Joel Embiid has improved his passing, which is becoming a weapon in the Sixers offense.
Oftentimes, the mark of an all-time great athlete is one who can convert weaknesses into strengths. LeBron James couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn when he entered the league. Now, he’s shooting a career-high 42.2 percent from 3-point range this season. Identify the flaw, then adapt. The concept is simple; the execution is not. Through 22 games this season, Joel Embiid is delivering on the execution. After posting a historic turnover rate a season ago, the Philadelphia 76ers center has not only reduced that mark, but he’s making a positive impact with his passing.
According to Basketball-Reference, Embiid ranked fourth in turnovers per 36 minutes last season (5.4), behind only James Harden (5.7), Russell Westbrook (5.6) and Larry Sanders (5.5) — the latter of whom played 13 minutes all season. Harden and Westbrook concluded their seasons with 464 and 438 turnovers, the first- and second-most in league history, with only Harden (374 in 2015-16), Allen Iverson (344 in 2004-05) and Westbrook (342 in 2015-16) coming within shouting distance of those marks since the turn of the century.
Embiid’s growth as a passer is evident in his declining turnover rate, down from 16.3 percent a season ago to 13.9 percent this season. Not only is he coughing up the rock less frequently this year, but he’s also experiencing a sharp decline in turnovers per game each month of the season so far (4.5 in October, 3.8 in November, 3.3 in December). Aside from a slightly lower usage rate (36 percent in 2016-17, 33.5 percent in 2017-18), Embiid’s improved skills as a distributor have primarily accounted for this dip.
During his rookie campaign, Embiid posted just three games with five assists and four other times, he reached the four-assist plateau. In only 22 contests this season, the star center has nine such games, including five outings with six or more assists, a number he failed to reach even once last year. In those nine games, the Sixers are 8-1. On the season, Embiid is averaging 3.4 assists per game, which marks a more-than-50-percent increase from 2016-17, when he averaged 2.1.
The star center doesn’t possess the generational vision of his running mate Ben Simmons, and he doesn’t need to. What’s aided his growth as a passer is an increased willingness to find, and look for, his teammates, and that’s what most important.
Before he even starts his move to the basket, Embiid recognizes that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s decision to come and double sets off a chain reaction, likely leaving Robert Covington, a 42.7-percent shooter from beyond the arc this season, wide open. With Larry Nance Jr. the only player within relative reach to contest Covington’s shot, Embiid diverts Nance’s attention away from Covington and toward Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, ensuring the sharpshooting wing will be left open.
Contrasting that clip with the one below highlights the incredible strides Embiid has made as a distributor.
Embiid finds himself in a similar situation to the one above: room to operate in an isolation set, with shooters flanking him on the perimeter, and a defender lurking, ready to employ a double-team. Where the difference lies is in the time it takes him to spot an open Nik Stauskas (36.8 percent from 3-point range in 2016-17) near the top of the 3-point arc. By the time Embiid even attempts to kick it out to Stauskas, a turnover is imminent as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has interrupted the play.
More often than not, Embiid’s turnovers stem from an attempt to force the action. The patience to find teammates has enhanced his alarmingly fast development. Sometimes the right play isn’t always the one that lands on a highlight reel. Embiid is coming to this realization and it’s reaping benefits for the Sixers.
At 7 feet 2 inches, Embiid holds a four-inch advantage over his 6-foot-10 counterpart, Domantas Sabonis. Set up on the low block, Embiid possesses the skillset to challenge Sabonis and likely find success. Instead, he notices the even more significant mismatch materializing beneath the basket as Simmons establishes position against a diminutive — in this case — Victor Oladipo. Embiid doesn’t consider taking a dribble, immediately tossing the ball inside to his teammate for an easy two points.
Another example in which Embiid is willing to bypass his mismatch for an even greater one, leading to a quick basket for Simmons:
It’s these types of plays that can simultaneously reduce Embiid’s concerning turnover rate and shine a light on his maturation as a passer.
I said what I meant when I wrote that Embiid isn’t nearly as gifted a playmaker or passer as Simmons. But that doesn’t mean the big man isn’t prone to some incredible passes that leave you wondering just how monstrous his ceiling is.
