Joel Embiid has had a seismic impact on the Sixers’ fortunes this season, something few would have predicted after a two-year layoff. His attention to detail on the defensive end of the court is a big part of the boost, with his rim protection routinely forcing opponents into tougher shots.
Defense is a visible priority for the big man, and he’s not shy in talking about it. In an interview with The Vertical’s Michael Lee, Embiid expanded on just how much he cares about that part of his game:
I take pride in defense. I want to be a multiple time Defensive Player of the Year, so I love it, especially when you switch on guards. I love switching on them and locking them down. I take pride in stopping the other guy.
Embiid’s newness to the sport might actually have benefitted his mindset here. A lot of younger stars brought up through the American circuit are featured heavily on offense, and defense slips as a priority. Coaches are happy to let them coast a little bit on one end to let them dominate and expend energy on the other.
Coming in late, Embiid had to work to round all his skills into shape at once, so he missed a point in the cycle many top prospects hit, where they’re head and shoulders above high school and college teammates to the point where shoddy play is excused. The Sixers are reaping the benefits today.
Embiid also expanded on the competitive fire burning inside him, and learning from beatdowns like the one the Timberwolves handed him in November:
You know, one thing since I started playing basketball, one thing I’ve always liked, is that somebody kicked my butt. For me, that’s how I learn. If you go at me and kick my butt, you know that the next time, I’m going to get you. Since high school, I’ve always been that way. People have always kicked my ass, so I try to figure out what I should do better and what I should work on. That’s what I love. You make a mistake the first time and then the second time around, you change and be a better player.
These are answers you might expect from a veteran, not a rookie and novice to the sport. It’s crazy to think Embiid’s maturity was a question mark for large chunks of his rehab period, and now he’s the pillar around which the program is being built. Teammates regularly praise his dedication and work ethic at the practice facility, and you can see the hard work paying off.
Seeing your career come close to slipping away can do that for someone. Embiid’s renewed focus is a welcome companion alongside his goofy, charismatic personality, and Sixers fans can only hope he reaches even half the goals he has set for himself.