Joel Embiid is a superstar. Not “can be.” Not “will be.” Is. Right now, today, Joel Embiid has a superstar impact when he sets foot on the court.
The aphorism, “Rookies don’t help teams win games,” has become cliché for a reason— rookies really don’t help teams win games. It’s the single reason to be most pessimistic about the Sixers’ taking a major step up this year in the Win Column. Teams that rely on big minutes from a 19-year-old initiator and a 21-year-old rookie are simply likely to cough up a lot of points through poor defense, too many turnovers, and a general adjustment to the pace, size, and physicality of the NBA.
That’s what makes Embiid’s rookie performance all the more impressive. Embiid didn’t just help the team win games, he powered them so singularly that the Sixers transformed from one of the worst teams in the league to a playoff caliber team.
According to Cleaning the Glass’s stats database, the Sixers sport a net differential of +3.5 points per 100 possessions with Joel Embiid on the floor last season.That is the point differential of a team that would be expected to win 51 games if it were extrapolated over the course of an entire season.
The Sixers, with Joel Embiid on the court, were a 51-win caliber team.
I don’t know if it’s possible to overstate how insane that statistic is. During his rookie year (in which, again, the expectation is that he’ll be bad), JoJo turned a team so moribund they had been a 3-year punchline, into a Top 4 playoff seed.
What’s crazier still is that the Sixers’ Net Rating improvement is clearly entirely down to Embiid. The Sixers had 13 players play 500 minutes or more last season. Of those players, Embiid was the only one to sport a positive point differential. The next closest Sixer was Ersan Ilyasova, with a meager -2.6.
(On Diff. Change refers to the Sixers’ change in point differential when a player was on the court. Exp W Change is the same, but for Expected Wins.)
Embiid’s point differential is a full 6.1 points per 100 possessions better than his closest teammate. These are the sorts of impact numbers that true superstars put up, and nearly no one else. In fact, last year, only Steph Curry had a greater gap between his Expected Wins Added and his closest teammates. Embiid had a 15-win gap to Ilyasova, and Curry had an 18-win gap to Kevin Durant. Nikola Jokic also had the same sort of impact vis-a-vis his teammates.
Embiid’s effects were largely felt on the defensive end, where his hulking frame, long arms, agile feet, and wise-beyond-his-years reactions combine to create a perfect defensive specimen. Kyle covered some of his statistics last year when he wrote about why Embiid deserved to be seen as a DPOY candidate. From that piece:
My favorite defensive statistic for Embiid details his impact at the rim. This shows opponents’ Expected eFG% at the rim and contrasts it with their actual eFG% when the players listed on the lift were protecting the rim. The players were selected by 538 based on who saved the most points over the course of the season (which is based on volume), but when taken on a per possession basis, Embiid laps the field.
Again, he produced at a level that few players ever reach, and he did it as a rookie after a two-year sabbatical.
While most of Embiid’s impact was felt on the defensive end of the court, he also managed to improve the Sixers’ offense. He did this by shouldering a sky-high usage rate (his 36.0% trailed only Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins) and still putting up above average efficiency (58.4% TS, in the 62nd percentile for his position). The efficiency is owed to his insane ability to get to the line— his 15.1 FTA per 100 possessions led the league last year, and rivals prime Shaq.
Comparing anyone to Shaquille O’Neal is folly, but Embiid is the closest thing we’ve seen to the Big Diesel since his retirement. He’s too quick, too big, and too strong for opponents to contain him in single coverage, and opposing front lines are going to run into tons of foul trouble as they try to stop him.
Add in JoJo’s comfort stepping out to 3 and his improving ability to read the correct passes, and the Sixers have a generational talent on their hands. The Warriors changed the shape of the league by forcing opponents to contend with their small players; Embiid may change it by forcing them to go big again.
His two largest weaknesses last year were turnovers and mediocre live-ball efficiency. The former is hopeful to improve as his progress as a passer and reader continues. Scoring efficiently away from the foul line is the next step in Embiid’s development. A decreased workload and uptick in easy shots created by Simmons and Fultz should help there. These are the two areas to watch with Embiid this season. If he makes noticeable improvements, the Sixers could take a step forward beyond even what their most optimistic fans might have dreamed for.
When Sam Hinkie et al. set about turning the Sixers into perennial contenders, they hoped to have opened many different avenues so as not to be overly reliant on any single player. But when your best player is a supernova who can’t be played off the floor, it’s hard not to rely on him. Embiid is so good that the progress of Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, or Robert Covington is merely a sideshow. It’s JoJo’s world and we’re all just living in it.