Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers took a half-beat to evaluate the scenario throughout a late-season sport in opposition to the Boston Celtics. As is usually the case, he felt a bonus.
Embiid, a 7-foot, 280-pound heart, cradled the ball close to the highest of the important thing as he confronted up in opposition to the Celtics’ Grant Williams, a 6-6 ahead who crouched right into a defensive stance as he waved his left hand in. Embiid’s face. It may as nicely have been an act of give up.
Embiid had a variety of extraordinary feats in the course of the common season to place himself as a favourite to win his first NBA Most Valuable Player Award. In addition to main the league in scoring for a second consecutive season, with a career-high 33.1 factors per sport, he averaged 10.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.7 blocks.
But there was one factor he did extra typically than anything, an underrated ability for him that destabilized opposing defenses and helped carry the 76ers to the third-best file within the NBA: He took 5,526 dribbles.
During that possession in opposition to the Celtics, Embiid wanted simply two of them — a pair of laborious dribbles to his proper as his teammates cleared out to the 3-point line, dragging their defenders with them. Embiid pulled up within the paint, then created house in opposition to Williams with a double pivot earlier than he sank a brief fadeaway jumper over him.
“How are you going to cease that?” Ian Eagle, TNT’s play-by-play voice, stated in the course of the tv broadcast.
The brief reply for the Celtics was that they weren’t. Embiid completed with 52 factors in a slender win.
Not so way back, NBA facilities made their lunch-pail livings by tenting out close to the ring. A between-the-legs dribble out close to the 3-point line would have most likely landed them on the bench.
But the sport has modified, in fact, and the plodding massive man is a relic. The fashionable NBA is teeming with behemoths who can launch 3-pointers, run units from the excessive submit and, in some instances, stretch defenses by dribbling like their Lilliputian teammates.
Enter Embiid, whose improved polish as a ballhandler — and his affection for the craft — has made him much more potent because the 76ers face the Nets within the first-round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Philadelphia leads the sequence, 2-0, with Game 3 on Thursday in Brooklyn.
“I feel he thinks he is a guard,” 76ers capturing guard Tyrese Maxey stated of Embiid.
Embiid was not all the time so comfy dealing with the ball. As a first-year participant in the course of the 2016-17 season, he averaged simply 0.78 dribbles per contact. In reality, he averaged lower than one dribble per contact till Doc Rivers was employed because the staff’s coach earlier than the 2020-21 season.
At the time, Rivers stated, he heard from followers who wished Embiid to cease drifting to the perimeter. Their argument was that he was too massive and too expert on the basket to be messing round close to the 3-point line. But Rivers stated he resisted their pleas to form Embiid into extra of an old-school heart.
“Everybody was saying: ‘Get him on the submit! Get him on the submit!’ Rivers recalled in an interview. “But it is a man who can convey the ball up for us, he can run pick-and-rolls, and there are only a few bigs who can try this. He’s a 7-footer who performs like a guard, so you recognize what? Let him do it.”
Last season, Embiid averaged 1.41 dribbles per contact, which ranked second amongst facilities behind Bam Adebayo of the Miami Heat. This season, Embiid averaged 1.18 dribbles per contact — one other strong complete that once more positioned him among the many league’s most dribble-prone massive males. He averaged almost 84 dribbles per sport, in keeping with NBA Advanced Stats, a division on the league workplace that produces metrics primarily based on participant monitoring knowledge.
“I consider I can do something on the basketball flooring,” Embiid stated. “You ask me to be a scorer, I’ll be a scorer. You ask me to be a playmaker, I’ll be a playmaker.”
He shouted throughout the locker room at James Harden, the staff’s start line guard.
“James,” Embiid stated, “am I good at ball dealing with?”
Harden, who averaged 4.77 dribbles per contact this season, arched an eyebrow. (It’s all relative.)
