Joel Embiid will be the greatest center to ever play the game. Period. Hold on wait, is that truly possible and within reach or is it a complete pipe dream? Well, it is all based on that one dangerous, explosive word that has ended many general managers’ careers but also propelled some to genius status – potential. Is Embiid the next Hakeem Olajuwon, or is he the next Michael Olowokandi, Sam Bowie, Greg Oden, (fill in the blank with the big man bust of your choice)?
Risk and return, that is the question.
Embiid has all of the potential to be a dominant, franchise-building player in the NBA to carry a team on his back for many years. But that’s just it, if that back can’t hold up at Kansas how can anyone expect it to hold the hopes and expectations of a franchise? He’s come a long way since stepping off the plane at Montverde Academy in Florida via Cameroon, where dribbling a basketball was the equivalent of trying to eat soup with chopsticks for the first time.
Oh yeah, that was only three years ago. No player has developed in such a short time span as Embiid has, possibly in the history of the game. You’ve heard it before, his potential has no ceiling. But is that worth risking a franchise on with the top pick? When history clearly states selecting a center No. 1 overall is more risky than Russian roulette?
Let’s take a deeper look and find out if Embiid is truly going to be the next big thing.
WHAT AREAS OF JOEL EMBIID'S GAME NEED THE MOST IMPROVEMENT?
Here’s the thing, and I’m going to be completely blunt and straight-forward with this: The NBA is no longer a league designed for a dominant big man. It is a guard-oriented league. Gone are the days when a Patrick Ewing-type dominates the low post and controls the flow of the game. Welcome to the modern-day NBA where you can’t have success without an elite point guard and shooters to spread the floor.
Look at the top teams in the league, that’s the formula to follow. Blame it on analytics, blame it on rule changes that favor guard play, or blame it on the European influence of the stretch seven-footers. Whatever it might be, it’s fact and point that the low-post big man isn’t as valuable to a franchise as they were in the past. The trend in the NBA that more and more organizations are finally realizing is the extreme importance of being able to shoot the three at a high rate.
Take for example the current NBA playoffs. Why are the Clippers and the Spurs so hard to defend? The opposing defense has to guard 30 percent more of the floor at all times due to the amount of players that can step out and consistently hit a three. They’re not reliant on one or two main options every night to carry the scoring load; everyone on the floor is a viable threat. I give a lot of credit to the guys behind the scenes for this – Clippers shooting coach Bob Thate and Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland. Grantland recently published an article on Engelland that valued his net worth for the expertise he brings to the Spurs at over $1 million.
It’s crazy to me in a league that is continually becoming more and more reliant on analytics and realizing the significant impact the three-point shot can have on the game, why every NBA team doesn’t have a shooting coach. So the question with Embiid is, does he battle this trend or does he adapt and accept the progression of the NBA game?
I hope the answer to that question is as obvious to Embiid as it is to me. He needs to follow the progression path paved by fellow African-born big man Serge Ibaka. Ibaka came into the NBA very raw without an offensive game worth even mentioning in a scouting report. But have you seen him lately? Oklahoma City has multiple sets and offensive flows in which Ibaka is spotted up in the corner for highest-percentage analytical three. He’s transformed his former non-existent low-post game to what is effective in today’s game – an inside-out threat who can finish at a high rate in pick-and-roll situations and spread the floor to open up lanes for the playmakers.
Much credit needs to go to a friend of mine and one of the top GMs in the league, Sam Presti. That leads into a point entirely of its own that I could talk about for days – the importance of franchise fit. We’ll get more into that later, but let’s just say there’s a reason Gary Neal isn’t the same Gary Neal he was last year in San Antonio.
Let’s talk about the other on-court point that I previously mentioned – the Pythagorean theorem that is the pick-and-roll. Along with being a predominately guard-driven league, the NBA’s most prolific offensive set and continuity flow is undoubtedly the pick-and-roll. As a legitimate big man in the NBA, the ability to thrive in pick-and-roll situations as well as defend it is a must. This is an area of Embiid’s game that needs improvement. Understandable as he is still relatively raw to the game.
