If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that Joel Embiid does not lack confidence.
During the Philadelphia 76ers’ preseason finale against the Miami Heat, the overwhelmingly skilled big man forced Hassan Whiteside into quick foul trouble with a couple of explosive drives towards the rim. He was then hasty to inform Whiteside, along with the rest of Miami’s bench, that the former All-Defensive Second Team center couldn’t guard him.
How’s that for a sense of self-belief?
Oh, and it didn’t stop there. Embiid had a message for his Sixers teammates after his dominant stretch.
“He pulled me aside during the Heat game and said, ‘We’re going to the playoffs,’” 76ers guard Justin Anderson told HoopsHype. “And I said, ‘Yo, take us there!'”
A bold statement, considering Philadelphia has won 75 times in its last 328 outings dating back to the 2013-14 season. But don’t be mistaken, Embiid isn’t merely putting on a show; he truly believes in the message he is purveying.
Anderson continued: “He has the mentality of a champion, and everything he does is for the betterment of the team. That’s the coolest part of having him as a friend and having him as a teammate – he’s so unselfish. He always says, ‘I gotta keep working.’ He always says, ‘I can’t let the city down.’ He never talks about how he’s made it. He’s always talking about how much work he still has to do and how much he still needs to improve.”
Embiid’s issues are well-documented.
Two surgeries on the navicular bone in his right foot in two years, followed by a partially torn meniscus last season all forced the talented big man to suit up in 31 games over his first three seasons as a professional.
And yet, the Philadelphia 76ers handed him a five-year, $148 million contract extension anyway.
The deal was met with a ton of questions:
Why sign Embiid to a deal of that size? He’s clearly proven an inability to stay healthy.
Wouldn’t Philadelphia have been better served waiting another year to see if the injury woes are behind him?
If Embiid played around 50 games in 2016-17, what kind of offer sheet would he have gotten from rival teams as a restricted free agent in the 2018 offseason?
The 76ers did protect themselves a bit, as the extension is reportedly one of the “most complex” in NBA history.
Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks, the least amount of money Embiid could earn with the extension is $84.2 million, which would only occur if the Sixers waived him after the 2018-19 season. Barring catastrophe, that seems very unlikely.
Regardless, even with the injury protections, the extension comes with inherent risks. History has not been kind to big men with foot problems, and we only have to look as far back as Yao Ming for proof.
At the same time, the poster boy for “The Process” flashed transcendent ability throughout his 31 games in 2016-17. Embiid averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.5 blocks in that span, while knocking down 36.7 percent of his three-pointers and 78.3 percent of his 7.9 (!) nightly free-throw attempts.
Though sample size must be taken into account, the Kansas product is one of just four players in league history to average at least 20.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.0 three in a single campaign; the other three were Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Kevin Durant.
Embiid excelled in a few areas during his rookie season.
First, as an isolation player, Philly’s behemoth added 8.7 points of value in 2016-17, according to NBA Math. That was the second-highest mark among centers, trailing only the underrated Al Horford.
In this case, the video evidence backs up the analytics. Just take the following clips into account and realize you’re watching a gargantuan seven-footer face-up opponents like a mutated version of Carmelo Anthony:
Men that size shouldn’t be able to nail step-back jumpers over tight defense that consistently. For Embiid to be blessed with his frame, deft shooting touch and explosiveness is otherworldly.
His teammates certainly agree.
“He’s at the point now where he knows how dominant he is and he knows that nobody can guard him,” Anderson told HoopsHype. “And I think he’s right – nobody can guard him. He’s so dominant… And not only does he put up big numbers, he draws so much attention from defenses and he can get other players out of the game [due to foul trouble].”
Embiid’s dominance extends to the less glamorous side of things as well.
With its monstrous center in the game last season, Philadelphia allowed 102.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBAWowy. If prorated for the year, the Sixers would’ve had the league’s third-best defense, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors.
However, when Embiid sat, that number skyrocketed to 111.6 points per 100 possessions – a mark that would have been the worst in the NBA by a full point. The difference is as stark as it is impressive and speaks volumes about how destructive the seven-footer is on the defensive end of the floor.
Whether guarding his man straight up, switching onto ball-handlers on the perimeter or soaring into plays out of nowhere, Embiid is prone to swat opponents’ shots away with viscous indignation:
Philadelphia’s big man blocked 79 shots in 31 games as a rookie. The only other player to reject at least 75 shots in fewer than 40 contests as a first-year contributor was Hall of Famer Bill Walton. (Somewhat coincidentally, Walton’s absurd zenith as an athlete was cut short due to… foot problems.)
Considering blocks are an inaccurate means to measure defensive impact, though, we should also note the seven-foot specimen was one of the league’s most effective point-stoppers in the painted area. In 2016-17, 28 centers defended at least 14.5 field-goal opportunities from within five feet of the rim on a nightly basis, according to NBA.com. Among them, Embiid yielded the fourth-stingiest rate of successful attempts at 56.2 percent:
He’s nearly impossible to back down thanks to his bulky frame, and he possesses unique agility that makes it very difficult for potential rim-attackers to get by him.
And for those who were concerned about what his latest injury scare may have done to his athleticism, those fears quickly evaporated after Embiid’s first preseason outing of 2017.
The big man dropped 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists in fewer than 15 minutes of work against the Brooklyn Nets in his return to action, while drawing an obscene 18 trips to the charity stripe along the way.
Needless to say, he hasn’t lost a bit of the mesmerizing explosive ability he displayed throughout the 2016-17 regular season.
Locking in Embiid for the long haul, despite the injury risk, was the right move by Philadelphia. He’s got the requisite talent to one day become the most dominant player in the league.
Some big men aptly protect the paint, but can’t space the floor offensively. Others stretch out their opponents’ defenses, but are turnstiles when it’s their turn to get stops. Embiid can exquisitely function as both: the shot-blocker and three-point sniper.
And that’s just part of what makes him so special.
His hunger and drive, even after signing a life-changing deal, haven’t waned – and that should excite fans of “The Process” more than anything.
“That mentality is what separates him and makes him great,” Anderson told HoopsHype. “I’ve never been around a player like that. I’d say Dirk [Nowitzki] is the closest comparison in terms of being great while also being humble, hungry and doing everything for the betterment of the team.”
Back in June, backup big Richaun Holmes reiterated that Philly is incredibly confident entering this season, and Embiid is a big reason for that.
“We have so much talent and so much size,” Holmes told HoopsHype. “There’s really no telling how good we can be. It’s just a matter of us honing in and getting chemistry together. I think we can make a really good run this year. We have so much talent on the team and many hard workers, so there’s really no telling how good we can be this year. We’ll see.”
Ultimately, the team’s immediate ceiling will be predicated upon whether or not Embiid can maintain some semblance of health. Philadelphia will be extremely cautious with its game-changing center, likely not allowing him to participate in back-to-backs and shutting him down at the first sight of trouble.
Nevertheless, in 50 games, Embiid can pack the production it takes most other players a full 82 to create. And that’s why he is now a very, very wealthy man.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.