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Decision-making as a roller is the next stage of Joel Embiid’s evolution as a superstar

The arrival of James Harden has made clear another skill Joel Embiid is incorporating and refining.

Philadelphia 76ers v New York Knicks Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Whether it’s been improved defensive discipline, diversifying his self-creation repertoire or a litany of other areas, Joel Embiid has seemingly addressed whatever skills necessary to further progress as a superstar throughout his career.

With James Harden now a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, a new area has surfaced for Embiid to refine: decision-making as a roller. This is not to posit his rolling abilities as a glaring weakness. Through one month, he’s already showcased many shrewd sequences diving as a roller, particularly when defenses trap Harden.

But it’s also still clearly a developmental process for him. And that makes sense! Prior to Harden’s arrival, rarely has he been afforded consistent scenarios to work from advantageous situations. At best, he’s usually operating against single coverage. At worst, it’s been waves of double-teams and, sometimes, even triple-teams. Navigating this new dynamic won’t be an immediate assimilation, but the early returns are promising and lucrative.

Among aggressive drop coverage, trapping or showing, teams will aim to take away Harden’s threatening pull-up jumper. He lacks the burst and finishing to consistently turn the corner in crowds right now. His best tools are the step-back and a floater (the latter, not as much this year). The aforementioned ball-screen tactics can limit Harden’s ability to frequent those shots and corner him into thorny spots.

In recent weeks, the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic have doubled him off pick-and-rolls on numerous possessions, leaving Embiid to pilot plays from an unfamiliar context. The results, while mixed, have generally yielded encouraging processes for the Sixers. There are many occurrences like these, where Embiid swiftly sifts through his options, while continuing to pressure a compromised defenses and executes heady reads.

The Sixers are often stationing someone in the dunker spot and that generates a reliable passing outlet for Embiid. Whether the low man stays home against a corner shooter or crashes in to cover the dunker spot release valve, Embiid can typically bank on one of those two reads being available. When they are, he’s making good decisions.

If the low man is an undersized helper, like Bones Hyland in one of the plays above, Embiid can simply wiggle around them in space or bully through them for a bucket or foul.

By and large, he’s thrived as a roller this season. His 1.201 points per possession are a career-high and place him in the 69th percentile, according to Synergy. Only Nikola Jokic (265 possessions, 1.057 PPP) and Nikola Vucevic (443, 0.955) have registered more possessions as a roller this year, and neither is approximating his efficiency.

But this doesn’t feel like his peak production. An off-season to refine some areas could really see him emerge as a truly dominant roll man, both as a scorer and passer.

One of the hallmarks of Embiid’s career season this year is patience. He’s become masterfully patient functioning from the post and handling double-teams. Patience, though, isn’t always an ally on the short roll. If the ball is going to stick against a scrambling defense, whoever holds the ball better be pressuring defenders by attacking in some form. Standing in one spot and surveying the floor as defenders scramble back after flooding Harden can be a (relative) win for them.

Embiid, at times, has treated short-roll reps like static post-ups and it’s led to some suboptimal plays. The looks he generates out of post-ups are ones Philadelphia will accept. He’s the league’s best post-up player and one of its premier scorers. You trust him on these plays.

Yet part of the allure of Harden was increasing Embiid and the team’s shot quality through Harden’s scoring gravity and playmaking chops. When Embiid stagnates against a defense on its heels, some of his star teammate’s impact gets quieted. Aiming for better possessions is not about framing things as a criticism of Embiid’s scoring arsenal. Instead, the goal is identifying some low-hanging fruit for improvement to truly maximize this pairing as long as it’s around.

He’s also prone to hunting or drawing fouls as a roller, and he’s been burned periodically when the anticipated contact never arises. Among the 36 players with at least 100 roll man possessions this season, Embiid’s 23.2 percent foul rate ranks third behind Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo, per Synergy.

Point being: him expecting contact and/or a foul is entirely justified. But he might overindulge occasionally and being controlled, while still methodically attacking, is ideal. Developing a floater like this could be the beneficial counter against a crowded paint.

Stagnation or playing for a foul rather than allowing that outcome to be a byproduct of his decision-making is where possessions can grow dicey, especially against high-level playoff defenses.

A few notes about these plays: Embiid is put in a tough spot on the first clip because Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris are poorly spaced in the strong-side corner. He doesn’t have an easily discernible pass to one of them. But the turnover still could’ve been avoided had Embiid not barged into Crowder (maybe, he trips, I’m not sure, I’m trying to fully grasp this one).

On a couple of the jumpers that he “settles” for, Harris is the preferred passing outlet. Harris’ tendencies to record-scratch off the catch could dissuade Embiid from feeding him, though he has been much more decisive in recent weeks and shooting the cover off the ball from deep (44.4 percent beyond the arc over the last 10 games). As Harris further adjusts to his new role, that might be a decision Embiid feels more confident in moving forward.

Even so, the chain reaction that swinging the ball to his frontcourt mate might elicit seems more worthwhile than those jumpers. But again, Embiid has earned the right to take such shots and proven they’re within his wheelhouse. Suggesting a different option is merely intended to maximize the process of this offense, and I might not be correct anyway!

Where Embiid has really excelled is timing his rolls to maintain a passing window for the ball-handler and tailoring that to the specific ball-handler. When Harden is running the show, Embiid is more likely to dive to the rim because he knows his point guard can thread the ball through traffic and is quite a daring passer. When Maxey is his partner, he’ll often meander to the free-throw line because Maxey is less adept and willing to deliver dimes into a crowd.

Providing a safety net in pick-and-rolls is a pillar of dynamic ball-screen bigs. Constantly ensuring the defense has to account for the challenge of possibility is crucial. If defenders can credibly ignore a roll man because they dive too quickly or slowly — or they’re poor decision-makers when a shot isn’t tenable — the ball-handler is caught in a bind. Embiid is almost always preventing his point guard from being abandoned on an island.

When the Sixers run a pick-and-roll, he’s routinely around to catch the pass. That’s not the case in every offense, especially with a star who’s historically found scoring chances elsewhere and is in their first month playing alongside an elite pick-and-roll maestro. All these in-game reps as a roller, at this volume, is not something he’s accustomed to during his Philadelphia tenure.

But that’s simply the story of Embiid’s career. A new set of skills are presented as necessary to help himself and the team, so he adapts. And usually, that adaptation happens promptly, just as it has with his pick-and-roll prowess.

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