“All massive males need to be guards,” 76ers ahead PJ Tucker stated. “Why? Because being a guard is cooler. Who needs to hang around within the paint and simply take hook pictures?”
Along these traces, Maxey acknowledged that he generally will get nervous when Embiid grabs a defensive rebound and insists on dribbling upcourt himself.
“But on the finish of the day, he is Joel Embiid for a purpose,” Maxey stated. “There’s solely considered one of him.”
In the half court docket, the calculus for defenders is unforgiving. Embiid is proficient sufficient as an out of doors shooter — he took three 3-pointers per sport and made 33 p.c of them this season — that opposing forwards and facilities should respect him. But in the event that they overextend by urgent up in opposition to him, Embiid is able to dribbling by them.
“Bigs? They haven’t any shot,” Tucker stated. “I imply, they cannot guard him anyplace.”
And if opponents attempt to entice him, Embiid will discover the open man.
“For him to do the stuff that he does at his dimension is ridiculous,” stated Norm Roberts, who coached Embiid as an assistant at Kansas.
During Embiid’s lone school season, Roberts envisioned him creating right into a “Tim Duncan-type man,” an early signal of Embiid’s excessive ceiling. During Duncan’s Hall of Fame profession with the San Antonio Spurs, he was extra of a conventional heart — a giant man who might dribble, however one who largely thrived across the basket by sealing defenders and utilizing a smorgasbord of submit strikes.
The problem for the teaching workers at Kansas was that Embiid didn’t think about himself a conventional heart, and maybe that was as a result of he was unfamiliar with the idea.
Growing up in Cameroon, Embiid performed soccer and volleyball. His first actual publicity to basketball got here at age 16, when Luc Mbah a Moute, a Cameroonian participant who was then a ahead for the Milwaukee Bucks, invited him to a summer season basketball camp. Embiid was uncooked, however he was 6-10 and agile, and he quickly discovered himself taking part in highschool basketball in Florida.
Some of Embiid’s earliest classes got here by way of YouTube. In addition to learning footage of Hakeem Olajuwon, who was one of the crucial dominant facilities of his period, Embiid was riveted by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, slick guards who torched defenders with their quickness and their sleight of hand.
“Those are the fellows I’ve all the time been extra drawn to,” Embiid stated. “They’re clearly approach smaller than me, and I can not transfer in addition to they do. But I really like watching the best way they transfer, how briskly they’re, and I nonetheless do. That’s how I study, and that is how I attempt to add to my sport.”
He added: “When you have a look at the most effective ballhandlers, it is not essentially about dribbling. It’s all about footwork. You have to have good footwork.”
At Kansas, Embiid had good footwork — the years he had spent taking part in soccer have been a giant assist — together with terrific fingers and nice imaginative and prescient as a passer, Roberts stated. But he was nonetheless a piece in progress, and Coach Bill Self set wholesome boundaries.
“He all the time appreciated to dribble it,” Roberts stated, “however we weren’t going to let him dribble it.”
As the 2014 NBA draft got here into clearer focus, there have been exceptions. Whenever scouts rolled via Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse, Self would have Embiid head to a basket with a defender in order that he might deal with the ball and “do the Olajuwon stuff” for 5 or 10 minutes.
“He’d do the Dream Shake to perfection,” Roberts stated, referring to Olajuwon’s hallmark spin transfer.
After the 76ers drafted him third total, Embiid missed his first two seasons as a professional with a damaged foot. But these two seasons, in an unintended approach, have been elementary to his development, Roberts stated. Limited in what he might do with the staff, Embiid had loads of time to sharpen his really feel for the sport — by dribbling.
For his half, Embiid needs to proceed to enhance. Two keys, he stated, are maintaining his dribble low and understanding when to choose it up. But he in any other case has the liberty to do what he needs.
“I do not assume I’m a guard, and I do not assume I’m a giant,” he stated. “I’m an entire basketball participant.”
Additional work by Andy Chen.