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Joel Embiid: defense, passing, the sprained ankle...and this wedgie thing

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Joel Embiid is the crown jewel of The Process as his head coach Brett Brown likes to say. The Sixers had a very strong team a year ago, and made the extremely difficult decision to move on from Jimmy Butler in order to bring in players like Al Horford, in large part as security for the crown jewel’s protection. After one game, we saw some of the benefits to that strategy. Embiid exited the first game of this season against Boston with his 5th foul with over ten minutes to play and never returned. We would later learn that he is also dealing with a sprained ankle. But rather than folding completely like we’ve seen in years past, the Sixers actually increased their lead and delivered a victory. Huzzah!

There are already tons of storylines surrounding Embiid. Let’s focus on the biggest ones like his defense, his passing, his sprained

, and his new wedgie thing. Duh.

Defense

One thing we can expect to see all season long is Embiid’s man setting a high screen (way out near the three point line) in hopes of springing the ball-handler for an open three or drive. Here, Embiid’s man springs Jayson Tatum for the three-ball:

The Sixers have done lots of tinkering with this type of scenario over the years. The quick shifty ball-handlers who can hit contested pull up 3s (Kemba Walker in particular) have given them the most trouble.

Well it appears they’ve (wisely) decided that they want Embiid to prioritize rim protection the vast majority of the time, and will live with asking their own perimeter players to do their best navigating screens. This is perhaps the biggest reason they placed such premium value on Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle in June; both are deft and rangy enough to slip over, under and through screens and also provide back pressure even after someone sneaks passed them:

So this is the “sword the Sixers choose to fall on,” dipping into Coach Brown’s lexicon once again. (Falling on swords and crown jewels, I wonder what he’s been reading).

Another deep pull-up by Tatum:

Do the same action with a premier scorer like Walker, and he can occasionally even freeze the help long enough to get wide open elbow pull-ups:

And on this one below, Gordon Hayward puts the freakshow hesi on Embiid to get to the rim. Sorry but this was beautiful. Change of speed, shot fake, change of direction:

Embiid would love to have that last one back and offer the contested pull-up to Hayward, instead of the driving lane, but as for the others, I’d guess Coach Brown will live with it in hopes of allowing Embiid to deter shots closer to the rim:

And man did it work. Walker and the Celtics looked uncomfortable offensively for large stretches of the game, despite the successes shown above. Hopefully a sign of good things to come. Kemba walker was just 4 for 18 from the field. Jayson Tatum was 8 for 22. Boston was held to a dismal offensive rating of 98.6 per NBA.com. The Sixers won the points in the paint battle 58 to 49. All in large part because of Joel’s defense, his greatest gift.

2. Embiid learning to “quarterback the gym”

Remember when Coach Brett Brown used to talk about Jahlil Okafor quarterbacking the gym? Passing is truly a swing-skill for Embiid.

There were some times where Boston really stymied him with double-teams and he struggled to make the right read or get rid of it before the pressure got there:

There were other times when he made the right read and spun advanced entry passes, lofted lobs, or hit the cutter like the following three plays:

Then there were times he seemed to want to BBQ Enes Kanter so badly that he missed wide-open cutters (and took perhaps needless punishment on an ankle that is now sprained):

And my favorite, there were times he showed patience and maturity, and quarterbacked the gym without getting the dime OR bucket himself exhibiting screen-roll gravity:

(Was his ankle a little sore on that one above? More on that soon).

It feels like sometimes Embiid simply determines to score. And other times he’s more in the moment and capable of reading the situation and acting accordingly. Someone on the Sixers staff should fire up some of Hakeem Olajuwon’s best kickouts to Robert Horry and weave some Gasol brother passes into his film sessions.

The sprained right ankle

(Update: Embiid will not play in today’s game against the Pistons).

It’s hard to find a “moment” in Wednesday’s game where Embiid may have hurt his ankle. I pulled a few of the higher impact plays. Most of them occurred in the third quarter, and he left for the game in the early 4th.

Early third, was that awesome block on Jaylen Brown shown above.

A couple of minutes later around 8:28 to go in the third, I think Embiid actually signals to the sidelines for a blow. Although that could also have been related to his bloody lip, which required sutures, per Serena Winters of NBCS-Philly. He would briefly leave the bench area to get looked at per the ESPN Broadcast. I wouldn’t be surprised if early in the third was around the time it first started to bug him.

Back in the game about five minutes later, he’s still making plays like this:

And this:

Then this, one of several hard falls he took diving for loose balls around this very physical stage of the game:

All of the diving and hustle plays earned Embiid pats on the back from his head coach and a standing ovation from the crowd. And they probably allow us to rule out more serious ankle injuries, like a high-ankle sprain. But if he’s forced to miss time, it will leave some fans (like this one) wondering if the above-and-beyond-body-sacrifice stuff is optimal in October now that a title in June is the only true goal.

Embiid has a flair for the spectacular, although sometimes that instinct leads to missed games. Embiid will intentionally fall to reduce impact sometimes, as Chris Herring reported for ESPN last spring. But some of his spills on Wednesday looked less like preventative-impact-reduction spills we’re used to seeing and more like the “I just need this loose ball,” variety.

Hopefully he’s OK, and his team can stress to him how important it is that he reserve a gear or three for later this season. On a lighter note...

Wedgies

The little wedgie ritual thing we first spotted in the preseason was still present on Wednesday:

What seems like an inside joke between Joel and a friend or teammate has made its way onto nationally televised NBA games! Before each free throw now, he winces, and appears to adjust things behind his shorts. It may have “worked” in the pre-season:

But he was only 4-8 from the line against Boston. My hunch is that the 4-8 is random and unrelated. My other hunch is that maybe his stunning supermodel fiancé, Anne De Paula, somehow convinced him to try this for a dare. This is what she looks like and one can see if she used Klaus Hinkie puppy-dog eyes and said “pretty please JoJo-bear, pretend to pull wedgies for me, just for a little bit, to make me laugh” one would have literally no choice:

I’m not sure Ben Simmons, for example, would be as persuasive. Or maybe she convinced Joel to actually wear her underwear and the free throw line is his only chance to adjust!? After a few hours with an excel spreadsheet, I’ve got it narrowed down to these two options. Maybe we can Twitter poll it and crowd source the answer!

I also kind of wonder what the plan here is. Is it possible that he could get comfortable enough with it and stay with it? What if there was no time remaining and they were down by 1 to the Clippers in the Finals with him at the line for two? Would he pluck two monster wedgies and deliver the city it’s first title since 1983? Might one day he retire a legend and Sixers Twitter will honor him on his birthday the way the Jazz did Jeff Hornacek for his “waving to his kids” ritual?

Ladies and gentlemen, the crown jewel of The Process.