Forget his fellow rookies. Over the past month, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid has been one of the most dominant players in the NBA. The Sixers have won 10 of their past 13 games, including eight of the past nine games Embiid has played. The Cameroonian big man has been at the center of everything, averaging 22.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.7 blocks, and one steal a game on 44.9 percent shooting. He’s averaging only 26.7 minutes per game in that stretch, but the 76ers have been so good when he’s on the floor that it hasn’t even mattered.
Embiid has missed their past two games (a 121–110 win over the Clippers and a 114–109 victory over the Bucks) with knee soreness, and both were rare instances when they looked fine without him. The Sixers bench has gone nova, scoring 52 points against Milwaukee and 61 points against the Clippers, which made up for any defensive slippage without Embiid. Their performance in those games was particularly impressive given how much better they’ve been with Embiid on the floor this season.
Embiid has been the difference between Philly playing with the efficiency of the Warriors and playing like a worse version of last season’s 10-win Sixers. That’s because he’s the rare player who can carry a team on both sides of the ball. There aren’t many centers in the NBA who can be elite interior defenders AND high-usage offensive players. When you start comparing Embiid with his fellow big men, they almost all fall short in one category or the other.
How Many Centers Can Play Defense Like Embiid?
The most important thing a center can do on defense is protect the rim. For as vital as the 3-point shot has become in today’s game, the foundation of an elite defense is still the ability to shut down the paint and prevent opposing teams from getting easy shots around the basket. It’s almost impossible for teams to lock down opposing offenses if they have a sieve as the second line of defense. It’s not so much about blocking shots as it is making them more difficult, and no big man in the NBA has been better at doing that this season than Embiid.
A center’s ability to provide rim protection makes the lives of his teammates much easier on defense, as they can play more aggressively and contest shots on the perimeter, knowing they have someone behind them who can clean up penetration and erase their mistakes. Because the other four defenders are playing in front of him, the center is also the player responsible for calling out the defensive coverages and making sure everyone is communicating.
The most obvious way to measure an individual’s impact on team defense is how the team defends when that player is on the floor, compared to when he is off. You have to take plus-minus numbers with a grain of salt — you don’t want to penalize a player for having good backups who can maintain the team’s level of performance or reward someone for having bad backups — but there’s still a lot you can glean from them.
You can isolate Embiid’s impact even further when you compare the team’s defensive rating when he’s on the floor to those when Jahlil Okafor (109.4) or Nerlens Noel (105.3) is. The 76ers rarely use Twin Towers lineups, so all three of their young centers primarily play as the only big man on the floor. In terms of their ability to impact the Sixers defense, the three centers exist on a spectrum, with Embiid on one end, Noel in the middle, and Okafor on the other. The gap between Noel and Okafor is huge, yet it’s still smaller than the gap between Embiid and Noel. It’s not that Noel has been bad. It’s just that Embiid has been that good.
The 76ers starting lineup of Embiid, Ersan Ilyasova, Robert Covington, Nik Stauskas, and T.J. McConnell has a defensive rating of 86.7 in 108 minutes played this season, by far the best mark in the league for any five-man unit that has played at least 100 minutes. McConnell is an undrafted free agent in his second season, Stauskas is trying to stick after washing out of Sacramento, and Ilyasova has never been known as a defensive-minded player in his nine seasons in the NBA. Even Covington, the best perimeter defender of the group, is playing out of position as a small forward instead of as a small-ball power forward. What Embiid is doing is reminiscent of young Dwight Howard in Orlando.
Playing interior defense is one of the hardest things in the NBA to master, and it’s even harder when you don’t have experienced defenders in front of you. Embiid is making it look easy, even though he’s a rookie who hasn’t played basketball in more than two years. His performance is particularly impressive in comparison with fellow youngsters like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andre Drummond, whose teams play significantly worse defense when they are on the floor.
If you look around the league, the only center who could realistically fill Embiid’s shoes defensively is Rudy Gobert. Like Embiid, Gobert is impossibly long and athletic for a man his size, and he makes getting good looks near the basket next to impossible. Gobert is the only other center in the NBA within six points of Embiid’s defensive field goal percentage allowed, and he’s the only other center who anchors a defense with a defensive rating lower than 100.
How Many Centers Can Play Offense Like Embiid?
Embiid is in a unique situation as a rookie. According to NBA.com, he has a usage rate of 36.1, second among centers behind DeMarcus Cousins and third among all players. The 76ers just don’t have many other options to turn to for offense, particularly with no. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons injured with a broken foot. The amazing part isn’t that Embiid has had some struggles, with a turnover rate of 16.3 percent and a field goal percentage of 46.2 percent, but that he’s still managed to have a true shooting efficiency almost identical to Cousins and Anthony Davis.
There’s generally an inverse relationship between usage and efficiency. Guys like Embiid, Cousins, and Davis, who are asked to be the alpha and omega of their team’s offense, are not going to be as efficient as big men in smaller roles like Gobert and DeAndre Jordan. It’s pretty easy to be hyperefficient on offense when all you are asked to do is set screens, roll to the rim, and catch lobs. The key to making such a supersized role in the offense work is getting to the free throw line, which is the biggest skill Embiid has in common with Cousins and Davis.
Embiid actually has a much higher free throw rate, which is the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt, than Cousins and Davis because he’s playing far fewer minutes per game. His production over 36 minutes of playing time is obscene: 28.3 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.1 steals, and 3.5 blocks. You have to go all the way back to the days of Wilt Chamberlain and Walt Bellamy to find a rookie putting up those types of numbers.
How Many Centers Are Better Two-Way Players Than Embiid?
Embiid is in a category of his own. He’s one of the best two rim protectors in the NBA, as well as one of the most offensively skilled 7-footers. Gobert could not do what Embiid does on offense, while Cousins and Davis could not do what Embiid does on defense. The one other guy who pops up near the top of every category is Marc Gasol, a former Defensive Player of the Year who has expanded his shooting range this season and is playing at a career-high level on offense. And even Gasol hasn’t been as dominant around the rim defensively as Embiid, nor does he get to the line as often.
Gasol, due to his versatility on both ends of the floor as well as his experience, is probably the only big man in the NBA who could fill Embiid’s role on the 76ers and improve the team. The Sixers are 13–17 with Embiid and 4–10 without him. Even with all of the games he has missed, they are still only a game behind the Kings (Cousins) and a half-game behind the Pelicans (Davis) in the win-loss column, despite having significantly less talent on their roster. That’s how much of an impact a center who can take over a game on offense and defense has on a team.
There are a lot of good centers in the NBA. I went 10 deep for this exercise without including accomplished vets like Brook Lopez, Al Horford, Tyson Chandler, Andrew Bogut, Jonas Valanciunas, and Marcin Gortat, or up-and-coming young players like Kristaps Porzingis, Steven Adams, Myles Turner, Nikola Jokic, and Clint Capela. However, there aren’t any great ones. Guys with Embiid’s talent don’t come around very often, and, when they do, it doesn’t take long for them to start making their presence felt around the league.
For the most part, even the most physically gifted 7-footers need time to adjust to the demands of the center position in the NBA, particularly on defense. Just look at how much Towns and Davis, who started their careers playing at power forward, have struggled with interior defense. Gasol was a late bloomer who didn’t hit his stride until his mid-20s. That hasn’t happened to Joel Embiid. When he has been healthy, he hasn’t had to adjust to the NBA. The NBA has had to adjust to him.