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Joel Embiid’s (Very Real) Ambitions As a Point Guard

A 7-footer can dream, and so can we

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Joel Embiid is averaging 19.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks in only 25 minutes per game, which, in a disappointing rookie class, has made him a virtual lock for Rookie of the Year and has put him in the All-Star conversation. I sat down with Embiid last week at Blu Restaurant in Boston to discuss what it takes to be great, his Rookie of the Year candidacy, and his favorite guilty-pleasure TV shows for The Ringer NBA Show, which you can listen to here:

We also touched on Embiid’s comments regarding his desire to be a point guard by the end of his career. With his number of turnovers (93) nearly doubling his amount of assists (51), it was taken as a joke online, but Embiid isn’t kidding. “Yeah, deadass. I’m really serious,” Embiid told me on the podcast. “I feel like I’m willing to learn and I feel like I can do anything on the basketball court. If I have someone to teach me how to be a point guard, I think I can.”

You still might be shaking your head, but for the sake of respecting another human’s dreams and desires, let’s consider the following:

  • Embiid started playing basketball in 2011 (!) and missed two years of development due to injuries and rehab, so even though he’s 7-foot-2 with a chiseled frame, he’s still just a baby when it comes to basketball development. The fact that he’s already this good is remarkable.
  • Embiid’s progress during his freshman season at Kansas was incredible. Early on, he had clunky post moves, and by season’s end he was doing Dream Shakes. Early on, Bill Self couldn’t trust him to execute the simple play, but by season’s end he was firing laser passes to teammates when he was doubled in the post.
  • Embiid has made similar strides as a passer early on with the Sixers. He has improved his assist-to-turnover ratio from 0.3 before Thanksgiving to 0.8 since. That’s still a subpar number for a big man, but considering the fact that his ratio doesn’t account for potential assists that ended up as missed shots from his lackluster teammates, Embiid is developing extremely well.

Embiid is a sponge when it comes to learning the game and bigs are migrating to the perimeter, so why rule anything out from such a transcendent outlier? Sure, the point guard goal is hyperbolic, but his history and the state of the current NBA game indicates that while wildly improbable, it’s not impossible. It’s been made clear that Embiid is the Sixers’ franchise cornerstone going forward. With that freedom of opportunity, the seed has been planted for him to diversify his game by adding playmaking skills on top of his potential as a pulverizing scorer. We’re starting to see the signs, too.

Here’s how the Sixers have used Embiid over the past few weeks in two situations as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll with Robert Covington setting a screen and popping:

The results weren’t good, but it’s fun to imagine what this could look like in four to eight years when Embiid is in his prime. Ballhandling in the pick-and-roll will never be Embiid’s primary source of offense, but if Sixers head coach Brett Brown gets creative, they could turn it into another wrinkle that defenses have to worry about.

Skilled bigs like Al Horford and Blake Griffin are capable of running simple pick-and-rolls with a rim-running big that result in lobs, which is something an Embiid–Nerlens Noel combo is completely capable of. Embiid is shooting 36.8 percent from 3, so defenses have to respect his perimeter shot, and he could become even more devastating if he’s driving to score and pass.

With his immense size, Embiid has no issues spotting teammates and tossing pinpoint passes, but he’s too sloppy with the ball in his hands and too often forces drives. That’s partially a result of the pressure he has to create for himself (Embiid boasts the third-highest usage rate in the NBA), a lack of experience, and a loose handle that is in need of tightening. Embiid has the pure passing instincts, but he’ll need to flesh out the rest of his game in order to take advantage of them.

That’s where proper mentoring will be important in his offensive diversification. I spoke to Embiid’s trainer, Drew Hanlen, this week about the development plan for this coming summer. Hanlen admits that Embiid’s point guard dreams might be a bit much, but he says they’ll work on adding perimeter dribble moves to further enhance his ability to attack off the bounce and score “using live-ball moves against bigs that can’t move well laterally.”

We’re only 25 games into Embiid’s career and his coach has already compared him to Tim Duncan and “Shaquille [O’Neal] with soccer feet.” After our conversation, it’s clear that Joel Embiid has a clear understanding of how to get to that level: work as hard as possible, stay patient, and Trust the Process.