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An Ongoing Process

Joel Embiid will make his NBA debut this season. There’s a chance he’ll buckle under the weight of his body or the pressure of the league — there’s also a chance he’ll arrive just in time to redefine it.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s been two and a half years since a back injury prematurely ended Joel Embiid’s freshman season at Kansas, and a little over two years since two metal screws were inserted into his right foot after a pre-draft physical revealed a stress fracture. Then–Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie drafted him anyway with the third pick in 2014. Since then, he’s been around the world drinking Shirley Temples, slaying lions, and cementing himself as a social media legend. It’s been over a year since Embiid began flashing his talent in little videos during his recovery, and a little over a year since he went back under the scalpel for a second surgery on his problematic foot. These past two seasons have yielded the Sixers 28 wins, and Embiid hasn’t played in a single one of them. It’s been a long wait for Sixers fans.

Joel Embiid is #TrustTheProcess incarnate. Hinkie said as much in his 7,000-word resignation letter that is as enigmatic today as it was when it leaked in April:

Embiid’s return to the court is imminent. How it all turns out is still in doubt, but there’s no denying the most emblematic acquisition of the Hinkie era has the upside to be a franchise-altering superstar.

The Cameroonian enters a league drastically different from the one that existed when he was drafted in 2014. Figuring out how a big complements his teammates is valued now more than ever, and most teams have filled their front lines with specialists, players who have defined, compartmentalized skills. It’s not as simple as finding the best low-post scoring machine like Jahlil Okafor or Greg Monroe. Some teams prefer an athletic rim runner and protector like Nerlens Noel or Bismack Biyombo. Others prefer floor spacers like Frank Kaminsky or Kelly Olynyk, as long as they are competent defenders. There is no right or wrong, just different ways of building.

There is, however, a give-and-take with specialists that teams have to account for; their strengths often come packaged with significant weaknesses. From a skills standpoint, the Sixers won’t be dealing with that kind of give-and-take with Embiid. He checks all the boxes as a supreme-level prospect on the same level of Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis. There have been 20 college big men drafted in the NBA lottery over the past five years; when charting their college production by way of true shooting percentage (to account for their scoring efficiency) and defensive box plus-minus (an estimated metric that measures points contributed, similar to PER or win shares) the results reveal some interesting clustering within the four quadrants:

Most notably, the first quadrant features three players: Embiid, Towns, and Davis, three of the league’s best big-man prospects since Tim Duncan.

Embiid has the potential to be a cornerstone big man the Sixers can build around with any type of personnel. The Okafor-Noel pairing doesn’t work, because neither player can space the floor; Embiid takes their best qualities and elevates it to another level. His injury history is alarming; Embiid could hobble down the same path as Greg Oden or prosper in spite of an injury-plagued career like Yao Ming, but he could also come to define the era along with Towns and Davis. Hinkie took a calculated risk with Embiid because, while it’s become trite to call a prospect a “once-in-a-generation” player, Embiid truly looked the part.

Patience will be required once Embiid returns to the court. He’ll need to chisel through the two and a half years’ worth of rust. He’ll need to adapt to playing against men of NBA size and athleticism after spending so much of his rehab applying his skills against trainers half his size. And once his body is ready for the rigors of the NBA, he’ll have to compete for playing time in the Sixers’ frontcourt logjam. The past two years of scrutiny belies the fact that Embiid is still just a baby by developmental standards; he started playing organized basketball only in 2011. The beginning of his rookie season could unfold like his freshman year at Kansas. Though Jayhawks head coach Bill Self compared Embiid to “a young Hakeem Olajuwon,” the big man was brought along slowly. Self kept Embiid’s bench role as a deterrent at the rim and a rebounding presence simple. But he was a sponge learning behind the scenes and quickly became a vital two-way contributor. That’s when it was apparent that Embiid, more so than his celebrated teammate Andrew Wiggins, was the transcendent prospect on the Jayhawks.

Sequences like this explain the “young Olajuwon” comparisons. The Embiid Effect is on full display, as he forces the opponent to take a difficult layup. Then, after the loose ball is secured, he quickly elevates to swat it away before hurrying up the floor to carve out his spot on the block, where he contorts his body and scores.

Embiid seemed to add something new each game he played at Kansas. His jump hooks transformed into face-up jumpers. His basic drop step developed into Olajuwon’s Dream Shake. His sloppy turnovers dissipated as he added countermoves. At that rate of improvement, he could have been launching 3s by the end of March, but we’ll never know. The advanced skills he picked up toward the end of his college career won’t immediately translate to the NBA after years of inactivity, but his body will. During his time away he grew 2 inches and packed on a significant amount of muscle (bringing him up to a purported 275 pounds). Adding so much weight would normally sap a player of his quickness, but that doesn’t appear to be the case with Embiid. Recently posted videos of Embiid practicing in an open gym are tantalizing because he has managed to retain his blend of grace, quickness, and power. He still looks like a player who can finish at an elite percentage near the rim, sky over defenders for poster dunks, and shimmy on the post.

Teams are going to the post less frequently in today’s NBA because it’s a generally inefficient play type. The average player scored only 0.84 points per possession (PPP) from the post, per Synergy, a rate of production lower than most play types outside of isolations and shots attempted by a ball handler in the pick-and-roll. Teams aren’t just feeding bigs down low looking for baskets; they’re funneling the ball inside with the hope of forcing a double, which creates avenues for open cutters (1.20 PPP) or open spot-up shooters (0.94 PPP), two of the most efficient play types. This is what the Spurs did to great effect with all their bigs. Frontcourt players who have excellent passing vision are capable of facilitating from inside, especially when they draw a second defender.

