Joel Embiid has exceeded even the loftiest preseason expectations through the first 21 games of his rookie season. He went from a long-shot candidate for Rookie of the Year in the eyes of oddsmakers to the runaway favorite, blowing away the competition with dynamite two-way play. The internet persona we came to know and love the last couple years is now running rampant, with the city of Philadelphia embracing their new star like few athletes before him.
His rapid ascent necessitates a change in how we evaluate him moving forward. He hasn’t just been the best rookie this season, he has been one of the most impactful players in the NBA on and off the court. The Sixers lost the No. 1 overall pick to a foot injury before the season started, but the team still has nationwide buzz because of their young center.
Since 1985, only 10 rookies have had the distinction of being selected to the NBA All-Star Team. Embiid has a lot of work left to do to match the career resumes of players like Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Shaquille O’Neal, but he deserves serious consideration for this year’s mid-season classic.
The case for Embiid
The rookies we tend to remember are players who step on the floor and raise the level of their team from day one. In Olajuwon’s rookie season, the Rockets jumped from 29 to 48 wins, powered by his own production alongside a previous Rookie of the Year winner, Ralph Sampson.
The Sixers are working from a lower baseline, and Embiid has a weaker supporting cast than many successful rookies thanks to the dramatic steps taken by the franchise over the last three seasons. But by almost every available metric, he has moved the team’s needle toward respectability.
In the 518 minutes Embiid has played this season, the Sixers have a 102 DRTG, a mark equal to that of a top-five NBA defense. Having only played organized basketball since 2011, Embiid’s defensive performance after a two-year layoff is nothing short of unprecedented. In a chart comparing blocks/36 minutes and field-goal percentage on shots defended at the rim, he is an outlier, outperforming even the league’s top defensive talents.
The stats might not even do justice to this phenomenon. The 7’2” center has flashed the athleticism and awareness to snuff pick-and-rolls altogether, containing ball-handlers before they can get a head of steam going. You are watching a savant, capable of transforming an NBA defense with little relative experience. The curve for a rookie big is steep, and he appears undaunted.
Watch this play against the Denver Nuggets:
In one sequence, Embiid cuts off the drive for the ball-handler (while also preventing a potential pass to the roll-man), gets back into position to defend a post-up, and makes a weak-side block on a cutting Emmanuel Mudiay. Embiid’s size and athleticism are a factor here, but the instincts are the star. He remains in position to make a play at every stage of the sequence, including when Jusuf Nurkic makes a slick pass that looks like it’ll earn an easy layup.
Many young defenders struggle with tunnel vision; rookies who are decent on-ball defenders can lose sight of the play as they drift from the action, concerned mostly with their own assignment. Embiid avoids this pitfall. Watch his eyes on this emphatic block against the Grizzlies, constantly tracking the play as he slides toward his man in the corner:
Most people think of hyperactive athletes when they hear the words “shot blocker” or “rim protector”, but tools are only part of the story. Impact bigs are like hockey goalies in that a lot of the important work is done before they make the play, with positional awareness and an understanding of angles creating saves and blocks. This separates good defenders from great defenders, and Embiid looks like he can be the latter.
The defensive impact is even more impressive when you consider some of the defensive sieves the Sixers play on the perimeter, and the failed experiment they’ve run out over the last month or so of the season. 15 percent of his minutes (80 total) this year have now come in the Twin Towers set alongside Jahlil Okafor, a pairing which has the team’s worst NETRTG (-21.5) for two-man combinations that have played more than 50 minutes together.
Playing a “normal” power forward alongside Embiid, on the other hand, has produced great returns. The Sixers have played just five five-man lineups for more than 50 minutes together this season. Two of those feature Embiid as the lone center, and both boast positive NETRTGs with sub-100 marks on the defensive end. The other three, which feature either both Embiid & Okafor or Okafor replacing Embiid at center, all have NETRTGs of at least negative 31.
A rookie who just took two years off due to injury is dragging a talent-strapped team to respectability. You don’t see that very often, if at all.
Fresh off those missed years, Embiid is working on a conservative minutes plan as he gets up to speed. The pitch count has only served to help build his mystique, thanks to insane production during his limited minutes.
In less than 25 minutes per game, he’s averaging 18.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game. No rookie over the course of a full season has equaled what Embiid is doing in such a limited number of minutes. If you raise the barrier for entry to 30 minutes per game or less, there are still no rookies who have hit those numbers. And when you open that up to players of any level of service, you find only one man who hit the mark: 27-year-old Robert Parrish, the defensive anchor of the Boston Celtics’ 62-win title team in 1980-81. He was an NBA All-Star that year.
