Eleven games into his third season, the 76ers’ franchise player has made the leap most believed was on the horizon
There were two major themes surrounding the Philadelphia 76ers’ offseason: Markelle Fultz’s jumper and the development of Ben Simmons. Through 11 games, Fultz’s outside shooting has ebbed and flowed, while Simmons’ shot profile and scoring efficiency is largely constrained to the paint.
However, those talking points overshadowed the fact Joel Embiid was entering the first healthy summer of his career. Given his near-linear growth curve, he looked primed to return to the court and flash a level of dominance few, if any, contemporary big men could parallel.
Just as many Sixers pundits and fans preached between May and October, Embiid is stretching his legs forward and making the leap expected of him on both ends. Through 11 games, he boasts averages of 28.4 points on career-best 59.3 true shooting percentage, 12.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.2 blocks — and all of it is coming in a career-high 34.2 minutes per night, amplifying his refinements conditioning-wise.
Among a host of improvements, Embiid’s decision-making — or at least that which is highlighted through the numbers — is most encouraging. For the first time in his three-year career, he sports a positive assist-to-turnover ration (3.5:2.2), and his turnover rate currently resides at 10.2 percent, a steep decline from last year’s career-worst mark of 15.6 percent.
As a result, Embiid is punishing more fools in the block and leads the NBA in post-up efficiency (min. 30 possessions), despite having accrued a league-high 93 possessions. He has always been a high-volume scorer down low, but now, he’s generating the best numbers of his brief career:
More often than not, Embiid is winning the war of attrition against defenders, meticulously bullying his way into deep post position — a point of emphasis for him this summer — and gracing the net with drop steps and hook shots:
That type of patience hasn’t always been there for him. During his first two seasons, he was prone to using his strength as a crutch, ignoring his soft touch and Dancing With the Stars-worthy footwork, and burping up difficult looks in the paint — even if he was farther from the basket than he preferred or he’d been stonewalled by defenders.
Other times, though, he’s sealing off his man, calling for the ball and scoring easy buckets, as few can match his muscle (word to Aron Baynes).
Along with his post brilliance, Embiid continues to induce fouls at an elite rate. His 9.9 free throw attempts per game currently lead the NBA, while his .507 free throw rate is 11th among 284 players with at least 100 minutes under their belt — discovering a happy medium between the .569 rate of his rookie year and the .442 rate last season.
He has become masterful at finding his spots on the floor, leaving defenders just two choices, neither of which are ideal: concede a bucket or hack the third-year center. If he’s not able to reach his desired zones, Embiid simply embraces physicality and forces his man to respond, generally leading to a foul.
Those traits alone make it challenging to stop him one-on-one, but he’s also growing more savvy with the deceptive arm hook — a trick James Harden popularized to establish omnipresence at the foul line.
Defensively, Embiid looks as spry, nimble, and sharp as ever. He continues to blow up plays in the paint with crisp help-side rotations and is averaging 3.9 fouls per 36 minutes, tying his career-low. Extrapolate his numbers to per 100 possessions and 5.0 fouls is a new career-low, besting last year’s mark of 5.3.
The Sixers have shifted to a switch-everything scheme at times — though they still drop Embiid in pick-and-roll coverage a fair amount — and that has thrust their franchise star onto the perimeter in many instances. I wrote about his impressive defense against Jayson Tatum following the first game of the year, and since then, he has continued to flash versatility.
In 33 isolation possessions, he’s surrendering just 0.73 points (69th percentile), the stingiest clip of his career. Through two seasons, Embiid defended just 121 isolation possessions, per Synergy — a number he’s on pace to surpass before the All-Star break this year. As the season progresses and Philadelphia looks to preserve the health of its star big man, it’s worth monitoring how often he ventures outside the paint. In that same vein, his points per possession mark may climb as the rigors of increased minutes wear on him, though it’s evident he won’t be an easy target when healthy.
Synergy defensive numbers can be fluky or misleading at times, but the eye test backs up Embiid’s prowess in isolation. He’s leaning into switches, containing ball-handlers, and triggering stops:
Despite the roster upgrades since Embiid’s first two years, he holds claim to the best on-off split of his career at plus-13.6, per Basketball-Reference. While that number is far from an all-encompassing statistic to measure his play and might actually speak more to some of the struggles Amir Johnson has endured, it highlights the MVP-caliber campaign he’s fashioning.
Prior to the season, Embiid announced his desire to secure this year’s MVP award. He might not be the frontrunner, and there’s still a long way to go — 71 games to be precise — but right now, he’s a legitimate player in the conversation for the first time in his career, carving out permanent residency among the NBA’s top-10 players.