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Assessing Sixers center Joel Embiid’s areas of improvement

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The only thing stopping Joel Embiid this season might be Joel Embiid, and that’s a scary proposition for opposing teams.

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

Joel Embiid captured his first All-Star Game nod this past season while earning the starting center spot after just 75 total regular season games spanning over two years. Embiid is following a similar trajectory to the 2012 and 2013 classes’ most talented players in Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo, respectively. He’s a burgeoning star who spearheaded a 52-win regular season and a 4-1 series win over Miami, effectively rendering star Hassan Whiteside obsolete over five games.

Embiid’s numbers last season across the board were just stupid good as well. He finished first in net rating (11.7) among centers who played 60 games or more, a testament to his impact, and sixth in the NBA in PIE among players who logged the aforementioned amount. An esteemed list comprised of James Harden, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Russell Westbrook topped Philadelphia’s superstar center in player impact.

Embiid’s sheer dominance begs the question: Who can stop him moving forward? Boston’s Al Horford? A star declining towards his limelight years. Detroit’s Andre Drummond? An anachronistic stat-gobbling big on a middling franchise. The infusion of talented bigs from this year’s rookie class? Those players mostly exist in the Western Conference.

Throughout the regular season and presumably the Eastern Conference playoffs, only Joel Embiid can stop Joel Embiid. The 24-year-old behemoth averaged a monster 27.2 points, 13.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes while reducing his fouls last season. When you picture today’s prototype center, Embiid surfaces as the first choice. Embiid, however, at 24 still can iron out some inefficiencies on both ends of the floor. Once he accomplishes these tasks he’ll annually rack up All-NBA First Team awards as the league’s preeminent center.

I mapped out some areas which’ll help Embiid amplify his two-way game. First, his pick-and-pop game with Philadelphia’s collection of playmakers will be an important cog in his overall approach and would give defenses pure chaos to contain.

Pick-Slip-Pop

I’m not consciously seeking out terms to incorporate into basketball discussion but I started indulging in Coach Daniel’s YouTube channel, thanks to Sixers Twitter’s James Levy, and learned that slipping refers to the screener sliding to an open area along the perimeter for a swing pass or kick-out. I refer many of Embiid’s actions in PnR situations as “pick-slip-pop” where Embiid will occupy a new space instead of backpedaling slightly as you’d normally see in “pop” situations. “Pop” also is usually synonymous with shooting in those situations, as the movement better represents a “slip” motion.

Embiid can improve on his 30.9 percent catch-and-shoot three-point clip. My confidence in Embiid stems from his shooting mechanics, work ethic and how he’s developing. Under the tutelage of renowned shooting coach Drew Hanlen, Embiid found a certifiable whiz trainer who’ll ensure he improves. Hanlen’s clientele list stretches wide, and Embiid is one of a handful of centers he currently works with.

While Hanlen works in secrecy, hopefully Embiid is patching up his PnR game. Through Streamable, I compiled some of Embiid’s attempts in pick-slip-roll situations.

First Highlight: I really like this sequence from Embiid. He sets sort of a curled screen, ensuring Raul Neto has to fight and lock T.J. McConnell. Then he makes himself available and looks comfortable beating Neto’s closeout, despite the long miss.

Second Highlight: Embiid receives a feed in his shooting pocket from Simmons, momentarily fumbles the ball but keeps his motion intact heading towards the basket for good trajectory. This clip illustrates how Embiid can recover if he’s initially out of rhythm heading into his shot.

Third Highlight: Former Process Sixer Jerami Grant blows up a set designed to get Robert Covington open. Embiid improvises when things go awry and Simmons has to facilitate near the baseline. Embiid provides a viewable outlet for Simmons to turn to and catches the swing pass in stride. Embiid uses a quick ball dip and squares himself up from the top of the key for a high-percentage three, which falls through. His offensive awareness and measured approach benefited him on this catch-and-shoot three. Even if he decided to pump-fake and drive, Steven Adams committed on his closeout and provided plenty of options Embiid could utilize.

Why is this area important?: Embiid’s game-changing range already plays into Philadelphia’s favor, as centers are befuddled in PnR situations having to pick their poison by dropping or hustling and containing Embiid. If the center drops, the ball handler usually gets doubled but Embiid will detach for an open look. If the center decides to ICE, Embiid will relocate and be in position for a feed en route to the basket. Option C is letting your guard hard hedge and defend the point guard while the center mirrors Embiid’s movements and prevents him from receiving a look.

