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Joel Embiid’s playmaking just keeps getting better

Embiid has taken his passing ability to another level this season.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

When Joel Embiid hit a new level in 2020-21 and finished the year as the MVP runner-up, it was fair to wonder if he could get much better. What if he never quite hit that many pull-up jumpers again? What if injuries bothered him more in the future? He was so dominant already that it was hard to expect too much more.

Well, jump forward to this season, and Embiid is proving that he can still get better. Significantly better.

His defense has been as good as (if not better) than ever since the season started. And after a slower start as a scorer, he’s been absolutely torching teams on offense since he returned from COVID-19 on Nov. 27. Over the last 24 games in this span, he’s averaged a monstrous stat line of 30.5 points, 11 rebounds, 4.2 assists to 2.9 turnovers, 1.1 steals and 1.4 blocks per game with a 62.7 true shooting percentage.

Included in all of this are Embiid’s passing numbers, which are the best of his career across the board. He’s currently setting career-highs in assists per game (4.2) and assist percentage (23.5 — way up from his previous best of 18.4 in 2018-19). Meanwhile, he’s cut his turnovers per game (2.9) and turnover percentage (11.3) to the lowest rates of his career.

We saw improved passing from Embiid last season, due to his own progression and finally having a roster with more shooting (mainly thanks to the arrival of Seth Curry and Danny Green) who could actually spread the floor and serve as reliable outlets. Embiid was far more adept at beating double teams, hitting teammates with timely kick-outs or skip passes to the corners, and ultimately making the most of his interior gravity.

An important part of Embiid’s success last season was spending more time facing up and operating from the middle of the floor (in the Sixers’ “Delay” action), rather than being positioned in the post quite as much with his back to his teammates. This change made it easier for him to utilize his face-up jumpers and survey the floor as a passer.

This year, with no Ben Simmons and no replacements to help lead the offense from the perimeter, this has gone up another level. Embiid is initiating even more offense as a passing hub and he’s handling the extra responsibility with poise and patience. He’s processing the floor even quicker to find openings for weak-side shooters, hitting cutters on time, and setting up shooters after he draws an extra defender whenever possible.

As his role initiating offense from the top of the floor has increased, so has his ability to direct teammates.

Take the play below against Miami. Two defenders at the top of the Heat’s zone go to Embiid after Danny Green gives up the ball. Once Green shifts to the baseline, Embiid sees that Green might be able to relocate for a corner three but needs more space first. Embiid promptly calls for Tobias Harris to slide up the wing to pull PJ Tucker away from the corner. With Dewayne Dedmon left recovering from under the basket, it’s now easy for Green to pop outside for the triple:

This may not be an overly complex play, but more than before Embiid is organizing his teammates and getting them the space they need to succeed.

Embiid’s passing around the basket has taken a step forward, too. He hasn’t always been as creative or quick-thinking with his passing in the paint before, sometimes missing players cutting to the rim. But a little more often this season as defenses collapse around him, Embiid is making passes in traffic to keep the offense moving on the perimeter or set up cutters.

This has often shown up when Embiid is working with his new dunker spot partner as well. With Simmons out of the picture, Matisse Thybulle has taken on the role of Dunker Spot Finisher, and in recent weeks he’s been doing a fine job.

Embiid and Thybulle have been developing some nice chemistry. Thybulle has stayed active and alert in finding opportunities to cut when there are openings in a defense or his man simply leaves him to double team Embiid, and he’s finishing strong when he does get to the rim. Thybulle can fly off two feet in a hurry, and he’s making a career-high 82.1 percent of his shots at the rim. Meanwhile, Embiid is getting a sharper sense of when and where to find Thybulle on the move, and punishing teams when they send too much attention his way.

You can see from some of Embiid’s faster reads as he catches and turns to pass that he’s anticipating a Thybulle cut as the double team comes:

Embiid doesn’t always need to make complicated passing reads to create space for his teammates. He can let a double team come and hit a shooter like Green or Curry on the strong-side wing for a quick three, or simply spring teammates open for a dribble hand-off bucket with a solid screen.

Embiid’s always been capable of wiping out defenders with hefty screens using his 7-foot, 280-pound frame, but it’s happening with more consistency this season. He’s doing a better job of ensuring his screens connect, establishing rock-solid contact, and clearing out as much space as possible. When you partner this with the buzzing downhill speed of Tyrese Maxey or, most frequently, the silky shooting of Seth Curry (who’s having a career year and shooting lights out off the dribble), Embiid’s screens can create easier shots in an instant.

Last but by no means least, Embiid’s evolution this season has shown up in transition. With no Ben Simmons to grab and go down the floor, Embiid has consistently taken it upon himself to handle the ball in transition — whether he’s taking over from guards, or pushing the pace after securing a defensive stop himself. And once he gets rumbling up the floor, his handle has been tighter, he looks nimbler than a year ago, and he’s comfortably finding scores for himself with hesitation pull-ups and drives to the rim, or flinging passes out to the wings.

In the process, he’s jumped from recording assists on just 12 percent of his transition possessions in 2020-21 to 19.4 percent this season.

When defenders are so worried about Embiid pushing the tempo for a score himself, and throwing a couple of bodies at him is often the best strategy, it’s not too hard for him to use that gravity to create fast-break space for others.

Embiid’s latest dominant display came on Wednesday night, as he torched the Magic and tied his career-high with 50 points in just 27 minutes.

It was yet another statement to help solidify his well-deserved place in the MVP conversation.

Whether it’s honing his defense, passing, or something as simple as screening, Embiid just keeps finding ways to get even better.

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