Long past are the days of Philadelphia sports fans waiting and telling themselves that once Embiid is healthy, it will be worth waiting the time he had to take off. He’s here, he’s healthy, and one thing is for sure: it was worth it.
Embiid has made an early case for MVP this year, and is basically the only center in the league to make a claim for it thus far. If this article was written 2 years ago, after what felt like JoJo’s 10th injury, the key to maximizing Embiid would have come down to one thing: get him healthy enough to play, and keep him healthy enough to develop. Thankfully, mercifully, both of those things have happened.
Underrated, in my opinion, is the impact that having a complete off-season to work on his body and his strength, as I believe it’s been crucial in his ability to play so many minutes and not hurt himself. He’s been playing a lot of physical, aggressive, contact-absorbing minutes, and at some point he was playing the most of any center in the league, which I’d imagine is still true, and if not, then he’s way up there.
So what is it that the team can do to get the most out of the modern, grown-ass man that is Joel Embiid? Gone are the days of the fragile and wiry 7-footer; now Embiid has filled out and he’s ready to assert himself. How can the Sixers’ organization support him in ways that bolster his performance and continue to aid his development?
First and foremost, he needs to keep his mentality in check, in a multitude of ways. Take the game last night against Toronto as an example.
Toronto is exceptionally well-equipped to deal with Embiid. They have a lot of big bodies, and capable defenders who can clog the paint and make Embiid work to get to the rim. This clearly became a source of frustration for Embiid, as not only was he not able to score as often, but he wasn’t getting a whistle nearly as much, either. He then tried to push things a little harder down the stretch. He tried to take some charges to no avail, and took a lot of contact in the paint trying to score that went unrewarded.
When he wasn’t able to get any bully-ball going, he started just chucking up 3’s at the top of the key with 20 seconds on the shot clock. Completely unnecessary, and a waste of a possession when he could just re-rack, maybe go for some DHO Redick action, which undoubtedly is a better chance of a 3-pointer. He wasn’t able to get it going down low early on, and he tried to do too much in order to get himself back on track down the stretch.
Another way in which his mentality can be problematic is in his competitive aggressiveness. Embiid would play all 48 minutes of all 82 games if he could. It’s one of the things about him that I love most; how much he wants to just go out and compete. He knows he can beat anyone on the court in any game, and he wants to prove it.
However, he needs to keep in mind one simple fact: he’s absurdly large. He is simply too big to be playing all of that time, especially with the nature of his super active, very physical play on both ends of the floor. He’s been injury-free ever since he took off the mask, but that’s no reason to get reckless.
He needs to keep in mind his history, and that he can’t just go banging into Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam for 3 quarters and not get gassed. In fact, he was completely gassed. Part of this is due to the referees’ reserved whistling, as a lot of the time taking all of that contact would have been worth a trip to the line.
So, he’s got to keep his head on straight. That will come with time and experience. It took LeBron 10 years to realize he had to pace himself if he’s going to compete late into April in each season.
The other big way that the team can strategically work around Embiid is to try really, really hard to enable him early in games. It is extremely difficult to run offense through your center late in the games. It’s easy for teams to clog the paint with bodies, and make a tired big-man work twice as hard to get buckets.
So, it will be on Brett to get value out of Embiid in the first 3 quarters, because it might be too late come crunch time. This isn’t to say that he can’t be useful late in games, but the team should be prepared to struggle to utilize him. This is, of course, part of why the team made the bold move to get Butler.
After all, he is The Closer.