In pick-and-roll situations at Kansas, Embiid only converted at a 0.727 points per possession rate, ranking him in the bottom 19% of the NCAA. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt in this situation, as the Jayhawks' offense isn’t centered primarily around the pick-and-roll and college players are often at the peril of ‘the system.’ However, when operating in pick-and-roll situations Emiid appeared uncomfortable and out of flux.
Relatively unwilling to attack the hoop on the roll, (a la Amare Stoudemire after his $100 million contract without his contract creator Steve Nash) and not yet consistent enough to demand aggressive defensive rotation on his pick-and-pop. Embiid will undoubtedly need to lock himself in the film room and take an in depth-course in NBA pick-and-roll 101.
The other area of Embiid’s game that needs the most growth to ensure that he will be more Olajuwon than Hasheem Thabeet is the improvement and development of his overall basketball IQ. This is a broad subject that is a three-fold combination of natural feel, experience, and commitment. The first of the three, natural feel, is more than accounted for. It was apparent from the start. Fresh off the plane from Cameroon, the extremely raw 16-year-old Embiid ran up and down the court with his new high school teammates, which was welcomed with laughter and mocking of his awkwardness. At that moment Coach Kevin Boyle called his players aside and stated, "Laugh all you want, but in five years you're going to be asking him for a loan, because he's going to be worth about $50 million,” according to a Bleacher Report article. Looks like coach Boyle was spot on.
Experience. You’ve all heard it, it’s the first thing that is mentioned after you hear Embiid’s name – his ceiling is unlimited. That’s the epitome of the risk-reward temptation that goes hand in hand with Embiid. How good will he be weighed against how good actually is he? With only three years of playing competitive basketball, many of Embiid’s basketball IQ flaws get overlooked and passed on as, ‘oh, he hasn’t been playing for very long.’ But when does that hall pass get provoked? Throughout the season Embiid put his Jayhawk teammates in a tough position due to his proneness to picking up quick fouls and non-impactful play fouls. Embiid averaged 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes, fouling out of four games and playing with extensive foul trouble (four or more fouls) in over half of his games. This lack of foul control deprived Kansas of one of the top shot blockers in college basketball. As intriguing and game-changing as Embiid’s natural shot blocking ability and lane presence is, he only averaged 2.6 blocks per game in college basketball, not even raking him in the Top 25. I attribute that primarily to Embiid’s inability to stay on the floor for consistent stretches due to his foul trouble.
One of the most important questions that can be asked of a player with unlimited potential is whether or not he is committed to the game and dedicated to his development. If the name Andrew Bynum doesn’t scream out loud and clear in this situation, I don’t know who does.
The good news: Embiid’s commitment and work ethic already makes him look like the prince to Bynum’s pauper. Embiid plays with a fire and a mean streak that is contagious to his teammates. Almost too contagious at times, he was charged with flagrant fouls in three consecutive games. But that same fire has also allowed him to take over games at times both with and without the basketball; 8 blocked shots and many more altered in a big-time conference win over Oklahoma State, carrying his Jayhawks in the last five minutes of a much needed win at Hilton Coliseum over Iowa State.
As hard to predict as future basketball IQ is, Embiid’s IQ is on a path of positive growth that brings his God-given intangibles to the forefront and sweeps his raw basketball flaws under the rug into that dangerous file labeled ‘only played for three years.’
WHY EMBIID WILL BE A STAR IN THE NBA
If you were on a deserted island, what are three essentials you would have with you? What’s your favorite cereal? I’ve heard some interesting questions asked over the years in the draft process where everything about everyone is knit-picked and dissected. Although Embiid’s soft-spoken English does need to improve as he will be the face of a franchise, the good news is his on-court strengths stand out far above his inefficiencies.
On the offensive glass
Let’s first start out with the facets of Embiid’s game where he will have an immediate impact for an organization; offensive rebounding (put-back scoring opportunities) and transition situations. In put-back scoring opportunities, Embiid converted at an All-Universe rate of 93 percent. Basically every offensive rebound Embiid can get his hands on, he’s finishing with his length, athleticism, and touch around the rim. Embiid’s offensive rebound percentage of 12.7 percent (rate of available offensive rebounds a player grabbed while on the floor) isn’t overwhelming, but as his feel for the game continues to improve so will his ability to be a force on the offensive glass.
