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Sixers Tinder: Joel Embiid’s rookie season was an emotional and historic ride

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The Cameroonian thrilled Philly for 31 games.

NBA: New York Knicks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Liberty Ballers has touched upon Joel Embiid’s season stellar rookie campaign so much, so I’m going to try to be brief and hit upon some fun notes and put his historic performance into some context for this end of the year review. Some qualifiers: Embiid only played 786 minutes across 31 games this season due to injury. That's a small sample size. I’m aware of that. It’s entertaining to delve into how great he was in such a short amount of time nonetheless.

Any search or statistics that follow come with the caveat of meeting a minimum of 786 minutes so that Embiid qualifies. Gaming the system a bit? Sure, but this is still fun. Props to Basketball-Reference’s endlessly-helpful PlayIndex search function for the help here as well.

It’s obvious that Embiid’s usage rate of 36.0 percent is absurd for any player regardless of their years of experience. It’s the ninth-highest usage rate season in league history, trailing seasons from Russell Westbrook (twice), Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, DeMarcus Cousins, Dwyane Wade and Jermaine O’Neal. Embiid was the focal point of an offense this season more than anyone but those seven players in basketball history!

He did it pretty damn well all things considered too. He was a rookie who hadn’t played a meaningful basketball game in two-and-a-half years and he didn’t have a ton of game experience before that given how late he picked up basketball in his life. Using his outrageous usage percentage as a qualifier would mess up a search for comparable efforts, so I ran a search on the PlayIndex looking for rookies who’ve matched his 20.2 points per game as a means to measure volume and his excellent 58.2 percent true shooting percentage to gauge efficiency.

The six rookies to match or best both those numbers are Adrian Dantley, Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Bill Cartwright. The first five of those are Hall of Famers. Cartwright won three NBA titles and made an All-Star team. This is elite company again for the Cameroonian.

So Embiid was shouldering this massive offensive load for the Sixers, nearly unprecedented in league history, as the youngest player to ever have a usage rate that high. One would assume that his game would falter on the other side of the court given this demand. Nope. Embiid was a monster on defense too. His defensive field goal percentage at the rim of 41.0 percent (239 attempts, per NBA stats) was lower than every center in the league.

Rudy Gobert? 43.9 percent. Hassan Whiteside? 47.6 percent. Marc Gasol? 47.8 percent. Anthony Davis? 50.0 percent. DeAndre Jordan? 50.1 percent. Embiid made opponents miss shots at the rim at a better rate than all of them.

I’m already dealing with a very small sample size when it comes to Embiid given the 786 minutes played, but I’m going to cut that number even further to look at how the Sixers played defense during their inspired January run with Embiid on the court. In those nine January games, the last nine of Embiid’s season, he really seemed to turn his defense up to a super elite level, transforming a roster with Nik Stauskas and Sergio Rodriguez on it into a stout defensive unit and having his understanding of the game begin to match up with his all-universe raw talent.

Embiid had a defensive rating of 93 on Basketball-Reference in January. This is a lot of projection, obviously, but a fun thought exercise nonetheless. If that rating were to hold over the whole season, it would have overwhelmingly led the league for the Sixers, beating the Warriors and their 104.5 defensive rating in the process. When Embiid was becoming the type of defender Sixers fans have been fantasizing about for nearly three years, it looked a whole lot like he was the best defender in basketball.

Beyond the numbers, Embiid has energized the sport of basketball in Philadelphia like no one since Allen Iverson in his prime. I’ve already written two pieces about his effect on this city this year, which can be found here and here.

He’s certainly affected me. It’ll seem so inconsequential to some, but that January home win against the Raptors sticks out for me this year. It was just a fucking emotional whirlwind. It might be my favorite regular season sports game ever outside of the DeSean Jackson-led Miracle at the Meadowlands. I wrote that second linked piece above the night of that game after having one too many to drink and shedding some major tears. It was just cathartic. All of the pain and misery of investing my livelihood in this team for 15 years were gone for a night. The demons of Eddie Jordan, Adam Aron and Andrew Bynum were exorcised from my soul. 26 points, nine boards and two blocks never looked so good.

I’m getting choked up again just writing this, so I’ll try end this now. Here’s what I know about Joel Embiid: if he’s healthy, he could not only be the best basketball player on the planet, but in the pantheon of the greatest to ever step on the court as well as the most captivating athlete Philadelphia’s ever seen.

Poll

What would you do with Joel Embiid?

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  • 2%
    Swipe left (lol why)
    (30 votes)
  • 5%
    Swipe right (because of course)
    (56 votes)
  • 91%
    Superlike (he deserves it tbh)
    (980 votes)
1066 votes total Vote Now