Some of the credit here must be given to Covington, who recognized the opportunity to lose his man as Brandon Ingram doubled Embiid, but still, the pass is equally noteworthy. Embiid regains possession after a near turnover and rather than barrel inside and attack Brook Lopez, something he would have likely done last season, his eyes are up, he’s patient and he’s looking for the open man. In this case, he’s able to thread the needle between both Ingram (7-foot-4 wingspan) and Lopez while also leading Covington as to make sure Kyle Kuzma can’t get back into the play. But he doesn’t lead Covington too far, guaranteeing that Lonzo Ball and his 7-foot wingspan won’t be a factor. Even before he spots Covington, he directs Kuzma toward Dario Saric on the wing, who is open for 3. There’s a myriad of moving parts on this play, but they all underline Embiid’s value and skill as a passer.
Here’s another gorgeous dime from Embiid:
A year ago, given his affinity for the trailing 3-pointer, Embiid would have likely squared up from deep on this play. The chemistry between Simmons and Embiid is evident. The point-forward is quick to exploit openings in the defense via cuts and Embiid is becoming more adept at finding him.
Threading. The. Needle. Trevor Ariza has a 7-foot-2 wingspan; Clint Capela a 7-foot wingspan. Neither prove to be any concern for Embiid as he delivers a pinpoint bounce pass to Simmons for the jam.
Just for good measure, here’s Embiid whipping a jaw-dropping, cross-court feed to T.J. McConnell:
Utilizing the lateral quickness and deft shot of a wing or guard, Embiid frequently sets up shop at the high post or elbow. In the past, the results were fairly reasonably binary: a shot or a turnover. This season, that’s not the case. At his towering height, there are not many players in the league who can impede his ability to survey the entire court while staying in position to defend off the dribble and Embiid uses this to his advantage.
With a 33-year-old, slow-footed Marcin Gortat pitted against him and half the court vacant, Embiid is a walking bucket. Instead, the ball isn’t in his hands for more than a second before he rifles it to Simmons, who is left open as Otto Porter Jr. gets caught fighting through a screen. A year ago, the Sixers don’t run this play through Embiid. They can’t. He isn’t patient enough to make the read. Now, utilizing their big man in the high post doesn’t necessarily yield one of two options. Possessing increased patience and greater vision, Embiid is a playmaker in these spots.
Juxtaposing the previous clip with one from Embiid’s rookie season highlights the limitations his lack of patience placed on Philadelphia’s offense. In a similar situation, Embiid catches the ball just inside the 3-point line. Although this time, all that’s coursing through his mind is attacking the basket. With a cutting Gerald Henderson, one quick jab step from Embiid would be all that’s required to inch Dante Cunningham even further away from the hoop and produce a layup for Henderson off a feed from Embiid. Instead, Embiid hurries, brings the ball down, allowing Tim Frazier to poke it loose and spark a fast-break score.
Despite emerging as a playmaking force at times, Embiid is still plagued by reoccurring issues. He can still become overly enamored with savvy ball fakes and footwork, leading to turnovers; he still is prone to lazy passes out of the post; and at times, lapses in focus hinder the success of utilizing him as a screener to free up Philadelphia’s guards via dribble handoffs. When one posts a staggering turnover rate in their rookie season, 22 games of improved play can’t serve as a cure-all, but it is a start, and an extremely encouraging one at that.
It wouldn’t be fair to solely attribute Embiid’s reduced turnover output and increased assist production to his improvement as a distributor. This year’s supporting cast around him is drastically stronger than last year’s and Simmons and J.J. Redick are crafty off-ball players, capable of setting Embiid up for easy assists. What should be entirely credited to Embiid though, is a higher tendency and patience to find those players.
This improved wrinkle in Embiid’s game introduces a new offensive dynamic to the Sixers, creating improved spacing for skilled marksmen, cutters and off-ball players while enabling them to allot more touches for Embiid. Progressing at such a rapid rate, Embiid’s assist and turnover numbers should only continue to experience contrasting trajectories. He’s already a three-level scorer and elite defender; arming him with gifted playmaking abilities is sure to induce numerous sleepless nights for 29 NBA head coaches.
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