Joel Embiid is back to dominating.
After a slow start to the season, coming off a summer in which he dealt with injury and needed to rediscover his typical conditioning, Embiid has taken off over the last several games. Over his last four contests since returning from illness, Embiid has averaged 40 points with a 66.1 true shooting percentage to go along with some stellar defense. His career-high 59-point, near quadruple-double to defeat the Jazz was truly one of the better performances in NBA history, showcasing unstoppable scoring power and skill, improved playmaking, and complete lockdown interior defense with his seven blocks.
He undoubtedly deserved his latest Eastern Conference Player of the Week award, and has given the generally struggling Sixers something to be excited about during James Harden’s current injury absence.
While Embiid’s monstrous scoring performances and overwhelming defense have been the standout parts of his play, his passing skill can’t go overlooked either. Similarly to last season before Harden’s arrival in Philadelphia, when Embiid’s passing reached a new level as he was directing the offense from the middle of the floor and handling the ball more in transition, he’s yet again putting his sharper playmaking on full display. With no Harden to orchestrate the offense, as he was so well this season before his injury, Embiid’s usage has increased. He’s able to lead the offense from the middle of the floor to an even higher degree.
In the last four games (all without Harden), Embiid has averaged 5.3 assists — taking him to 4.1 assists per game for the season with a 23.3 assist percentage, marks that are only slightly shy of his career-high levels from last season.
Of course, the Sixers’ 16th-ranked offense this season has been disappointing, suffering due to limited point guard play when Harden can’t lead the way, Embiid’s slow start, and an overall lack of creativity in general. (The big fella could also do with cutting down a few messy plays and the five turnovers he’s averaged over the last four games, too.)
Embiid’s recent explosion has given them a major lift, though, and he and the Sixers are harder to stop when he’s making passing reads like those below. Let’s look at a few examples of his passing repertoire from his recent performances, focusing on how well he’s been operating from the middle of the floor.
Take this play where Embiid is set up in the Sixers’ often used “Delay” action, where he can pass and lead the offense from the middle of the perimeter. Tyrese Maxey runs a side pick-and-roll with Tobias Harris as the screener, before Maxey passes straight to Embiid as he dribbles off the pick. This leaves Collin Sexton and Jarred Vanderbilt flying towards Maxey to prevent an open pull-up or drive, and Harris promptly cuts inside. With two defenders by Maxey, Mike Conley caught drifting towards Matisse Thybulle, and Kelly Olynyk stepping up to focus on Embiid at the arc, Harris has a clear cutting lane and Embiid hits him right on time with a nifty bounce pass:
There have been some good Embiid-to-Harris connections while Harden’s been sidelined. This is a simple yet effective play, entrusting Embiid The Passer to lead the way.
On the next play, the Sixers send Embiid off a Thybulle screen to get their superstar set up in the middle of the floor. Embiid can weaponize his gravity as a passer again here. Thybulle’s defender, Jordan Clarkson, runs straight to Embiid as Maxey makes the entry pass before recovering to Thybulle. Embiid, with two defenders on him and Thybulle open by the rim, creates an easy score by making a speedy pass before any help can arrive under the basket:
Embiid’s processing speed is on show again in the next clip, as he makes a crafty, instinctive pass in transition rather than a slower half-court setting. As he catches the ball and drives down the middle of the lane, the entire Utah defense is focused on him. Olynyk is in trouble defending one-on-one by the basket (the Jazz’s heavy use of single coverage was, unsurprisingly, a problem for them all game), and Maxey’s defender, Conley, is only paying attention to Embiid hurtling inside. Embiid cleverly uses this to his advantage, sending a no-look bounce pass to the wide-open Maxey in the corner. Embiid’s euro step sells defenders on him attacking, while the no-look delivery catches Conley off guard and gives him no time to recover before Maxey is already launching a triple:
Short-roll passing has often been a specific area of Embiid’s playmaking where he could stand to improve, including last season when his pick-and-roll usage increased alongside Harden. This is still something Embiid will ideally fine tune, but plays like the following demonstrate what he’s capable of. Embiid executes a short roll to the free throw line and sells the Hawks’ surrounding defenders on a pull-up jumper, freezing Maxey’s defender, Justin Holiday, in the process. After ensuring his teammate is left in space, Embiid passes out of his fake jumper and creates another open three for Maxey:
Again, you can see how Embiid is using his gravity to create space for others, and deceiving defenders with fakes on top of that to give teammates even more time.
Even in the final, following clip against Atlanta, where Embiid is operating from just outside the left mid-post rather than the middle of the floor, this pass is a good example of his awareness, timing, and floor management. Harris cuts inside and draws Trae Young in, which catches Dejounte Murray’s attention to be ready to help inside. Embiid hints at attacking a cleared-out defense by gesturing for Maxey to shift to the weak-side wing, before rifling a perfectly-placed skip pass over to P.J. Tucker, who’s left open for three:
"It’s good to see him back," Maxey said after Embiid's historic performance against the Jazz. "He’s having a lot of fun. I think you can tell he’s hitting his groove, honestly. Whatever he had with his foot kind of messed him up. I thought he was in really good shape, then his foot kind of messed with him. Then he got sick. That messes with your wind. And now I think he’s finally hitting his stride."
The Sixers have won three of their last four games, their defense and communication has started to ramp up to give them the fifth-best defensive rating in the NBA, and Embiid has clearly jumped back into form. There are some reasons to start feeling encouraged in the early stages of this season in Philly, despite how much work needs to be done moving forward if they’re going to reach their potential.
Embiid is at the top of the list of positives right now, just like he always has been for the Sixers. The quality he’s showing as a passer is part of that, and another reminder of his seemingly constant improvement.
"Joel Embiid is very good at basketball," Maxey added. "There’s nothing I can really say about it. He’s just really good at basketball."
Maxey sums it up rather well. What more is there to say at this point?