With the conclusion of Labor Day weekend, the summer has unofficially ended. That means we’re one step closer to the 2018-2019 NBA season. Though a new beginning is looming, it’s not too late to take a look back at last season. Over the next couple weeks as we await the start of training camp, I’ll be taking a look at 2017-2018 regular season performances by individual players and the team as a whole, good and bad. First up: Joel Embiid’s 24-point game against the New Orleans Pelicans on February 9th.
The lede going into the Sixers’ pre-All-Star-weekend matchup vs. New Orleans was “Battle of the Bigs”: presumptive All-Star frontcourt men Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis would face off head-to-head. Unfortunately, the two would end up defending each other less frequently than fans had hoped. But one thing became clear by the end of the game: Joel had a very productive night and Anthony Davis had a very unproductive night.
The Sixers waxed the Pelicans 100-82, and Joel Embiid needed just 3 quarters (about 24 minutes played) to post a boxscore line of 24 points on an efficient 11 for 18 shooting, to go along with 16 rebounds. Joel used an array of scoring techniques from 3PT shooting (2 for 4) to finishing lobs in transition to his beautiful jab-step pull-up. The Pelicans couldn’t find an answer for Embiid, and they seemingly gave up defending him with maximum effort: he was going to score regardless.
Joel kicked off his dominant night with a pair of 3-pointers. The first attempt from distance by Joel was wide open, as the Sixers utilized off-ball movement to create some confusion on the weak side. The play (shown below) begins with Ben Simmons guarded by DeAndre Liggins (#34) and Embiid guarded by Anthony Davis (#23):
Joel and Ben Simmons’ two-man action off-ball sees Joel set a screen for Simmons as Simmons cuts to the baseline. Davis assumes a switch onto Simmons, but due to some sort of miscommunication, Liggins also sticks with Simmons, leaving no one on Embiid. Easy, peasy, Japaneasy. (Shawshank turns 24-years-old this month, and thus a reference was due.)
If Joel’s shooting touch for the night wasn’t evident on that first 3PT attempt, it certainly became so very quickly, as he also sank his next six shots. The first of those next six was another 3PT, this time in transition as a trailer:
Joel would go on to miss his final two 3PT attempts later in the game, but the damage had been done with the first two: the Pelicans were made well-aware of Embiid’s range.
The next bucket for Embiid was his prettiest of the night. Out on the perimeter, guarded by Nikola Mirotic, Embiid pump fakes and then drives to the basket. Halfway through the lane, Embiid whips out a spin. The series of moves had Mirotic jumping, spinning and flailing:
Mirotic isn’t the fleetest of foot, but he’s a decent defender. Joel made him look helpless — not foolish, but simply totally incapable of making a stop or affecting the shot. These are the kind of scoring sequences that have people still drooling over Embiid’s potential at age 24. With a healthy offseason focusing on even more skills development (guided by honorary Sixer Drew Hanlen), we should see more of these sorts of multi-move scores from The Process.
Anthony Davis had closed out on Embiid earlier in the game, but the next clip is the first time the two really went head-to-head. Advantage: Joel.
Granted, Davis didn’t go all out to prevent Embiid from getting comfortable. But here’s the thing: Joel didn’t give much effort either. Embiid got the ball at his spot and knew exactly what he wanted to do. Quite simply put, when Joel is feeling these jab-step pull-ups (and being deliberate), they are literally unguardable. Davis is about as long as defenders get in the NBA, and Joel easily shot over him. You can see a very similar play from later in the game here:
(I’ve elected to leave out Jojo’s 14th point, because there’s not much to say about it. However it was an alley-oop from Simmons, and Joel had to compete with Robert Covington to bring the lob down. Let’s just say Cov probably decided to stay out of Joel’s way for the foreseeable future.)
For the majority of the first quarter, Embiid got his shots away from the rim. But on the following play, Joel uses his spatial awareness and a JJ Redick screen for an easy dunk under the rim:
This play was impressive not due to Embiid but the entire offense. The Sixers were a step ahead of the Pelicans the whole way, and it resulted in an effortless score for Joel. Notice that Redick set not only the screen for Joel, but before that he also set a screen for Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, which is really the foundation for the successful possession. Thanks Redick’s obstruction on Darius Miller, TLC was able to cleanly receive a pass with just enough space to find Jo under the rim. Often, the scoring strategy for Embiid’s buckets is “here’s the ball, go do something.” Yet here we see some really simple ball movement and off-ball screening to get Joel two, all he had to do was move to the right spot with appropriate timing.
I know, I know: “This is just an Embiid highlight reel.” Well if it’s a miss you want, you got it and a frustrating one at that. In the next play, Joel settles for a midrange jumper. But it’s not the inefficient shot selection that’s a killer. I mean, the guy was 7 for 7 up until the following play; in his mind, he can’t miss. But as you watch, take notice of TJ McConnell and JJ Redick just before Embiid pulls up.
Embiid’s strategy here was clear: get Emeka Okafor in the air and then drive the lane. But Okafor doesn’t bite on the pump fake and Joel just sort of reacts without any definitive plan, hoisting a long two. Yes, Joel was on fire to start. But he also finished the game with zero assists. And if you take a look at JJ Redick, he’s got PLENTY of room to attempt a 3PT, and McConnell knew it. Look at TJ’s body language, he was waiting to swing it! Redick even indicates to Joel to pass to TJ:
The entire Pelicans defense had their attention on Joel, every single one of them. And he had no shot worth taking.
The final play we’ll take a look at makes us again question Joel’s decision making. The Sixers find themselves in transition, and Joel gets an open look from the wing.
This isn’t a terrible shot. In fact, it’s a good shot. An open 3PT (the shot was recorded as a two-point attempt, but Embiid appears behind the line). But Saric is streaking down the lane, just waiting for the ball, to split the defenders for a layup. One could argue that Anthony Davis and E’Twaun Moore would have deterred Saric and forced a miss. But I’d argue it’s more likely Saric squeezes passed them for an easy layup or draws a foul. Of course, if Embiid sinks it, everyone is happy with three points over two. However, the right decision may have been to feed Saric.
In the end, the Sixers prevailed without a single starter cracking 30 minutes. The blowout win was largely fueled by Joel’s efficient scoring performance. It was encouraging to see him utilize so many different ways to get a bucket, and a glimpse into just how offensively dynamic Joel can be. While you can’t expect players to make the right decision 100% of the time, decision making is an area where, if Joel was just a bit wiser on as little as two plays, he could have raised his productivity while doing the same for teammates.
You can find all 18 of Joel’s field goal attempts from this game here.
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Sure! It’s a dead time of the year and I took something away from it.
Nah, I can find these clips myself if I wanted to watch a highlight reel.
It was okay, but I’ll suggest a different angle in the comments.