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How Joel Embiid has somehow become even more difficult to guard

Coming off an MVP season, Joel Embiid has become even more difficult to guard thanks to subtle changes and improvements.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Joel Embiid is the reigning MVP of the league for a reason. There were actually pundits that discredited his winning the award, saying he won it because of a narrative.

Gosh, do those folks look very silly right now.

Embiid is on another otherworldly run. After recording 51 points and 12 rebounds Wednesday against Rudy Gobert and the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have the best defensive rating in the NBA, he’s now averaging a league-leading 34.4 points and 11.8 rebounds per game on the season.

Over the last eight games, he’s averaged video game numbers: 41.4 points, 12.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.4 steals with 61.5/37.5/92.5 shooting splits and 71.9% true shooting.

Before Wednesday’s game, Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch was asked about the fit with Nick Nurse as the Sixers’ new bench boss. Finch — who’s known Nurse for years from coaching overseas, in the minors and the NBA — was effusive in his praise.

“It’s incredible when you look at what they’ve been able to do in maximizing [Tyrese] Maxey and Embiid,” Finch said, “but also making an MVP player even harder to guard. That’s pretty impressive in its own right.”

It’s almost scary to think about the fact that Embiid has gotten even more difficult to defend — but he has. Thanks to adopting things from rivals and the ideas of Nurse, Embiid has been in another stratosphere this season.

“I’ve always preached this and I’ve always said I want to be a complete basketball player,” Embiid said. “If I see something that someone else has and I don’t, of course I’m gonna learn it and I’m gonna better at it and I’m gonna start using it. ... I just try to take as much as possible and learn and get better.”

Nurse said postgame that he was happy with the way Embiid attacked the rim. It’s been a point of emphasis for the star center since Nurse arrived. On Wednesday, you saw how difficult it was for Minnesota to respect the midrange — where Embiid has been on an absolute tear — while still cutting off his driving lanes and clogging the paint.

“Well, I keep saying this: I think he’s continuing to get better,” Nurse said. “I think he’s doing enough different things rhythmically to keep those guys guessing. And he’s really got a feel for, if they step into him, getting into ‘em. I think Gobert fouled him once with kind of his body on his arms. He came forward, Joel sees him coming forward, and he got right into his forward movement.

“My favorite thing is he shoots it, he makes it, he makes it … and then all of a sudden, he goes down the lane and dunks it on about three people. I like the force downhill, because that is going to start to draw some other things. And those are also pretty high-percentage shots, so that’s why we like ‘em.”

During this eight-game stretch, Embiid has been lethal from the midrange. He’s shooting 51.4% from his sweet spot on the floor overall this season. He did plenty of damage there Wednesday, going 11-of-14 in the midrange, which set up his dribble drives quite nicely.

It’s funny because Embiid started slow in this game. He did most of his early damage at the free throw line, drawing two early fouls on Gobert. He then went to work attacking Karl-Anthony Towns. Before Towns picked up two fouls of his own, Embiid was able to make this shot.

That little floater/hook shot hasn’t always been a part of Embiid’s repertoire. This is something you might see someone like Nikola Jokic go to. The defense by KAT isn’t terrible. That’s just a difficult shot to stop when you’re worried about a midrange jumper, committing a foul or getting dunked on.

In the third quarter, Embiid carried the Sixers. Maxey scored 20 in the first half and was brilliant in the fourth, but went scoreless in the third. Embiid scored 19 of the Sixers’ 26 points in the period. The midrange was really working — and he used that to his advantage against Gobert on this play.

You can see Embiid got Gobert leaning just a little bit looking to contest a jumper. Instead, Embiid drives to the basket, getting Gobert off balance. Gobert tries to take a charge, but he clearly isn’t set which gives Embiid an easy layup. This is the kind of quick move you see from someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo.

That play is just a guy learning from experience. He’s faced Gobert so often, he knows the tendencies. Some folks might complain about the amount of free throws Embiid takes (he was 17-of-18 in this one), but he really isn’t flopping this year. He’s feeling — or in some cases sensing — the contact. If one thing about Embiid is underrated, it’s his basketball IQ.

If you’re into the whole “ethical scoring” thing — or simply want to put Embiid haters in their place — Tom Ziller’s Good Morning It’s Basketball Substack is worth checking out. The overarching point is that Embiid would still be a super dominant scorer without ever attempting a free throw.

Nurse has also mentioned that he wants Embiid to get more used to bringing the ball up the floor. On so many possessions, teams make it difficult to get him the ball. Him starting the possession with it certainly helps. Here he makes a quick pass to Patrick Beverley, which throws off the defense. Then he runs as he catches the pass back from Pat Bev, which gets KAT off balance.

You know, this sequence is also Jokic-esque. Embiid brings the ball up, passes it off and gets it right back on the run. The shot is funky but effective. Plus, he gets the foul call.

It’s rare that you’ll see Embiid get opportunities with smaller players where he gets left 1-on-1. For some reason, that’s what happens here with Embiid vs. Naz Reid.

This is too easy for a guy that is absolutely cooking.

Again, this is Giannis-like in that it’s a quick decision and a quick move. Embiid doesn’t give enough time for a double team to come. It was also very clear that nobody on Minnesota was interested in helping here.

On this next play, the double team comes, but it’s way too soft. Kyle Anderson is a long and versatile defender, but Embiid sort of negates that because he is a large human that happens to be pretty quick.

Again, with no Gobert or KAT in the game, nobody has any interest in confronting Embiid at the rim.

Imagine being Rudy Gobert Wednesday. You’ve been in and out of the game because of foul trouble. Embiid has been killing you with the midrange. You tried to take a charge on a drive and it didn’t go your way.

Then, when you play great defense, Embiid does this:

That is simply unfair.

Nurse has truly empowered Embiid. Some of these things might seem incremental, but they could go a long way in making the Sixers and their crown jewel more unpredictable and difficult to defend when the postseason comes.

Kudos to Embiid for seeing what great players like Jokic and Giannis do and attempting to implement that into his own game. He might still have a lot to prove once the playoffs roll around, but there’s no denying that Embiid has gotten even better coming off an MVP season.

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