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Joel Embiid needs to keep taking 3s

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Statistically speaking, Joel Embiid is an offensive force to be reckoned with all over the court.

Near the rim is where the Sixer center is most lethal. For players who take more than eight shots per game within five feet, Embiid is eighth in field goal percentage (66.1 percent). In floater range, too, the Sixers center shows deft touch, as one of 13 players who lobs more than 2.0 shots and posts a 47 percent clip or higher.

His offensive output does not come without blemishes, though. Most glaring is his shooting inefficiency from beyond the arc.

This season, seven other centers have attempted at least three or more 3-point shots per game: Nikola Jokic, Karl Anthony-Towns, Al Horford, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol, Kelly Olynyk, and Dewayne Dedmon. Among that group, Embiid is fourth in 3s made and dead-last in 3-point percentage. Tied with Marc Gasol for the fourth-most 3-point attempts per game (4.0), Embiid shoots and misses a lot of deep shots, too.

Highlighting his misses, though, muddies the water. The point is that his 3-point shot opens up other areas of his game.

“Making 3s just takes you to another level,” Embiid said in a post-game interview after the Orlando Magic game on October 20, in which he shot 3-for-5 on 3-point attempts, an improvement over the 1-for-7 he posted in the first two games of the season. “It is something that I have to focus on. I’ve been focusing on it for the past few days. It is something that I have to keep focusing on because it makes me really unguardable.”

To understand why simply taking 3s takes Embiid to a new level, forget the statistics above and dive into the film.

The first thing you should notice is how Embiid is guarded. Everything starts with the players the opposing team fields. A team with big wings, such as the Bucks and Giannis, or one with quicker bigs, such as the Celtics and Al Horford, have the versatility to deploy various strategies. They could back off or guard him tight.

Whereas a team with only slower bigs, such as the Heat and Hassan Whiteside, have no choice but to sag off Embiid. In that case, he fires the 3-point shot without second thought.

Opposing coaches have to defend Embiid with the players they have, whether it be a bigger wing, quicker big, or an archetype in-between. On its face, this is a matchup decision. And matchups play a major part in strategy — coaches decide to place which chess pieces on the court against who and with whom — but are only one variable in the equation.

Once matchups are defined, teams strategize about how to defend an opponent. Some teams leave certain players open regardless of the situation (like Ben Simmons and some centers) and others warrant double-teams upon crossing half-court (Steph Curry comes to mind).

Embiid falls somewhere in the middle, though letting him shoot has worked before. The Celtics, for example, give him the space to shoot 3s, while using a player quick enough to stick with him on drives, Al Horford. The Celtic center doesn’t stray too far from Embiid, and can still blur his vision right as he releases.

While it may sound backwards, the Sixer center should keep rifling these shots, regardless of whether he misses or makes them.

The percentage at which he makes 3s — 29.5 percent as previously mentioned — is more than six percent below league average, yet keeps defenders thinking: do I guard this guy? I mean, he could make this shot.

That indecisive line of thinking is precisely what Embiid preys on.

When defenders close-out poorly, Embiid probes — with a jab-step or shot-fake — and comes in like a wrecking ball, smashing open mid-range shots or lay-ups. Sometimes, defenders just have to foul.

The shot-fakes above are a luxury Embiid tacked onto his game in the offseason. Watch elementary basketball and, chances are, you’ll see the same move, yet it works all the same in the NBA. No matter the level, it keeps defenders on their toes. And the more it gets defenders to bite, the better.

While most big men use the shot-fake, 7-footers who use their dribble as Embiid does are exceedingly rare commodities. Even in the modern NBA filled with the likes of Jokic, KAT, and Anthony Davis, Embiid is a unique specimen. In his fresh bag of dribbling moves are behind-the-backs, through-the-legs, and even euro-steps.

Being able to hit triples, in the first place, makes his dribbling a threat to defenses. Without a viable jump shot, defenses would simply turn their heads while he — in the language of countless basketball coaches worldwide — “pounds the air out of the ball.”

Defenders have trouble backpedaling once the freight train steams toward them. Embiid dribbles in north-south direction, with a dash of east-west wiggle.

Surrounded by the likes of Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, and Tobias Harris, Embiid is rarely overloaded with dribbling opportunity.

Rather, his bombs are dropped early in the shot clock and in transition, from the top of the arc — commonly referred to as walk-up 3s. While he hits a handful of those daring shots, he also misfires on a ton of them. When he does, they tend to result in transition opportunities for the opposing team (because his teammates aren’t able to gain proper positioning).

The threat of his 3-point shot, then, is most damaging in ball-screen situations, in which the Sixers center has the ability to not only pick-and-roll, but pick-and-pop.

Especially with Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler on the team — two ball-screen maestros — this ability adds a new dimension to the team.

In the last play above, Jimmy Butler (who tends to deny screens) waits for Embiid to set the screen before making a decision. Embiid sees that George “ices” the screen and that Steven Adams “aggressive drops” so he fades behind the arc. George “rearview pursuits” and catches up to Butler, who, by then, already kicked it out to Embiid. The Sixers center waits for Adams to close-out, so he shot-fakes, then euro-steps before laying down the hammer.

Embiid’s 3-point prowess is less visible, but nevertheless helpful, on other fronts, as well. Take spacing, for instance. On that front, Harris has helped mightily, but still, having a center who is able to spread the floor is essential, especially to a starting five that boasts Ben Simmons.

All this being said, Embiid still has a ways to go in becoming an all-around offensive player, with 3-point shooting presenting the tallest barrier. However, missing from deep should not discourage him from taking them altogether, as it rounds out a championship-contending Sixers team.

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