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Sixers Playoff Lessons: Joel Embiid’s post-ups and passing

Episode 1 of a new series to look at what the young Sixers can learn from their first playoff experience.

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NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Process Philadelphia 76ers can learn a lot from their first playoff experience. This series will look at key takeaways for different players, and what they should develop moving forward.

It’s easy to get ahead of yourself in the NBA. After thoughts of the Finals suddenly kicked in after the Sixers’ 52-win season, featuring a 16-game win streak and a commanding 4-1 first round series win over the Miami Heat, it turned out that such expectations were too lofty, after all. The Sixers just weren’t ready yet, including Joel Embiid.

And that’s ok. They’re allowed time to develop, not to mention benefit from the 10th overall pick in this year’s draft and max cap space. As for Embiid, from some defensive struggles against the 3-point threat of Al Horford to messy late-game turnovers, it’s clear that he has plenty of room to grow. While he may be a bit of a sophomore anomaly with his impressive playoff averages (21.4 points, 12.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game), this is the case for any second-year player, let alone one who’s still only played 102 total games.

Let’s dive into some specifics of how Embiid can hone his game.

Posting up

Embiid may be the most talented post scorer in the NBA. His combination of strength, touch and nimble footwork is practically unparalleled, and he ranked in the 75th percentile (0.97 points per possession) on post-ups in the regular season despite huge volume. Only post addict LaMarcus Aldridge scored more points off post-ups per game than Embiid with 9.3, and The Process was only a hair behind at 9.1, not far off double third-place Kristaps Porzingis (5.4).

In the playoffs, though, Embiid fell to just 0.81 points per possession, placing him in the 32nd percentile. Meanwhile, the Sixers’ offense recorded a dismal 0.66 points on all possessions featuring an Embiid post-up over their first three games against Boston, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe pointed out. Regardless of the small sample size, a few issues were obvious.

Part of the problem falls on the Sixers’ reliance on Embiid to create when they need a bucket. This can lead to too many slow attempts on the low block and too little movement from others. The rest of the team had a tendency to slip into ball watching as Embiid battled the likes of Al Horford and Aron Baynes inside, failing to use enough off-ball screens and cuts to get open and bail him out when unbalanced hook shots clearly aren’t the best recipe for efficient offense.

There’s also the matter of Embiid’s left hand.

Horford held Embiid to just 42.5 percent shooting when matched up as his defender in the second round, and blocked him three times — every time Embiid was going right. When bearing this in mind and watching plays like those in the clip below, it’s clear that Embiid should spend some time working on his left hand in the summer. You can see how Horford was able to leverage Embiid to his right and slow him down as he tried to get to his preferred position, making it easier for Horford to wait for the right moment to contest:

The first attempt is particularly awkward to rewatch. Embiid leans upwards into Horford’s chest and essentially gives him the ball by using the hand closest to Horford (his right), rather than opting for the space his left would have provided.

If Embiid's falling into more unsettled left-handed attempts or settling for pull-up/fadeaway jumpers, some of the stark difference in his efficiency between the left and right side of the court in the regular season makes sense:

Obviously, Embiid isn’t limited when it comes to scoring moves in the post. He has the touch to hit fading jump shots and the footwork to execute a plethora of moves around the rim. But growing more comfortable with his left hand to have even more options and keep defenders guessing is one way to go up another level.

And this leads us to lesson two: fully utilizing the elbows.

Using the elbows

When used correctly, the elbow is a seriously dangerous spot of the floor to operate from. Unlike the low block, where you’re more cramped for space and don’t have as many lanes to attack, you can execute dribble hand-offs, hit cutters under the basket, use the threat of a jumper/pump fake to get defenders off balance for driving opportunities and, if you're an athlete as gifted as Embiid, unleash more speed.

Rather than plays on the low block where a defender can be effective by standing strong, raising their arms and avoiding biting on pump fakes, Embiid has a wealth of options thanks to his unique physical gifts when working from the elbows.

This is what allowed him to have some beautiful scores inside, beating the likes of Baynes down the lane with quick first steps and soft finger rolls that he had no chance of containing:

“I think everybody should know this by now: that’s kind of like my go-to, my face-up jump shot,” Embiid said after Game 1, per The Athletic’s Jared Weiss. “Every time I take it in practice, every time the guys and the coaches want me to take it, they always say, ’65 percent,’ because that’s how well I can shoot it and that’s how well I can make it.”

While there’s only so many mid-range jumpers you want Embiid taking (after all, it is the worst shot in basketball), the mere threat he poses away from the basket creates chances to score inside. It's an area of the floor that Embiid could have put to better use through the Celtics series, making the most of his strengths in a way that attacking down low can't all the time.

There are ways the Sixers can help free up Embiid around the elbows, too, from fake dribble hand-offs with the pull of shooters like JJ Redick to pick-and-pop actions that get Embiid’s defender scrambling outside, giving him the chance to pump and drive.

This wrinkle with Ben Simmons from Game 3 is beautifully simple and effective. After bringing the ball up court, Simmons turns and passes to Embiid, who fakes his way past Horford’s closeout. Next, Simmons sets a hefty screen on Horford to take him out the play and create a mismatch for Embiid on the smaller Marcus Morris. At this point, it’s far easier for Embiid to flow into a favorable post-up with momentum, or simply shoot over the smaller defender:

In close games and when the playoffs roll around again, stagnant, low-block offense won’t cut it. If the Sixers place more emphasis on using the elbows and maintaining decent pace and movement when they want Embiid to go to work inside, everyone should benefit.

And this isn’t just for Embiid’s scoring.

Passing

Embiid showed skill as a passer this season. That can’t go unsaid. He averaged 3.2 assists per game in the regular season and three in the playoffs, showing some ability to make high-speed passes and hit cutters. However, he turned the ball over on 15 percent of his post-ups in the playoffs, and had 3.6 turnovers per game overall. That in itself has been something to work on for a while now, but not making passes altogether can be just as problematic.

“Blackhole” is a word that’s been thrown Embiid’s way when discussing the flaws with his offense. Against the Celtics’ stick-to-shooters game plan, it was totally appropriate at times.

As I’ve already mentioned (and wrote about during the series), some of the blame falls on a lack of movement around him. But even in instances like this, where Redick makes a smart cut back under the basket as Jaylen Brown got tempted to go for a steal, Embiid turns, eyes up Horford for a jumper and gets rejected:

Redick was wide open under the basket, waiting with more than enough time to score a free layup if Embiid made a bounce pass under Horford’s raised arms right away.

Similarly in the next clip, look at some of the passes Embiid doesn’t make to shooters. On the first play, Brown can help and pressure the ball because he’s expecting Embiid to shoot, which he does — Dario Saric pops back out into tons of space at the top of the arc and Embiid misses an opportunity to fire a pass over Brown. On the second play, Horford is draped all over Embiid, yet he takes the jumper and hits the opposite side of the backboard. He fails to find Ersan Ilyasova cutting down the lane into good low positioning against Brown:

"If I'm open, I've got to shoot it. If they crowd me, I got to attack and look for my teammates or ways to score.”

That’s what Embiid added after the Game 1 loss in Boston. He’s mentioned the need to look for teammates himself and it’ll hopefully be something in the front of his mind for the summer. To make himself even tougher to guard (how can you double Embiid if you know he’ll hit the open man?) and to create opportunities for teammates to get open off the ball, improved passing vision and willingness is the best skill he could add to his game.

How far he’s come with such little experience only adds promise to how much he can continue to evolve, heading into the summer with good health and a history of rapid development on his side.

If he can make some of these improvements, it’s terrifying for the rest of the league to think about how formidable he can be.

All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.