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Joel Embiid’s passing development is on full display in Orlando

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The big man looks better than ever against double teams right now.

San Antonio Spurs v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Joel Embiid is the best post scorer in the NBA when you consider his blend of volume and efficiency. He’s scored more points per game from post-ups than any player in the league by a mile this season at 9.3, and still ranks in the 93rd percentile in terms of efficiency, scoring 1.12 points per possession.

In the playoffs, though, Embiid hasn’t always been as effective.

Part of his drop off has come due to questionable health and difficult matchups against elite defenses (Al Horford always did a good job bothering him as a Celtic, and Toronto can be smothering with their length and smart double teaming), but it’s still been clear that he could make some improvements in general. A key part of this is his passing and how he handles double teams, which inevitably increase in the playoffs.

Embiid had improved his playmaking against double teams somewhat before this regular season was suspended. He’d quickened his decision-making and demonstrated more awareness to find open teammates. But consistency was an issue. He’d still make reads too slowly or miss them altogether at times, his turnovers trended up after he kept them incredibly low early in the season, and sharpening his passing is still something Brett Brown has wanted to polish as the Sixers approach the playoffs.

At one of the Sixers’ practices in Orlando last month, Brown discussed how the team had been working on Embiid’s passing by testing him with different defensive coverages and varied double teaming.

“For this camp, damn near every time he catches it, we’re coming,” Brown explained. “It could be the high man, it could be baseline, it could be let’s play some cat and mouse to keep him off balance. But in that environment, he has passed the heck out of it. He really has done a real good job of passing out of [double teams].”

In the Sixers’ first few seeding games Embiid has faced frequent double teams, and he’s looked noticeably better.

It feels like more than ever right now, Embiid is patiently waiting to see if he can use an incoming double team to pass and set up open shots for teammates. He’s more composed, consistently making smart, timely reads to keep the offense moving.

You can see this approach in plays like those in the clip below. In both possessions, Embiid waits until the extra defender has helped off their assignment as much as possible before firing out passes to set up open triples:

The next play shows Embiid’s patience again, and the importance of players moving around him. As Keldon Johnson leaves Matisse Thybulle to double Embiid, Thybulle is left unwatched on the weak-side corner. Knowing he’s unguarded, Thybulle makes a smart cut to the basket and Embiid hits him on time for a layup:

Tobias Harris took the same approach in the final minute of the game. Here, as DeMar DeRozan leaves Harris in the corner to double Embiid, the Sixers’ center turns into the lane past the double, sees Harris cutting, and finds him for a dunk:

“I thought Joel was great tonight,” Brett Brown said after the game when asked about Embiid’s passing out of the post. “With the exception of that one play where it was a one-handed pass across court — it got stolen — I thought Joel was great.”

“We really tried to make him a focal point. And, you know, they either had to double team him or he pretty much had his way most times. I thought the spacing behind Joel gave him confidence to know where his outlets were... I think that the spacing and Joel’s unselfish play passing out of the post produced an environment that we all sort of hung onto him on, and I thought for the most part he really did deliver.”

Embiid talked about how he needs to keep drawing in double teams to create space for others. “I know that every single game I’m going to get doubled, so I’ve just gotta figure that out to be the offense and create shots for my teammates,” he said after the game. “You know, if I’m open, I’ve gotta duck in... but other than that, I’ve gotta make sure that I attract a lot of attention [from defenders] for my teammates.”

Embiid continued to do just that against the Wizards on Wednesday.

He got going early, and showed great patience here to hold the ball away from the Wizards’ double team to wait until a favorable read opened up outside. After Ben Simmons makes a cut to help collapse the defense, Josh Richardson moves into space on the wing and Embiid finds him right away. This forces Ish Smith to help away from the corner, and leaves Shake Milton open for three:

Similarly to some of the plays above, it’s Embiid’s patience against a double team here that gives Alec Burks extra room to shoot:

Skip passes to the weak-side corner aren’t something we see from Embiid very often, but they make it so much harder for teams to stop him in the post and prevent open threes. As Jerome Robinson comes over from Richardson to double, Embiid (knowing a teammate will be open) turns and fires a skip pass to the weak-side corner to set up Richardson:

In addition to Embiid making the right reads, players shooting quickly when he passes out of double teams is essential. This maximizes their open looks and prevents defenses from recovering. The problem is that Sixers are limited here due to their lack of quick-trigger shooting, so the shooters they do have need to be as aggressive as possible.

“He’s at the best place he’s ever been since I’ve coached him of reading double teams,” Brown said after the game when discussing Embiid’s passing. “I admitted the (team performance) has been a little bit slower than I hoped. But one of the things that’s off the charts is our post spacing, Joel Embiid’s post passing. Like, the selflessness, the willingness, and his teammates knowing where they have to be.”

Yes, Embiid still forces shots and passes on occasion that are unwise, but his recent development has been impressive. Moving forward, the main challenge for him is to maintain his playmaking poise against better opposition. In the playoffs in particular, tougher defenses — like Boston, Milwaukee and Toronto — will be more of a challenge with their length, the way they can time double teams, and how they send them from different spots on the floor.

In fact, after the Sixers’ win against the Spurs, Embiid mentioned Toronto as one team that stands out from others.

“You can make the case for Toronto,” Embiid said. “They are a little bit different [with their use of double teams], because they don’t allow me to actually catch the ball. As soon as the ball is in the air they just send someone to get it out of my hands, so that’s something I’ve been focusing on a lot and, you know, trying to get better. Because that’s a team we might play [in the playoffs], and during the season I have good games against them, so I’ve just gotta keep on getting better.”

Embiid is easily the Sixers’ best player and best scorer. If opponents need to stop him, double teaming him is the go-to move. But if he can consistently make teams pay for leaving a shooter by finding the open man, it will make a huge difference for the Sixers’ offense. They can generate better three-point looks in a hurry (which they clearly need more of), and their hesitant shooters may be more willing to fire if they have extra space from their defender leaving to help on Embiid. There will also be fewer possessions where Embiid is slowed down and forces a tough shot or doesn’t know how to attack. And if teams have to second guess doubling Embiid at times because he can consistently make sharp passing reads, then he’ll have more opportunities to bully past single defenders.

There haven’t been many positives for the Sixers’ seeding games so far, but Embiid looking this good physically and being this dominant (albeit with a pretty easy schedule) right away is extremely encouraging for them. He’s averaged 32.7 points (shooting 58.3 percent with a 65.8 True Shooting Percentage), 13.7 rebounds, 4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game with relative ease.

If his improved passing is here to stay as well, there’s no doubt the ceiling of the Sixers and Embiid is higher.

All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.