During the Philadelphia 76ers’ 117-93 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday night, a play in the opening minute caught my eye. Joel Embiid gets the ball right above the block and faces up against Moses Brown (i.e. the exact thing Joel likes to do). The Thunder know this, and thus attempted to defend the dominant big man by having their center (Brown) overplay the drive to the right in order to force Embiid left, while the low defender showed help to said left-hand drive from the baseline (Lu Dort in this case). Once Dort showed help that roughly equated to a soft double team, Ben Simmons recognized the opening and attempted to duck in for a quick layup:
And it worked! This pass to Simmons is open even if it is a small window that would require a thread-the-needle pass from Embiid.
The play ultimately turned out fine with the ball being swung around the perimeter and finding Seth Curry who created a pull-up middy for himself, but I would really like to see Embiid recognize and capitalize on that opening to Simmons on the inside. It’s a higher risk pass, but it’s also a higher efficiency opportunity, as an open layup for Simmons with Darius Bazley pinned on his back is more likely to be converted then a contested Seth Curry pull-up. The best playmakers in the league make that pass, including (and don’t kill me when I say this) MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic.
Two minutes later, and Embiid again didn’t flip it inside to Simmons on the seal once he got double teamed by Dort and Brown.
Embiid is literally fantastic at almost anything that anybody has ever conceived of on a basketball court, so I don’t want to rag on him in any sense, but this pass has to be made. The openness of the opportunity is just staring him in the face.
Simmons has been much maligned for his decline in play following the All-Star break. That criticism has been justifiably warranted, but it’s important to recognize that things are made harder for Ben with his co-star being unable to find him on plays like this. Meanwhile he is more than capable of tossing laser passes to Joel inside whenever the big fella creates an advantage in the interior:
It’s a dangerous pass, yes, but the best passers take risks. Simmons trusts that he can hit Embiid in his opposite hand on this play, and in doing so the Sixers are able to rack up another foul on OKC. Awesome.
Embiid is much more comfortable throwing skip passes over the defense when faced with double teams in the post. He almost always has a height advantage (though he actually did not have one over OKC’s Moses Brown), and he prefers finding teammates who are wide open on the perimeter rather than through traffic in the paint.
On this play, it’s actually a cut from Simmons that occupies Aleksej Pokusevski and opens up the skip pass to Furkan Korkmaz for a great look from three:
And on that play, that’s a net positive decision. Sure, it’s possible he could have faked the skip to move Darius Bazley and then found Matisse Thybulle underneath for a dunk, but that’s nitpicking to the highest degree.
Embiid does not have a problem reading opposing defenses. He’s more than capable of reading what another team throws at him and working through his progressions to find the guy they’ve left open in an attempt to stop him. Send a double his way, and he’s looking to try and find the opposite wing or corner for a three:
However, this can get predictable. With defenders not worried about Joel trying to slip the ball through a crack in the paint, they can play those long range skips, that due to their hang time, give defenders a chance to recover in time. On the play below, Lu Dort clearly baits the skip to Furkan in the corner, knowing that it’s where Embiid wants the ball to go:
The “problem” is with Embiid’s passing skill rather than his mental process. He doesn’t have, or at least doesn’t think he has, the level of precision on his dimes needed to find those interior feeds, and thus his passing becomes more predictable as all inside-out rather than using the pressure he puts on a defense inside the three-point line to toss the ball to a teammate positioned even further inside.
Freeze that clip above at the right time, and you’ll spot a potential dump down to Thybulle with Kenrich Williams pinned on his back.
That pass might be too risky. Maybe Williams overpowers the wiry Thybulle and registers a steal. But the bigger problem is with Embiid’s eyes, as he never even looks Thybulle’s way. That refusal to consider finding the duck-in makes the defense’s job easier. They know that they don’t have to rotate as hard or as urgently to that spot, and that Williams simply being in the vicinity of Thybulle rather than actually getting around him is enough to cover that gap, allowing the rest of OKC’s lineup to remain spread out and cover Embiid’s other potential outlets.
Embiid is an out of this world, bonkers athlete. He was rightfully on track to win MVP prior to his unfortunate injury, and even then he’s still projected to finish in at least the top five of the voting. He’s not a bad passer or processor either, but that doesn’t mean that some risk-taking improvement wouldn’t elevate him to even greater heights.