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Joel Embiid, Maturity, And Reaching His Potential

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In a report by Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Pompey reports that Joel Embiid has added 50 pounds of weight since he fractured his Navicular bone, and that he hasn't always been a willing participant in conditioning drills.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article this morning about Joel Embiid. In the article, Pompey includes a couple of tidbits of information about why Embiid was sent home from the West Coast road trip that are a little bit concerning.

First, Pompey mentions Embiid's weight gain.

Although the Sixers wouldn't disclose his weight, a source said he's close to 300 pounds after being 250 pounds at Kansas last season.

It's not the first time Joel Embiid's weight has been an issue since getting hurt last Spring. In a CSNPhilly report from September, Embiid talked about how he gained 50 pounds in 3 months, going from 230 pounds at the end of his season at Kansas to 280  pounds when he got hurt in June. He said that from June until when that was article released he had lost 10 pounds, putting him at 270.

If all that is true, it means that Embiid has not only failed to lose weight in the last 4 months, but that's he's added an additional 30 pounds on since then.

As I mentioned in a mailbag a few weeks ago, Embiid is not currently doing any high-impact activities, limited mostly to shooting and running on the anti-gravity treadmill. So Embiid carrying the extra weight on his right foot, which is recovering from a stress fracture of the navicular bone, isn't (yet) a huge concern, although he clearly needs to get that weight off, and the longer his rehab goes on and the closer he gets to playing on the bone, the more worrisome it becomes.

Still, I think that once Embiid is able to participate in more basketball related activities, he shouldn't have too much trouble getting down to his playing weight.

The 2nd part of Pompey's story was, to me, the bigger part of the report.

And a blowup with assistant strength and conditioning coach James Davis is one of the reasons he was sent home during the team's recent West Coast road trip.

...

The Sixers are trying to address the added weight. Embiid, however, hasn't always been a willing workout participant, according to sources. He's even blown off conditioning drills, one source added.

An altercation with Davis during the West Coast trip, coupled with Brown's wanting him to be in "more of a structured, stable environment," pushed the Sixers to send him home, the sources said.

This brings up the great unknown in basketball scouting: a player's mental approach to the game.

The more time you spend trying to accurately predict the long term production of teenagers, the more you realize just how much a player's emotional IQ plays into the equation.

It doesn't take all that much effort to realize which players are currently good shooters, to pick apart their form and realize what is and is not repeatable. To figure out what they need to do to make their shot quicker and more consistent. The guys with the incredible first steps jump out quickly, as do guys on the other end of the athletic spectrum.

It's not the physical abilities or present basketball skills that are hard to quantify. And, after a while, figuring out what is translatable, what is an NBA skill, and what a player's ultimate upside is are things that become easier with time. A tall task, for sure, but something you can have a reasonable degree of confidence in estimating.

It's never upside that keeps me up at night, it's a player's probability of reaching that upside that causes you to lose sleep.

This is where maturity and mental makeup play a huge role. There is perhaps nothing that impacts the likelihood of a player reaching his physical potential more than their emotional IQ. Their work ethic, dedication, willingness to be coached and listen, and ability to self-evaluate. There is, in my mind, no quality in a prospect that it is more imperative to figure out than a prospects mental makeup.

Unfortunately, there's also no quality that's more difficult to figure out. In fact, it's a borderline impossible task, especially when trying to do so for a bunch of 19 or 20 year old kids so early in their maturation. How they react to something at 19 or 20 may be far different than how they react at 24, much less 30.

It's also almost impossible to get good data on a player's present maturity and mental makeup. You talk to as many people as you can, but most of these people either have an agenda themselves, or they're trying to read subtle clues that they're not really trained to understand.You're using this second-hand information to try to piece together what are essentially psychological evaluations on 100 young men in a very short time frame leading up to the draft.

It is, in essence, trying to use 5 pieces of a thousand piece puzzle to figure out the entire picture.

"I think it's one we're just okay at estimating," Sixers GM Sam Hinkie told LibertyBallers last year. when discussing a player's drive to improve "We hope to ask reasonable questions to lots of people and try to strip out their bias and make an educated guess, but it's still just that [an educated guess]."

In many analytical models and projection systems, and with some scouts as well, there's the assumption that a player's mental makeup is inherently factored in, as whether or not somebody works hard or is amenable to criticism has played a part in their current success or failure. And there's some truth to that: players who have high levels of success, even at the collegiate level, are frequently hard workers.

But, as always, there are outliers.