An area of Embiid’s game that gets GMs more excited than teenage girls at a One Direction concert is Embiid’s ability to get out and run in the open floor and finish at a high rate. In transition situations, Embiid is finishing at a clip of 1.105 points per possession in which he scored 63.3 percent of the times he was targeted on the break. And at 7-0, his ability to push the tempo and make life miserable in the open court on opposing big men is extremely attractive and tantalizing to any front office decision maker. More possessions equal more scoring opportunities for a team.
Post game and post vision
Embiid is the true epitome of a highly efficient inside-out game for a big man. Most big men who have the ability to step out and knock down a 15-foot jumper (which Embiid can consistently do) tend to fall in love with the skill. Embiid’s jumper derives from his ability to score in the post. 49.3 percent of all Embiid’s shot attempts came in a post-up situation which he converted at a rate of 54.9 percent ranking him in the top 77 percent in college basketball. When you break it down even further, Embiid is a dominant force on the left block which is the natural block of choice for a right handed player. When Embiid receives the ball on the left block, his points per possession is at a rock solid 1.145.
While not nearly where he needs to be at from the right block as his left handed baby hook is still a work in progress, Embiid is very effective on the move throughout the lane in flashing situations. But what stands out to me and NBA GMs is Embiid’s ability to pass out of the low post at a highly efficient rate. When Embiid is passing out of the post, his assist-to-field goal percentage is a staggering 68.2 percent. Going even more in depth and indicating his high-level vision and ability to find the open player when double teamed, his AFG% is 66 percent to spot up shooters and 75 percent to cutters. That stat is extremely impressive and his post vision is a skill that will carry Embiid at the next level. And it will only continue to improve, think Blake Griffin and Chris Weber in his prime, two of the best passing big men.
I think it is fairly well established that Joel Embiid has the unique talent to be able to take over a game on the defensive end. In his first few years in the league, the defensive end and protecting the paint is where Embiid’s presence will have the most impact. Embiid is going to be an elite shot blocker – his instincts, athleticism, and skill development path are too good not to.
I know I spoke about it earlier that he doesn’t block enough shots at a high enough rate, but he will get there. I’m not concerned about that. What does stand out to me, and should as well to GMs, is Embiid’s ability to defend in isolation and pick-and-rolls situations at a high level. They are the two most important facets of situational defense that a big man needs to be able to thrive in. Embiid receives high marks in both. In isolation situations, he is holding opponents to 0.655 points per possession. Even the Indiana Pacers score at a higher clip than that. In the ever important pick-and-roll situation, Embiid’s defense is producing at a respectable 0.84 points per possession. And good luck in catch-and-shoot close out situation; he is holding his offensive opponent to an ice cold field goal percentage of 27 percent.
There is no debating that Joel Embiid has all the physical capabilities of becoming a dominant big man in the NBA for years to come. Just watch at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago when Embiid’s measurements are recorded, increased No. 1 pick hype is sure to follow. As you can see, Embiid also has the intangibles on the offensive and defensive end to go right along with his God-given gifts. He still is very raw, but his potential ceiling is limitless (and I promised myself I wouldn’t say that cliché!).
But the enormous elephant in the room and the Russian Roulette risk/reward factor, which will make or break whatever franchise selects him in the Top 3 is his health. Can Embiid stay healthy through an 82 game NBA season? A 10-year career? If his back can’t hold up at Kansas, how is it going to take the pounding on a nightly basis in the NBA? Those are the questions that will produce many sleepless nights for a front office. Millions of dollars, high-ranking executives jobs on the line; not a bad impact for an awkward kid from Cameroon who three years ago hardly knew any English... or any basketball.
David Nurse is a professional shooting coach. You can learn more about him at PerfectShotsShooting.com, the best shooting and skills basketball website in the world. You can also follow him on Twitter @davidnurse05.