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Joel Embiid’s passing needs to improve

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Through the first two games of the second round against the Toronto Raptors, it should surprise no one that Joel Embiid is having struggles against Marc Gasol. Embiid, who claimed to be the most unstoppable player in the league earlier this season, has performed poorly against Gasol before, much like he has Al Horford. That, in combination with the ailing sickness and debilitating knee, has led to a 7/25 shooting clip.

An aspect of his game he is struggling most with is his passing, though. It is surprising, given that he had taken strides as a passer throughout the season. In 64 games, a career-low turnover rate coincided with a career-high assist rate. He wasn’t flawless, but he started to consistently make patient reads — stepping-through double-teams and retreat-dribbling out of traffic.

Toronto, however, have sent triple-teams his way. Rarely have teams pressured Embiid in the way Toronto does in the clip below.

Nor do many teams have the personnel of Toronto. Even without O.G. Anunoby, Toronto boasts a trio of sterling wing defenders over 6’6’’ — Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, and Kawhi — while only one of Brooklyn’s wing defenders made a positive impact over the course of the regular season.

“Their whole defensive scheme is...they shift a lot, and you know most of the time, they’re sending double and triple teams, so it’s kind of hard to find myself in a one-on-one situation,” Embiid said in the post-game presser after game 2, in which he recorded 5 assists, but 6 turnovers. “If they’re going to keep throwing those double and triple teams, I’ve got to pass the ball. That’s all I can do, either make a quick move or pass the ball. Because they’re such a heavy shift team, it’s kind of hard to go quick because they’re coming.”

From the Brooklyn to the Toronto series, Embiid’s assist rate has dropped substantially (26.0% to 20.1%). At the root of the problem are inefficient post-ups. Although his post-passes in the Toronto series have increased slightly (24.4% to 28.6%) as has his assist rate (4.5% to 4.8%), his turnover rate has seen the most substantial uptick, from 8.3% to 9.5%.

Late in game 2, with the Sixers up four and the shot-clock winding down, Pascal Siakam left Ben Simmons on the perimeter to double-team the Sixers center.

Although the shot falls in the above play, Embiid’s post-move is too slow. In lieu of prancing around Gasol, he opted to bury his left-shoulder into Gasol’s chest. This allows Pascal Siakam to double-team. If Embiid shifted any bit laterally, he’d be able to find Simmons or Harris in the corner. Retreat-dribble and leave Siakam on an island. Drop-step and gain the baseline, in turn, forcing Lowry to choose between defending three players.

Post-ups aren’t the only area where Embiid struggles with passing, but face-ups, too.

In the first play, Embiid forces an inefficient running shot on Ibaka. First, he faces-up from the three-point line. Deploying his patented fake on Ibaka (which he did multiple times) and then he drives to the rim. VanVleet helps off Simmons, who is in the dunker’s spot. Powell rotates down to Simmons and Green rotates to Butler, freeing Harris in the corner. Too often, Embiid hopes for the foul rather than dish to the open man.

The problem is not only Joel Embiid’s to solve, but Brett Brown also needs to make adjustments. For an absolutely dominant post-up center, Embiid is getting the ball too late in the shot-clock.

In “late” shot-clock situations (7-4 seconds), Embiid is attempting most of his shots. Second are “very late” shot-clock situations (4-0). He’s had no shots in “early” situations (18-15), and only two shots in “average” (15-7).

In the first play above, Embiid gets the ball with six seconds left on the shot-clock. If he got it a second earlier, he’d be able to make a post-move and assist to Butler or Bolden. Ideally, Bolden is off-ball and not making the entry-feed. Fortunately, Simmons rotates from the dunker’s spot and tips it in.

To realize their fullest potential, Embiid needs to be a willing passer. He’s still learning, though, so Brett Brown needs to put him in the right situations. With Embiid in the post, setting flare screens for Butler and back-screens for Simmons would suffice. Either would for Harris.

With Harris and Butler in the fold, Embiid has shown promise as a passer. Thanks to Butler’s creating prowess and Harris’ spot-up shooting ability, Embiid has more room to operate. In fact, once Harris joined the team in the regular season, Embiid’s assist rate increased markedly. They are too important to be left out of plays where Embiid is creating.

All this being said, Embiid has completed a few passes where his potential to become a talented passing big is obvious. Now, it’s all about finding consistency, which he understands: “I just got to be patient and make the right decisions.”

If Embiid isn’t willing to find his teammates, though, the Raptors will continue sending double or triple-teams at him. Considering the Raptors will likely regress to the mean and start hitting open shots, the Sixers need to have more efficient offensive possessions. The only way they can do that is if their big man is confident in the post as a passer, opening up the rest of his game against Marc Gasol.

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