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“He plays chess matches on the court”: How Joel Embiid draws fouls at a historic rate

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Sacramento Kings Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When Joel Embiid holds the ball in his hands, two separate games are unfolding. There is, of course, the basketball duel of which everyone on the floor is involved. There is also, for Embiid, a cerebral test occurring. He maneuvers an on-the-fly approach to generate efficient scoring chances, baiting defenders into compromising their position, opening angles to manipulate or overstepping their bounds by inserting themselves into his airspace.

He is patient and methodical, eyes and mind simultaneously fixated on scoring and foul-drawing. Bite on a subtle body or shot fake and a screech of the whistle will soon bellow. Reach out your paw to deter his devastating mid-range jumper; suddenly, you’re tangled into his elbow, committing a blatant foul. Lean baseline following a jab-step and he’s whizzed past you toward the middle, sneakily hooking an arm in the process.

“When you talk about drawing fouls, a lot of people, I guess, call it flopping and all that stuff,” Embiid says. “But, you know, the way I see it is just about being smarter than your opponent. You gotta have a high basketball IQ. Like, I’m talking to the young guys. They’re like, ‘Why can’t we draw fouls?’ or ‘Why can’t we get to the free-throw line?’ I’m like, ‘You gotta be smart. Like, as soon as you feel the contact, you gotta go through it and that’s how you get fouled.’”

All of these tactics are woven into the long-standing fabric of Embiid’s scoring prowess. Through four NBA seasons, his free-throw rate stood at .515, the highest mark among 32 players who averaged 30 points per 100 possessions over that span (minimum 25 minutes/game). This season, though, Embiid is elevating beyond mere contemporary revelry and waltzing to the foul line at a measure rivaled by few other high-volume scorers in league history.

His .654 free-throw rate this season ranks first by over six points among the 33 instances when somebody has averaged at least 40 points per 100 possessions (min. 25 minutes/game), since the NBA began tracking that statistic in 1973-74. Lower the threshold to 30 points per 100 possessions and Embiid, averaging 43.5 points per 100 possession, slides to sixth. The leader of that second grouping is Dwight Howard (.877 free-throw rate), whose perspective of Embiid’s foul-drawing affluence recently shifted from adversary to admirer and insider.

“He does a good job of, I would say, playing chess,” Howard says. “He plays chess matches on the court. He does a good job of using his body, getting physical, but then he does a good job also of not allowing somebody to be physical with him because he knows how to draw fouls.”

During Howard’s prime in Orlando, he authored a five-year stretch averaging 28.6 points per 100 possessions and amassing a free-throw rate of .881. Each game, his intention was to corner the opposing big men into early foul trouble. Now serving as a long-in-the-tooth understudy, he sees commonalities between his past self and Embiid, both physically imposing centers spearheading Eastern Conference contenders.

Together, they’ve established the same goal Howard once had in Orlando, but advanced it a step further, aiming to solicit a pair of quick fouls from both the first and second defender opponents assigned to Embiid.

“My goal, every single night, is to get the other centers or the other team’s best players in foul trouble,” Embiid says.

“You want to set the tone,” Howard says, “like, ‘I’m going to be aggressive. I’m gonna draw fouls.’”

Two broad components catalyze Embiid’s historic free-throw production: smarts and physical tools. A magnified assessment, though, reveals a few specific driving forces and patterned moves that steer him to the foul line so often. Embedded into his scoring toolkit are a trio of gambits: the rip-through, shot fake and zippy first step.

All of them are enhanced by his shooting surge to open the first third of the season. Defenders have to account for his elite mid-range proficiency, while also equipping themselves to prepare for his footwork, quickness and craft — an array of responsibilities most are unable to accomplish.

Converting 56.3 percent (67 of 119) of his mid-range jumpers, he ranks first among 71 players taking at least one attempt per game this year. As a career 42.4 percent mid-range shooter, Embiid will likely experience some regression soon. But the varying foul-drawing threats he employs should continue to perplex opponents.

“It also gets harder for them to guard me because, if you’re gonna put your hand [up], I’m gonna get fouled,” he says. “So, now, like, if you wanna guard me with your hands back, now I got the leverage to just back you down and, I don’t know, dunk on you or get easier shots. So, you gotta pick your poison as a defender.”

