Year in and year out basketball fans anticipate the inevitable Top 50 lists of players published across various websites. These lists are normally released right before training camp. They have become a hot topic for debates in barbershops, sports bars, and living rooms. The most intensely scrutinized and debated portion of the list is always the top 10. This is a select group of players thought to be the best at their craft in the entire world. Inevitably there are always arguments about who was wrongly left off the list as well as who was undeservedly included. This past off-season there was a glaring omission to most of these lists: Joel Embiid.
At 7’2″ tall and weighing 280 lbs. Embiid is blessed with incredible size to go along with good footwork and a soft shooting touch. As a three-time All-Star, he has the potential to be the best player at his position. Expectations have been high since he showed flashes of brilliance during his rookie season. However, the Philadelphia 76ers have never made it past the 2nd round of the playoffs in the Embiid era.
Almost immediately after being swept by the Boston Celtics, head coach Brett Brown was fired. Philadelphia’s front office is hoping that the newly hired Doc Rivers will be able to lead the team to its first championship since 1983. If he’s going to do that, he’ll have to get the most he can out of his All-NBA center. Given his footwork, skill set, and size, Embiid should be a top 10 player in the NBA year in and year out. Here are the steps he must take this season to turn that potential into a reality.
Stop shooting so many three-pointers
Embiid has never averaged less than 3.2 3-point attempts per game over the course of a season. That is a ton of outside shooting for a big man who’s proven he can be dominant inside the paint. His career average of 32 percent from deep isn’t bad for a big man. However, he’s clearly more effective inside the arc.
The three-point shooting bonanza in the NBA started in the 2015 season when the Golden State Warriors won the championship behind the sharpshooting of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. During the course of that regular season, Curry made what was then a record 286 three-pointers. The next season he would go on to annihilate his own record. His 402 made threes is a record that still stands to this day.
As the volume of 3-point shot attempts increased, so too did the frequency at which frontcourt players took them. Players like Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant, forwards who could take and make large volumes of three-pointers, were once an anomaly. In the modern NBA, teams salivate at the thought of having a stretch-four. These big men can lure large opposing defenders away from the paint with their outside shooting abilities.
Embiid needs to attack the basket
Embiid has fallen into this trap. Thirty-two percent from three-point land is not better than getting the opposing team’s entire front line in foul trouble. Steven Adams of the New Orleans Pelicans is the strongest player in the league. However, out of all the players who are the primary offensive option for their teams, Embiid is without question the biggest and the strongest. In the 2019 season he averaged a career-high 27.5 points per game; he also took a career-high 10.1 free throws per game. This is a direct correlation that should not be ignored. During Wednesday night’s season opener, Embiid was one for one from three-point land on his way to 29 points. Sixers fans should hope this trend of decreased threes coupled with aggression on offense continues for the rest of the year. If so, Embiid will be on every top ten list in the country going into next season.
Take better care of the basketball
Turnovers are the Achilles heel of any offense. If you can’t take care of the ball you can’t win games. It’s that simple. Due to the fact they have the ball in their hands more than anyone else, guards typically lead their team in turnovers per game. One key metric used to evaluate point guards is the assist to turnover ratio. Pat Riley once famously offered Tim Hardaway a million-dollar bonus if he could finish the season with a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio over the course of the season. Riley is one of the greatest coaches in NBA history as he led the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat to a total of five championships during his tenure as a head coach. His emphasis on taking care of the ball cannot be ignored.
Last season, Embiid averaged 3.1 turnovers per game, which is pretty high for a center. If he’s going to be Philadelphia’s franchise player, CoachRivers has got to be able to trust him with the ball down the stretch of close games. Embiid has proven to be a reliable free throw shooter; he’s been better than 80 percent from the charity stripe in each of the last two seasons. The next step for him is to make the correct read of the defense, whether that means taking the shot or passing out of the double team to an open shooter, in late-game situations. Hesitation and poor decision making are what causes turnovers. Embiid cannot be a top ten player in the league until he cleans up this part of his game.
Become a better rim protector
During his rookie campaign, Embiid averaged an impressive 2.5 blocked shots per game. Last season, he averaged a career-low 1.3 blocks per game. While pundits argued about whether Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, or Rudy Gobert should be Defensive Player of the Year, Embiid’s name did not come up at all.
Embiid wants to be remembered as one of the greatest centers to ever play the game. In order to do this, he’ll have to be locked in on both sides of the ball. A player like Rudy Gobert can focus his energy solely on being an elite rim protector. However, being a force on both ends is something other centers have done before. Hakeem Olajuwon is fondly remembered for his “Dream Shake” and offensive repertoire. However, he was also a force on defense, taking home Defensive Player of the Year in 1994. Growing up in Cameroon, Embiid has stated that he watched films of Olajuwon when he first took an interest in basketball. If he wants to become the player that his childhood hero was, he’ll have to become the anchor of Rivers’ defense and someone his teammates can trust to erase their mistakes on a nightly basis.
Embiid must eliminate off-court distractions
Over the years, Embiid has become known as much for his activity on social media as he is for his productivity on the court. That’s not always a good thing.
When he was a rookie, it could be amusing at times. He used the internet to lobby for votes to the Eastern Conference All-Star team. However, having proved he has the skills to be mentioned among the game’s elites, off the court attention is now a distraction in Philadelphia.
Last season, Embiid engaged in a war of words with former teammate Jimmy Butler. Over the course of their back and forth, Embiid eventually said some not-so-flattering things about Philadelphia’s fan base. This resulted in him being booed at a home game. This is clearly not the type of distraction the Sixers’ organization is looking for from their star player.
The best players in NBA history are not only great individual talents, they’re also great leaders. Magic Johnson‘s enthusiasm was contagious, which helped bring out the best in his teammates. Larry Bird used trash talk to challenge his teammates, but he also knew when one of his guys needed a pep talk. Michael Jordan was a demanding floor general whose leadership style induced the highest level of productivity out of each of his teammates. Embiid may know what kind of player he wants to be. It remains to be seen what type of leader he will be.
Get in basketball shape
Embiid’s conditioning is questionable. This year, he came into training camp weighing 280 lbs. Rivers certainly wasn’t daydreaming about Embiid coming into camp 10 lbs. heavier than last season.
Players like Embiid have always had to be conscious of their weight. After getting bounced in the second round of the 1999 playoffs, there were murmurs across Los Angeles that Shaquille O’Neal may not become a Laker great who leads the franchise back to the promised land. However, after taking his diet and training seriously that off-season, The Diesel came back the next year in the best shape of his life. This resulted in an MVP trophy and the first championship of his career.
Embiid’s teammate, Ben Simmons, is a great all-around player who excels at pushing the ball up the floor and playing an uptempo game. If Embiid were in shape, he could beat other big men down the court. He would then receive pinpoint passes that lead to easy buckets. Karl Malone ran the floor as hard as he could because he knew John Stockton would get him the ball exactly where he needed it. As a result, The Mailman is the 2nd leading scorer in NBA history and “Stockton to Malone” has become a part of NBA lore. Embiid has the luxury of playing with a willing passer, a commodity talented big men have always valued. If he maintains an ideal weight and sprints down court every possession, he could average the easiest 30 points per game in NBA history. In the meantime, fans will wonder how serious he takes the game and if he’ll ever take his rightful place as one of the top ten players in the world.
Main Image: Embed from Getty Images