That’ll provide an advantageous scenario for the PnR ball handler. There are plenty of ways Embiid can dissect defenses, and through pick-and-pops or receiving short feeds if defenses trap he’ll be in prime position to score.

Attempting Threes Against Unset Defenses

By virtue of being the biggest player among Philadelphia’s five players, Embiid will usually trail uptempo sets. Embiid would trail a ball handler down the court, and catch the ball with defenders oblivious to his location, then hoist from distance. Embiid shot 32.9 percent on 2.6 attempts when defenders where six or farther from him. If Embiid can spike his percentage gradually when wide open, he’ll draw centers away from the paint where Philadelphia’s ball handlers and wings can prosper.

Among Embiid’s makes when Simmons pushed the pace, his star point guard forced collapses and Embiid capitalized. The Embiid-Simmons duo can create so much chaos offensively, and this is one particular area they can complement each other.

First Highlight: Embiid has all the time afforded to him, but he’s comfortable enough entering his shooting motion after receiving the pass. Last year, Amir Johnson took eons to get the ball off and Embiid’s quicker release plus overall comfortability is a promising note for the Sixers’ long-term center option. Embiid holds his follow through and, for a center, you can’t ask much more of him on this play. It’s just a picturesque sequence from the All-Star big man.

Second Highlight: Robert Covington impedes Zaza Pachulia’s path to Embiid and drains the nothing but nylon jumper. Covington and Philadelphia’s wings set screens for Embiid during SLOB (sideline out-of-bounds) and BLOB (baseline out-of-bounds) plays last season and having your center be a secondary perimeter option offers an added element to Brett Brown’s offense.

Third Highlight: Simmons draws a horde of Portland defenders while possessing two options in Embiid and Covington along the perimeter. Damian Lillard stunts on Covington, but Portland’s star commits enough so that RoCo can swing it out to Embiid who’s wide open. Embiid catches then turns towards the basket. Jusuf Nurkic understands he’s on an island and basically flails contesting Embiid, who gathers himself into a three with his feet facing the basket. Simmons commands significant attention when attacking, which, in turn, will allow Embiid more time to setup his motion and form.

Adjustments: Once Embiid can flip off the first gear and downshift to a halt when he receives a swing pass, his improved mechanics will translate. Rhythm is a pertinent element when it comes to pull-up jumpers, and Embiid has the capability to shift gears and fire from a standstill. He’s also one of the better bets in the league at center for improved efficiency. Centers reluctant to contest Embiid will pay a price of three points more often than in previous seasons.

Jumper off a Live Dribble:

In Philadelphia’s summer heat, Embiid’s off-the-dribble step back game refreshed Sixers fans. Embiid worked Jayson Tatum in Drew Hanlen’s viral one-on-one exhibition with the center-forward clash really capturing how offensively gifted both Embiid and Tatum are. However, Embiid taking Tatum off the dribble at 250 pounds is a much more incredible feat.

Playing organized five-on-five for the first time since April, Embiid replicated his off-the-dribble jumper potential in the NBA Africa Game 2018. Embiid’s behind-the-back dribble with forward movement then step back into a pure jumper provided a glimpse into what could be elementary moving forward for The Process.

You’d typically see that sequence from guards or wings but Embiid is just a different breed of big man. If defenders switch and have to play ISO against Embiid, mastering these unbelievably difficult sequences will put Sixers fans into a basketball nirvana viewing experience.

Aggression:

I value both basketball’s analytical element and game footage when judging a player’s productivity and skill level. In my final area, I’m referring to Embiid’s aggression on the defensive glass. Embiid posted a 29.7 defensive rebounding percentage last season, good for 10th among centers who played in 54 games. He could’ve placed even higher if he mirrored his offensive aggression.

Embiid’s capable of clearing centers away with strafes and power. I’d like to see him claw for more boards this season and provide Philadelphia with even more possessions. Coupling his athleticism with instincts, Embiid could be a 26-15 center next season, which wouldn’t be surprising. It’s not hyperbolic to tout Embiid as the next Hakeem. He can reach that rarified air if he wants to.