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Philadelphia 76ers

NBA Rookie Preview: Joel Embiid

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid of Cameroon looks on from the sidelines during the second half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, in Philadelphia. The Pistons won 97-76. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
AP Photo/Chris Szagola

The excitement surrounding Joel Embiid’s rookie year has amplified since he made his preseason debut a couple of weeks ago. After waiting two years for his foot injuries and complications to subside, the time is finally right for the towering 7-footer to give the Philadelphia 76ers a boost.

Given how serious his navicular bone injury was, it’s only natural to wonder whether he’ll live up to his pre-draft hype. But throughout exhibition play, he was as dynamic as advertised. In just 14.7 minutes per game, he stuffed the stat sheet with 11.4 points and 6.0 rebounds on 45 percent shooting.

There are several areas he needs to polish, and he must develop better discipline on both ends of the floor. Philly will also closely monitor his durability and temper his minutes, easing him back into full-time play. The highlights will heavily outweigh the miscues, however, and he’ll be one of the most productive rookies in the league if he gets enough playing time.

Offensive role, expectations and limitations

Embiid will be coach Brett Brown’s first or second scoring option in most situations this season. If you followed him at Kansas or have watched his preseason prowess, you know he’s an exceptionally gifted post player for his age. Embiid may defer to Jahlil Okafor intermittently, but in many cases he’ll be the focal point of the offense.

At 7’0″ with a 7’5″ wingspan and 250 pounds of lean muscle, he’s a handful for any defender. It’s not just his size that’s imposing, it’s the way he moves that foils defenders. Embiid is comfortable facing up and driving or operating with his back to the basket.

He’s strong enough to establish position against almost any center. When Embiid catches the ball deep in the post, he attacks opponents in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as a power dribble and hook shot with either hand, and other times he uses multiple fakes and pivots. He has a superb feel for how to throw his opponent off-balance with a well-timed jab step or pump fake.

He torched a bunch of preseason defenders with veteran-like post moves, and here’s a quick taste. Watch him carve out space against Andre Drummond and Boban Marjanovic:

 

When he doesn’t attack for hook shots or dunks, Embiid favors turning over his right shoulder for short jump shots. He showed nice touch on several mid-post turnarounds during preseason, although he took a few too many mid-to-short range jumpers. BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Coach Nick noted that Embiid shouldn’t settle for those, but rather take advantage of his tremendous physical tools:

I’d like to see him attack off the catch and not rely on a fadeaway when he’s that close to the hoop to begin with… Embiid definitely seems to have fallen in love with the face-up game… with his quickness and strength, it feels like he should limit these types of jumpers.

This tendency to shoot contested turnarounds may hurt his efficiency this season. Fortunately, it won’t drastically diminish his overall production because he can score in myriad other ways.

Embiid looks the part of a reliable pick-and-pop shooter. He steps out to three-point range with confidence, and while he was just 1-of-7 on three-pointers during exhibitions, he drilled a handful of long two-pointers. It’s also worth noting that he hit 82 percent on free throws. He’ll keep post defenders and pick-and-roll stoppers honest by knocking down catch-and-shoot jumpers in rhythm.

Embiid’s reasonable rookie goal should be 43-45 percent on two-pointers beyond 16 feet, along with 30 percent on triples. His perimeter shooting fluidity will make him a more interchangeable lineup piece than Okafor or Nerlens Noel.

In pick-and-roll situations, Embiid’s physical tools will do most of the work while he figures out timing and spacing with teammates. Philly hasn’t run a ton of pick-and-rolls with him yet, but it’s clear that he’s a monster when point guards look for him.

He’ll also contribute immediately on the offensive glass. Embiid’s strength, agility and length neutralize many opponents’ efforts to box him out. And when defenders have a lapse in focus or effort, it’s over:

 

Shot selection and turnovers may hinder his effectiveness early on. He averaged 2.8 turnovers per game in preseason play and didn’t officially record an assist (although I noticed one puzzlingly unrecorded assist). Embiid has good passing skills and vision, but he won’t drop many dimes until he curbs the inclination to shoot anytime he has a sliver of daylight.

As previously mentioned, Brown will hold Embiid’s minutes in check because he’s returning from a tenuous injury. Brown recently told reporters that Embiid could potentially play in back-to-back games, but I still wouldn’t expect him to play more than 28-29 minutes per contest. He’ll likely average 25-27 minutes and do an avalanche of damage in that time frame: 15-plus points, 8-10 rebounds, 31 percent on threes and 47 percent from the field.

Defensive outlook

Lots of altered shots. Lots of eye-popping highlights. Lots of fouls.

That’s what Embiid’s defense will look like in year one. He’s so quick and long that he can turn and contest almost every play, but he’s still learning about positioning and discipline. Embiid averaged a whopping 7.0 fouls per 36 minutes during Philly’s tune-ups. He threw his weight around too often, although I’m okay with him erring on the side of aggression during preseason games.

Embiid’s quick lateral strides and above-the-rim athleticism will redirect a truckload of shots. He’s shown an eagerness to slide over and stymie drivers as a help defender, rejecting several explosive athletes so far:

 

Again, the ambition to block shots will often lead to unnecessary fouls, but that’s to be expected from a young center.

Embiid must also improve other fundamentals like consistently playing in a stance and boxing out on every possession. But one of the most encouraging aspects of his defense is his engagement with teammates and the overall scheme. He looks invested in executing Brown’s game plan and will be an active, vocal leader even as a rookie. Matt Moore of CBS.com explained:

…one of the things that stuck out to me was wasn’t even physical in nature, but instead how Embiid communicates defensively. Embiid has not only been aware of his own responsibilities, to a degree that you wouldn’t expect after missing so much time, but has also been directing his teammates and making sure they’re in the correct spots, a critical trait for a center who is the team’s last line of defense.

One of the greatest perks for Brown is Embiid’s lateral agility. He’s incredibly nimble for someone his size, and he’ll switch on pick-and-rolls and occasionally guard perimeter players. Embiid’s shifty defense against John Wall turned heads across the league and exemplified his versatility:

 

Embiid’s combination of size, alertness and defensive athleticism are superior to Okafor’s. It will be much tricker for opponents to score in the paint now that Embiid is in the mix. When you factor in his outside shooting and reliability at the free throw line, he’s clearly Philly’s most complete big man — and probably its most untouchable one.

The only thing that could derail Embiid’s rookie season is his foot’s durability. He hasn’t played substantial minutes yet, so the jury is still out on whether his foot can handle 25 minutes a night for three or four nights a week. The coaching and training staff will gradually build the workload and selectively rest him.

If the foot holds up, he’ll remain a focal two-way cog throughout the season. That will translate to Rookie of the Year contention, and more importantly, 5-10 more wins for Philly in their climb toward respectability.

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