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Joel Embiid is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate

No, he probably won’t be considered. Yes, he has been that good.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

If you were watching your first basketball game ever, Joel Embiid’s offensive skills would still leap off the page. You don’t need a lot of background knowledge to gape at a 7’2” man who can shoot threes and weave between smaller, more agile players.

Defense is harder to evaluate for good and bad defenders alike. Watching in real time, it’s not often clear whose mistake led to a breakdown in the rotation or an open look for the other team, and it can take several rewatches to pinpoint problems. On the metric side, the team-centric numbers are messy and often devoid of context.

Defenders in any sport are often complimented with the phrase, “I didn’t really even notice him.” Anonymity suggests they weren’t picked on, didn’t get beat, and mostly, they just got the job done. Loud defense isn’t always evidence of great defense — big-hitting safeties aren’t necessarily good defenders on balance, and you can block a lot of shots without being truly impactful on D.

Embiid is the best of both volumes; his defense is a a Metallica concert and a church mouse rolled into one, a synergy of emphatic blocks and elite awareness.

Worlds collide quite often. Look at this play from early in Philadelphia’s recent win against the Milwaukee Bucks:

Knowing John Henson is a threat to finish on a dump-off if he closes on the driver too early, Embiid waits patiently and sags toward his man while keeping an eye on Jabari Parker. At the last possible second, with Parker pot-committed to an attempt at the rim, Embiid strikes, using best-in-class size and athleticism to erase Parker’s shot.

It’s not just the blocked shots, but the reads Embiid makes:

Nik Stauskas is helpless trying to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo on a post-up, and gets roasted accordingly. But Embiid is aware of this throughout the play; he only briefly turns to find Henson to keep his man within arm’s reach, and springs into action once the Greek Freak turns the corner. He forces a tough look, and earns a stop for his team.

Cleaning up for his teammates has become a pretty familiar sight:

Embiid doesn’t break into passing lanes and motor around for steals like a Nerlens Noel, but he doesn’t have to. His size allows him to disrupt a team’s offense just by standing in the right place, and at his best he can effectively cut off paths to the rim while also remaining a threat to pick off lazy entry passes:

While young guards have a propensity for high turnover numbers, young bigs tend to over-help and over-extend in an effort to create turnovers. It’s a much harder tendency to quantify. When they sell out to make plays, they often succeed, but good teams easily exploit hyperactive players who will jump first and think later.

He’s not immune to jumping too early on a contest, but Embiid picks his spots carefully when it comes to poking the ball loose. More often than not, you will only see him hedge hard when it’s the right odds play for his team:

There seems to be a constant desire to qualify Embiid’s prowess with his newness to the sport, but his awareness is special, whether compared to rookies or 10-year vets. Yes, him being a relative novice makes it more shocking, but the performances he’s turning in defensively would be noteworthy regardless of his age. The Sixers are flat-out shutting teams down when Embiid is on the court.

You can compare him to bigs young and old, and he still stands out:

Big Man Defense

Player DRTG DFG% < 6 ft. BLK/36
Player DRTG DFG% < 6 ft. BLK/36
Myles Turner 103.7 50.5 2.9
Marc Gasol 103.5 50.9 1.5
Anthony Davis 101.8 56.7 2.4
Dwight Howard 101.7 50 1.7
Steven Adams 101.1 56.7 1.2
Deandre Jordan 100.9 52.7 2
Rudy Gobert 99.6 46.8 2.8
Joel Embiid 98.8 42.5 3.4
Qualifiers: Centers must have played 700+ mins during 2016-17 season

He is not just competitive with players of all ages, he is outperforming them. His blocks/36 figure is best in the league for all players with at least 700 minutes played. Rudy Gobert is a beast, yet even he is trailing Embiid by a good bit in some areas; the percentage difference between the two bigs when defending shots within six feet is equivalent to the gap between Dwight Howard and Doug McDermott.

Since the New Year began, Embiid’s already bonkers On/Off numbers have gone to a new level. In the last eight games he’s played, Embiid has a NETRTG of +18.9 (110.1 ORTG, 91.2 DRTG). When he hits the bench, the Sixers have a -16.7 NETRTG (93.7 ORTG, 110.4 DRTG) during the same time span. It might just be eight games, but that +35.6 mark is some, “he’s starting to believe,” Neo-in-the-Matrix type shit.

One thing you can’t quantify is just how much Embiid cares about being the team’s heart and soul on defense. He has already made it known he wants to win multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards, and his passion for that end of the court is remarkable. The young center often looks like an air-traffic controller from the back of Philadelphia’s defense, waving his arms and shouting at the people in front of him to make sure they’re moving in the right direction.

For as big of a goofball as he can be off the court, he has no time for BS when it comes time to shut down opponents. Brett Brown challenged him to be the “crown jewel” of the Sixers’ defense before the season started, and he has relished the challenge, regardless of context.

The debate about whichever big has accompanied him in the rotation has been a distraction from his greatness. Noel turned in his worst game of the season against the Toronto Raptors (and probably one of the worst of his career), and it didn’t even matter. The Sixers were 20 points better than the East’s best offense with Embiid on the court. A Raptors team scoring over 111 points per game was held to 89 by a team that has half-a-rotation full of matador defenders.

Getting excited about game-to-game flashes is typically all you can do with rookies. Last year there were games when Jahlil Okafor straight up bullied opposing defenses, and there were stretches he got torched in pick-and-rolls. In Noel’s first year, he would look like Tyson Chandler one night and a giraffe on rollerblades the next. Bumps in the road are part of the journey.

With Joel Embiid, the highs are so constant you begin to dismiss lows as a possibility. He is rapidly turning greatness into an expectation instead of a hope. That is superstar-level stuff.

Though he’s already one of the league’s most impactful defenders — and you could argue he’s at the top of the list, given the supporting cast he’s propping up — expecting him to win a year-long award other than Rookie of the Year is unrealistic. He’s popular and good enough to overcome a minutes restriction and get selected as an All-Star, but DPOY is typically reserved for high-volume performers on winning teams.

The NBA is a long way away from having their Felix Hernandez moment, where a player could overcome mixed team play to win a major award on the strength of underlying numbers. But if there was ever an exception to the rule, Embiid would be the player who deserved at least a moment of consideration. He has flipped the script for an entire franchise and put a defense, perhaps an entire city on his shoulders.

Health willing, Embiid will be a factor in the Defensive Player of the Year race for a long, long time. He is the backbone of an increasingly stout Sixers defense, and he’s putting the NBA on notice.

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