“His mid-range ability, to me, is what sets up a lot of his game,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers says. “His ability to face the basket makes him almost unguardable down there.”

The rip-through is where that dynamic Embiid describes is most prevalent. On face-ups, defenders extend an arm in hopes of dissuading or contesting his jumper; on post-ups, any free-roaming limb is at risk of being the culprit, its efforts to combat Embiid’s physicality exploited.

Whenever their arms are not directly at their side or skied to the ceiling, rarely do possessions manifest as these opponents hope or envision. Whether he seeks out the contact or simply senses it, he proceeds expediently, so defenders cannot retreat to cover their mistakes.

To avoid the pitfalls of his rip-through, defenders will play off of Embiid, hands within their orbit, trying to perfectly time a contest or prevent the big fella from venturing any closer to the rim. Yet such an approach paves the way for him to pitch his shot fake and capitalize upon an NBA legislature that considers almost any defender who leaves his feet to be guilty of a foul. When the league’s most proficient mid-range shooter (this season, at least) feints a jumper, instincts kick in and he parades to the charity stripe.

There is discretion in his application of the rip-through. Utilizing it every trip down the floor is not tenable. At one point, he wondered why the entire league failed to weaponize it, he says. Upon adding it to his repertoire, identifying Kevin Durant and James Harden as a pair of rip-through practitioners whom he gleaned it from, the delicate nature of its impact crystallized.

The Sixers’ youngsters ask him how to incorporate it in their games, but an explanation or brief tutoring session will not suffice. Assimilation is more challenging than that. As any foul-baiting blueprint is, the rip-through stands as an art form.

“It’s actually harder than people think. … You gotta have high basketball IQ. You gotta understand the game. You gotta understand situations,” Embiid says. “I don’t do it all the time just to do it. If we’re in the bonus and your hand is right there, you better know that I’m gonna go for it. It also makes me unguardable because if you’re gonna give me space, I’m just gonna rise up and shoot it. And then, if you’re gonna come close to me, I have so many ways I can get by you or get a shot off. So, it makes it tough.”

Embiid’s craft has yielded fruitful results through 22 games. He’s logged 10 performances with at least 13 free throws (and five with 15-plus). Centers have committed four-plus fouls 21 times in games against the Sixers this season, a frustrating development that periodically reveals itself through mannerisms and facial expressions from the opposition.

“That’s how you stay efficient, by going to the free-throw line and getting those easy points,” Embiid says. “You don’t have to work for it and I have a knack for just getting to the free-throw line. Sometimes, I don’t really understand how, but I just do.”

Many of the clips referenced display Embiid operating with freedom against single coverage. His smarts, physical tools and skills are empowered to flummox an individual defender. There is no hierarchy of opponents he must beat to achieve efficient offense. It’s the result of Rivers’ desire and emphasis to slot his superstar in space, cognizant of how challenging it is to contain him in those situations.

The concept of deploying him in space translates off the ball, too. He overwhelms guys with strength — the type that slowly mounts before you eventually realize the outcome was determined many seconds prior — and positioning for deep seals. Help is not prompt enough to rotate and muck up an entry pass. The only remaining option is to foul, either sending a career 80 percent free-throw shooter to the line and or nudging him a step closer to the bonus.

Despite Philadelphia’s two-game skid, Embiid’s MVP campaign marches onward. He’s been an absolutely dominant scorer, notching 29.6 points per game on 66.5 percent true shooting, and playing the best basketball of his career to guide the 18-9 Sixers atop the East.

His historic merge of scoring volume and free-throw rate exist as contributing factors. Yet the 26-year-old says he is capable of drawing even more fouls, spotting missed opportunities during film sessions of which he must take advantage in the future. Given the headaches and stress he’s already inducing for opposing big men, his accountability and discontent certainly aren’t a reprieve — not that he’s interested in extending any.

“It’s a learning process and I still got a long way to go,” he says. “I’m not even close to where I wanna be and I can’t wait to keep on going and keep getting better.”