Including blocks limits the sample size a bit — they only became an officially recorded stat in 1973-74 — but that only underscores the point. During his limited time on the court, Embiid is doing something so unprecedented he has only one peer in the history of recorded shot-blocking. The last time someone achieved this feat, Hall and Oates had multiple No. 1 hits in a calendar year.
You can start imagining what the box scores will look like when he’s able to play in the neighborhood of 30-38 minutes per game down the line. His per-36 stats are ripped from an NBA Jam box score, minus the shattered backboards and flammable basketballs. Could he eventually put up 25-10 with 3.5 blocks per game? It’s not totally out of the question!
All-Star selections are an inexact science because they aren’t just about basketball. Thanks to the backing of an adoring fanbase back home, Yao Ming was once voted an All-Star starter without playing a game. If you were to select teams based on the “best players” in any given season, some of the NBA’s most dynamic (and important!) personalities would probably miss the cut. The strength of star power is vast.
Embiid’s injury layoff presented a unique opportunity to build a relationship with Sixers and NBA fans beyond what most rookies are able to. He quickly became a social-media star before he was ever able to play a professional basketball game, winning over the hearts of people who might not have cared about him otherwise.
He is a breath of fresh air compared to the standard canned quotes we expect from athletes. He tried (and may have succeeded?) to court Rihanna, only after realizing Kim Kardashian was married. He crafted a story about killing a lion. He has unabashedly meme’d his infamous tape-delay face from the NBA Draft:
This is the truth... I was trying to get with this famous girl and she said " Come back when you're a All Star" bruhh pic.twitter.com/CFBnRqnKMA— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) August 17, 2014
While his peers at-large hashtag generic athlete speak like #BackToTheGrind, Embiid livestreams a trip to Jim’s Steaks, sings Adele at a bowling alley, and tells Ben Simmons he’s “ass” at FIFA. The gregarious seven-footer is easy to root for.
And while he’s goofy and silly away from the court, Embiid is a killer on the hardwood. The combination is easy to respect. DeMarcus Cousins, who shows an active contempt for most opponents he faces, sang Embiid’s praises after they clashed earlier this week:
DeMarcus Cousins says Joel Embiid has a chance to be the best big in the league...after he retires pic.twitter.com/yarVdUWOiS— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) December 27, 2016
When even the hardest people to please show you love, you know you’re doing something right.
Daps from peers and a few fire tweets don’t carry enough weight individually, but these events help to distinguish Embiid from his competition. There are a handful of bigs putting up big numbers in the Eastern Conference, like Brook Lopez and Hasaan Whiteside, and Embiid’s persona establishes a point of distinction between he and players with comparable stats.
Embiid is dominating the game away from the game, too.
The case against Embiid
Team success (or lack thereof)
The only thing holding Embiid back from a surefire spot is the state of his team. Individual honors are tied more often than not to team success, and the Sixers still rest at the bottom of the standings.
Star players are expected to lift their team dramatically, not languish in the ping-pong ball race. The Sixers are off the radar for a lot of casual observers around the league, something even Embiid may not be able to overcome. The Sixers got shellacked in a rare Thursday night showcase against the Minnesota Timberwolves earlier this year, and national games can leave a bigger impression than one might think.
Given the outpouring of love for Embiid, however, those concerns might be a little overdramatic. He is as close to a universally-beloved figure as there is in Philadelphia, and he’s won hordes of fans far outside the city limits with his exploits on and off the court. It’s hard not to pull for him from a neutral perspective — his comeback story is straight out of a sports movie, with personal adversity and coming-of-age tales interwoven with extraordinary basketball feats.
Rather than blaming him for a lack of wins, it’s just as easy to point to where the team was at this stage in the previous year. The Sixers have nearly quadrupled their win total from the same date last season despite missing several presumed starters. Veteran upgrades elsewhere have helped on the margins, but no single player is more responsible for the progress than Embiid.
Pushing the win total much higher helps, but it’s not required. The last rookie selected as an All-Star, Blake Griffin in 2011, only pushed the Clippers from 29 to 32 wins in his first year. Most of the players on the list were put on teams with previous win totals in the mid-20s; pulling a 10-win team out of the muck is a larger task, and Embiid is still succeeding.
Whether Embiid ends up getting selected as an All-Star or not, being able to reasonably believe it’s possible is a gift itself. Instead of spending the winter months obsessively searching for the next Sixers draftee — okay, we’ll still do that too — focus can remain on the daily exploits of a current Sixers player, the man who might lift the franchise back to prominence.
Joel Embiid’s rookie season has been larger than life. If there’s any justice left in the world, he’ll be suiting up with the league’s best in New Orleans on February 19.