Embiid could eventually develop into a double-team-drawing threat, and he has the passing vision to make teams pay. Look at how accurate those dimes from Embiid are; he might even be able to teach Ben Simmons a thing or two. At Kansas, Embiid had a habit of making one careless turnover for every excellent pass, but it’s an improvable weakness that comes with familiarity with his team and the court. His passing work at Kansas was indicative of his increasing ability to process the game, and was a facet in which he made extraordinary progress from the start to the end of the season. Whereas he looked lost when faced with double-teams early on at Kansas, he learned to make quick reads to score or find an open teammate. That suggests a player who understands not only the importance of practice, but also what he needs to work on.

The more ways a player can score, the better that player usually is. Bigs who can hit shots are more valuable than ever, and Embiid displayed deft touch on turnaround jumpers from the post and good form when he stepped outside. He didn’t receive consistent opportunities to shoot, but his touch, form, and solid free throw production (68.5 percent) are all reasons for optimism. While rehabbing, Embiid hasn’t always been able to take part in physical activities, but he could practice shooting. When he’s made appearances during pregame warm-ups, he’s caught the eye of observers, including his own coach, Brett Brown.

“That is very unique to see a 7-foot-2 man have the touch and the form and the release of his wrists,” Brown told reporters last season when asked about Embiid shooting jumpers. “We all talk how we have to put people where they can do well, where they can succeed, and if this ends up being something he can do well … then we have to tap into that.”

If Embiid can shoot at just an average rate, he’ll help the Sixers immediately. They desperately need floor spacers because neither Simmons, Okafor, nor Noel can shoot from outside. There are no guarantees that Embiid can stretch his range behind the arc, but he’d be a force in the screen game if he can. His options would be manifold: rumble down the lane on a dive to the rim, roll to the seam and hit a short jumper, or pop and hit a 3.

Embiid has immense offensive potential, but it’s his defense that could make him transcendent. The best rim protectors are like sentry guns: They automatically recognize movement, seemingly before it happens, and rapidly adjust their positioning to prevent threats from penetrating the defense. Embiid hasn’t mastered this art yet (an impossible task for any player with such limited experience), but there were signs at Kansas that his mere presence could someday dissuade opponents from even testing him inside.

Here’s an example of Embiid’s potential defensive greatness. He doubles Oklahoma State forward Le’Bryan Nash in the post, but Nash spins baseline and goes up for a layup on the other side of the hoop thinking he’d eluded the defense. Embiid tracks and shadows the entire play, and swats the ball right back into Nash’s hands. With the threat not yet disarmed, Embiid sticks both arms straight in the air, making it impossible for Nash to get off a clean look. Nash kicks the ball out, but Embiid’s proximity to the play forces the opponent to pick up his dribble, leading to a shot clock violation. Versatile perimeter defenders, like Tony Allen, who can switch screens and lock down their man are incredibly valuable. But great interior defenders who can cover up inevitable mistakes are irreplaceable. Embiid could someday make his teammates better just by being on the court.

Embiid’s background as a soccer and volleyball player is evident when he quickly closes ground and springs out of nowhere to block a shot. His block percentage (11.7) is amongst the best of collegiate big men drafted in the lottery over the past five years. But his foul rate (5.8 fouls per 40) must improve for him to stay on the court. He overhelped, putting him out of position, and too often went for blocks or steals instead of staying home and playing fundamental defense. That’s typical for an inexperienced player, but considering his size, he’ll be subject to an even tighter whistle in the NBA. Patience on that side of the ball will come, as should his pick-and-roll defense.

Pick-and-roll defense is a complicated task for every young player, let alone someone who had only begun to develop a sense for basketball. It involves communication, intricate rotations, and sound decision-making. It’s a riddle with a slightly different answer every time; one false step and the ball handler blows by you for an open layup, just like in the clip above. Here, Embiid hedges onto the perimeter, is slow to recover to his man, and is caught in an unbalanced, upright stance. He will make up for some of his errors because of his pure instincts and athleticism (observable in virtually every area of his game), but in order to become a truly elite defender he must absorb every detail of pick-and-roll defense. That means containing dribble penetration without fouling, figuring out the right moment to recover back to his man after helping, and knowing when to attempt a block or box out for a rebound.

It could take years for Embiid to learn, but his transition from Kansas’s aggressive pick-and-roll system to Philadelphia’s straightforward philosophy could help him. The Sixers keep it simple: “Drop” the big-man defender to the paint, help from the weak side, and entice ball handlers to shoot from midrange. This style leads to fewer forced turnovers, but it simplifies things for every defender on the floor. It’s hard enough defending a LeBron James pick-and-roll, never mind worrying about where you have to rotate next after the initial coverage is contained.

The Process won’t reach its conclusion the second Embiid steps foot onto the court; if anything, it will then enter its second phase. If you’ve trusted for this long, there’s no point in stopping now. Baby steps are key for Embiid, and no one should expect him to be a game-changing force early on this season, but it’s worth remembering what kind of prospect we have here. Hinkie didn’t roll the dice on an Andrew Bynum– or Dwight Howard–level prospect; he gambled on a Duncan, a Hakeem, a Shaq. Joel Embiid is the type of big man found on almost every dynasty in league history, and he has the potential to not only lead the Sixers, but to change the NBA.