2.4). This category is always going to be biased against post players, but a positive ratio can be done; post players elsewhere in the top 50 with positive ratios include Denver’s Nikola Jokic (5.6/2.7), Memphis’s Marc Gasol (3.9/2.7), fellow All-Star Andre Drummond (3.8/2.8), and, somehow, Cousins (5.4/5.0).
Still inexperienced given his relative late start to the game, his one injury-shortened season of college basketball, his first two missed seasons at the NBA level, his injury-shortened third season and the fact that he has very rarely practiced five-on-five with the very players he now plays with every night, a lack of polish is understandable. If Embiid is not yet dealing with double-teams optimally, losing the ball to encroaching guards and throwing kick-outs to the wrong team, then that is acceptable, if ugly.
It is however striking in how it may be his only real flaw.
The two most outstanding aspects of Joel Embiid on the court are how natural of a basketball player he is, and how few flaws he has. Embiid shoulders his huge offensive usage rate efficiently (turnovers excepted) and with an amazing versatility that could well be unprecendented. Yet in doing so, he does not neglect his defensive duties.
Embiid really is a two-way player, and one of a rare calibre. Indeed, it is perhaps of a unique calibre. Other dominant big men over the years have been forces on both ends of the court – Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal, for example – yet they have not done it stylisically like Embiid is doing it. They were paint players, but Embiid is everywhere.
Primarily, Embiid remains a post player. He leads the league in post-ups per game at 15.3 – the only other players in double figures are fellow All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge (13.4) and Marc Gasol (10.5). The next highest is Dwight Howard of the Charlotte Hornets at 8.3. Embiid’s lead, then, is a sizeable one. Embiid’s efficiency is not there yet with this touches – he is averaging 0.67 points per post touch and 0.96 points per paint touch, and until the turnover game improves to better take advantage of his defensive gravity down there, he may stay inefficient.
But what he does do already is use the post game threat to open up the entire court in ways Hakeem and Shaq never could.
Embiid plays in all areas of the court. His three-point shooting, a new wrinkle he returned from two years of injury with that he never had shown before, is coming along, with a 32.5% career mark and plenty of room to add to it. His mid-range jump shooting is already among the league’s best, hitting 45.2% on shots between 16 feet and the three-point line. He gets to the line a lot, 7.7 times per game, and hits them at an excellent 78.5% clip. And he drives against anyone trying to take away the jumper.
Embiid makes all of the above look incredibly easy. But nowhere does he make the game look more easy than he does on the defensive end. Able to cover a huge amount of ground and incredibly keen to take on anybody, Embiid is already one of the league’s best rim protectors. He has one of the top 10 individual defensive ratings in the league, and only four players have contested more two-pointers than he, an impressive feat considering he plays only 31.4 minutes per game and still sits out one half of most back-to-backs.
When not blocking shots on the interior in particularly spectacular ways, Embiid also uses his length and mobility to track both players on perimeter pick-and-roll action. You are not supposed to be able to track both. But Embiid can, and again, he makes it look easy.
Indeed, there’s an ease with which Embiid does everything that is so unparalleled and frightening to the opposition. One so inexperienced should not be this good. One still so untested against NBA opposition should not be this fluid. One so young should not be so capable with the ball, so smooth on the dribble, so alert on the court, so adept defensively.
As unique as Embiid’s story is – a young boy from Cameroon discovered late by fellow NBA player Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, who came to America to learn the game at aged 16, and who is somehow amongst the world’s very best seven short years later – the way in which he does it on the court may be more so. Embiid’s smoothness, skill level, tenacity and mobility are unrivalled, and even if we can find players throughout history who can defend the interior like he does, we cannot find them with offensive games like his.
At best, we can add qualifiers. “Young Hakeen Olajuwon with better range. Alonzo Mourning wth a better handle”. But even that inadvertently reaffirms the point. Embiid is not yet there in terms of realising his full potential, and has a couple of kinks to iron it. But it is only a couple, and at the speed at which he has learnt the game, they might be gone by this time next year.
Put simply, there is no one else quite like Joel Embiid, and there probably never will be.