How Joel Embiid has taken over the NBA

The big man from Cameroon is a front runner for NBA MVP, and here is how he got here.

Joel Embiid is off to a tremendous start this season, as he looks poised to take another step forward in his development. After two years of sitting on the sidelines due to injuries, the center is making up for lost time and has been dominating ever since. Now in the midst his second full season, Embiid looks like an early front runner for league MVP. Yes, it is still early, but if his production continues and the Sixers remain near the top of the Eastern Conference, there is no reason why he can’t take home the hardware. Embiid was incredibly impressive in his first full year last year, earning himself a starting spot in the All-Star Game and a runner up finish in the Defensive Player of the Year category at the NBA awards, but this year he seems to have turned it up a notch.

Last year was just a taste at what Embiid was capable of. He showed off his sky high upside seemingly every night, but there were still parts of his game that needed fine tuning. After an offseason full of training, he has come out and fixed some of those problems early on and has looked unstoppable because of it.

One of the main problems from last year was that Embiid became too comfortable playing on the outside and shooting three pointers. In order to succeed in the new NBA, big men have to be able to shoot the ball, but when someone of Embiid’s size just focuses on that shot he isn’t utilizing the rest of his game to its full extent. Last year he shot 3.4 three pointers per game, not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but a lot of those shots could have been passed up in order to find a teammate with a better look at the basket. It felt like too often Embiid was caught with tunnel vision with sights set on scoring. This year he is actually shooting the ball more, averaging 4.2 three point attempts per game, but the difference is they’re coming more naturally. Plays are set up for the big man to take the shot or if he ends up at the top of the key he seems more aware of his surroundings, only shooting when he is wide open or another shot isn’t available. It’s not so much about how much he’s shooting, but more so about how and why he is taking the long range shots.

Besides his three pointers, Embiid has become even more of a force down low than he already was. As an imposing big man getting to the lane and getting fouled is all part of the job, he was good at that job last year but has found a way to steadily improve. Last year Joel Embiid finished a very respectable fifth in the entire NBA in personal fouls drawn per game (6.5 per game), using mostly his pure strength to overpower defenders. This year Embiid has taken over that statistic, drawing 8.2 personal fouls per game which is the best in the NBA.

Using more of a finesse approach down low this year, he has made a habit of using “The Swim” — a move made popular by James Harden in an effort to hook arms with a defender while shooting to get to the free throw line. Through 25 games the results have been kind. This move lets Embiid get to the line frequently without having to bang down low as much as some other big men. With this move now in his repertoire he has been able to get fouled enough for him to have scored 30.8% of his points from the free throw line, first among starting centers this year. Added emphasis on footwork has also given Embiid the ability to get by defenders and make them work harder as well.

Much of this can be credited with Embiid getting older and learning the nuances of the game, but he has put in the work to become one of the leagues best players. Small improvements like these are some of the reasons why there is no end in sight when it comes to how good he can become. Fine tuning some small errors helps make a player the best they can be, and with Joel Embiid still so early on in his career and making positive changes like this, the NBA will be his in no time.

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