Each time a prospect makes a jump in competition, they're going to have to improve upon things to maintain, or increase, their current levels of success. The size and physical advantages they had at the lower levels are lessened. Those who relied on these advantages can stagger, or worse; those who increase their skill level are generally the ones who succeed.

None of this is to say that Joel Embiid doesn't have the drive to succeed. We are, by and large, horrible armchair psychologists. We obsess over body language and sound bites. We rely very small pieces of information, some of it from people who have inherent biases and agendas, to build our largely uninformed opinions.

And I'm not just, or even mainly, talking about the biases of reporters here. I'm also talking about guys who scouts and GM's talk to when conducting their evaluations prior to the draft. I'm talking about agents, friends, family members, coaches, athletic directors, opposing coaches, and so on . Pretty much every person who is around a player for an extended period of time, and thus anybody who has real information on a player's mental approach, has some kind of an agenda. It's much more of an investigation that teams are making than an inquiry, and teams rarely have the time or resources to conduct that investigation in full.

But the difficulty that we have in evaluating Joel Embiid's mental makeup, maturity, and whether or not he will grow out of it does not lessen the importance of his mental makeup. We react in an odd manner towards a player's mentality: we bemoan and publicly disgrace players who we feel never made the most of their athletic gifts, players who we feel never grew up or took the sport seriously enough. Yet we condemn people who try to determine early in a player's career whether he has the mental makeup to become great.

We frequently take one of two paths: we either excuse immaturity and a lack of dedication until it's too late, or we condemn a lack of dedication too early, long before we have sufficient information to truly make a case. The middle ground is very rarely found.

It reminds me of something Sam Hinkie said at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference back in 2013 (note: he talks about it during the 25:30 to 28:30 minute mark): We love absolutes. We love people who have the bravado to pretend that they know. That they're sure. When, in reality, we deal largely in the unknown, trying to make the most educated guess we can possibly make.

"I do [say I don't know]. A lot. I do it enough that it makes people uncomfortable sometimes."-Sixers General Manager Sam Hinkie at the 2013 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

There's a possibility, a very real possibility, that once Joel Embiid is able to get back onto the basketball court and actually take part in basketball related activities, this problem goes away. Embiid is a guy who genuinely seems like he enjoys the game, who has seemingly worked hard on improving his game, and motivating a 20 year old is much easier when he can see the fruits of his labor.

The fact that Embiid, if the report is true, may not be the most motivated to condition when he has little chance of seeing the court in the next few months doesn't imply that he won't be working hard on his drop step, up and under, and hook shot when he's ready to really be on a basketball court. We frequently look at "work ethic" as something you either have or you don't have, when in fact different people are motivated by different things. It may be easy to motivate Embiid to sprint up and down the practice court and work on his post moves, but tough to motivate him to spend hours an an anti-gravity treadmill. If so, coach Brown will have to find the right boxes to tick to motivate Embiid and get the most out of his prized center.

It's also possible, perhaps even likely, that Embiid grows out of whatever bouts of immaturity and defiance he is going through. That whatever impact the tragic passing of his younger had on him will fade with time. There have been many players that have grown up in the NBA and realized the kind of hard work and dedication it takes to truly be great, and Joel Embiid seems like the kind of guy who wants to be great.

Hassan Whiteside is the perfect example of this. It took him years to realize the hard work and humility needed to maximize his physical gifts, and he's just now truly starting to showcase them at an NBA level.

And that's the crux of the problem. I think Joel Embiid will have little problem shedding the weight once he's able to take part in more basketball activities. I hope that Joel Embiid has the kind of work ethic not to be good, because I think he has enough natural talent to be really good, but to be great. To be dominant. To be franchise changing.

I hope he does. I have, maybe, a 64% level of confidence that he does. But I don't know. Measuring a player's mental makeup is the greatest challenge in scouting, in player projection, and in team building. It's the hardest to quantify, the great unknown. It's what keeps me up at night as a scout, and it's what makes me worried about this report.

On the list of things I wanted to read this weekend, an inside source questioning the dedication of the most important player on the Sixers rosters was right about at the bottom.

I'm not saying to condemn Joel Embiid. I'm not saying his recovery is a disaster. I'm certainly not saying that this is proof that he will struggle to reach his potential, that drafting him was a mistake, or that it's time to move on from Joel Embiid. I still would have absolutely taken Joel Embiid #1 in the 2014 draft, even with everything that has played out.

I'm just saying I'm not totally dismissing the report, either.