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The Big Process

Joel Embiid’s MVP-caliber season might just be the answer to a long-running thought experiment: What would Shaquille O’Neal look like in the modern NBA?

Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Jimmy Butler Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It was only two years ago that Sixers head coach Brett Brown compared Joel Embiid to Shaquille O’Neal “with soccer feet.” Then, merely mentioning Embiid in the same sentence with a Hall of Famer was preposterous; at the time, he hadn’t played a second of competitive basketball since 2014. A stress fracture in his back ended his freshman season at Kansas, and then a broken navicular bone in his right foot, followed by multiple surgeries and setbacks, kept him out of a Sixers uniform over a span of two seasons that produced 28 wins out of a possible 164, Jahlil Okafor, Ben Simmons, and a lot of frustration. At the Process’s low point, Embiid looked closer to Greg Oden with a social media personality.

In the two years since, Embiid has proved himself worth the wait. He has flaunted his generational talent every second he’s spent on the floor and has established himself as an All-Star despite playing only 31 games in his first season and 63 games last season on a major minutes restriction. Now, completely unburdened in his third season, Embiid is beginning to prove Brown’s flattering comparison prophetic.

Embiid is averaging 27 points, 13.4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists. Only five players in NBA history, all Hall of Famers, have met the same statistical threshold; the last player to do it was Shaq, who averaged 29.7 points with a 57.8 true shooting percentage in 1999-00, his lone MVP campaign. Embiid is scoring efficiently (58.1 true shooting percentage), rebounding, and playmaking. And with two blocks per game, he’s anchoring a Sixers defense still trying to find its way back to last season’s form. When Embiid’s minutes were restricted, his numbers per 36 minutes of play were All-NBA caliber. But Embiid then was still largely a theoretical proposition; dominance depends on consistency, and, to that point, consistency was but a dream. Embiid’s per-36 numbers the past two seasons combined were 27.6 points, 12.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 blocks—nearly identical to his actual numbers over 34.2 minutes per game this season. Looking into per-minute or per-possession numbers can tell you how efficient a player is with the time he gets, but it doesn’t necessarily show you whether that effectiveness degrades with fatigue and prolonged exposure to defenses. This year, Embiid has been exactly what the numbers said he could be: an MVP candidate.

The majority of Embiid’s points come from the post, which makes him a relic. But since his lone season at Kansas, his future as a daunting post presence was apparent. With just three years of organized basketball-playing experience under his belt before the 2013-14 NCAA season, Embiid arrived in Lawrence, Kansas, with just a basic jump hook and drop step. By March, he had spin combinations, countermoves, and a face-up game. Embiid’s most pivotal moment came in a December game against the University of New Mexico, when he unleashed his first Dream Shake, the iconic fake-out maneuver he learned from mimicking Hakeem Olajuwon YouTube videos. Since then, Embiid has grown 2 inches, added muscle, and gotten tougher—without losing the quickness that made him a top-tier prospect five years ago.

Shaq would be proud of the play above: Embiid buries Nets center Jarrett Allen by using just two dribbles and follows up his loud display of power with an even louder dunk. The Sixers feed Embiid on the block because he can score in so many ways, whether it’s off power moves, fadeaway jumpers, up-and-unders, or drop steps. He’s first in the league in post-ups this season, and he’s scoring 1.05 points per possession, an elite number from the post, according to Synergy. Since 2004-05, the earliest season for which Synergy data is available, 438 seasons have been logged by players with at least 200 possessions finished using a postup; of those, only 40 scored more than one point per possession. Embiid’s season thus far would rank 11th behind a list of future Hall of Famers like Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh, and competition for MVP like LeBron James.

Post-centric offenses are rare today. But by becoming less mistake-prone, drawing more fouls, and finishing better through contact since his rookie season, Embiid is doing what you need to do to make the post efficient in today’s league.

Joel Embiid by Post-ups by Season

Season Points Per Possession Free Throw Rate Turnover Rate And-1 Rate
Season Points Per Possession Free Throw Rate Turnover Rate And-1 Rate
2018-19 1.05 28.5% 12.7% 22.4%
2017-18 0.97 20.9% 15.9% 20.3%
2016-17 0.88 22.6% 21.7% 14.9%
Points per possession, free throw rate, and turnover rate on post-ups via Synergy. And-1 rate via Cleaning the Glass.

The post may not be an efficient source of offense compared with pick-and-rolls, cuts, and 3-pointers, but it has value when players draw as many fouls and hit as many free throws as Embiid does. Though Shaq was a better at-rim finisher on pure shot attempts, free throws matter. The Big Diesel was a hopeless shooter from the charity stripe, which hurt his scoring efficiency. Shaq scored 0.92 points per possession from the post during his first season with the Heat in 2004-05. That means Embiid is, at least statistically, having a better season from the post than Shaq did in one of his prime years thanks to his superior free throw shooting (79.7 percent). If Embiid settles for fewer jumpers and gets stronger finishing when pressured by length, then he will become an even more formidable interior force.

At Kansas, Embiid developed good passing vision, which had been slow to translate to the NBA. With stronger, faster defenders, it’s taken a while for Embiid to process the floor at the same rate he learned to in college. The game is slowing down now for Embiid; his turnover rate has plummeted largely because he does a good job of handling double-teams and avoiding sloppy passes. Watch this bullet he throws to Mike Muscala for a 3 as soon as he feels the double.

Muscala misses the open shot, which has been a teamwide issue. The Sixers are shooting only 7-for-31 on spot-up attempts from Embiid’s post passes. Once his teammates start hitting shots, his assist numbers should rise. For now, the majority of Embiid’s assists go to JJ Redick; the duo have developed dynamic chemistry on a pet play in the Sixers offense.

The Sixers run this play every game; Embiid touches the ball on the left elbow, then Redick either runs through the dribble handoff to take a midrange jumper, or pass to Embiid rolling to the rim. Sometimes Redick will set a screen for Embiid, who drives; the Clippers used to run the same set using Redick and Blake Griffin. Since Jimmy Butler’s first game with the Sixers on November 14, Embiid has played 79.6 percent of his minutes with Redick on the floor. The spacing he provides helps make life easier inside for Embiid, who facilitates offense by logging 55 frontcourt touches per game, which ranks behind only Marc Gasol. Embiid makes the Sixers go: Their quartet of him, Butler, Simmons, and Redick is outscoring opponents by 15.6 points per 100 possessions.

Even with Butler on the team, Embiid’s touches and time of possession haven’t declined, but they’re starting to look a little different. With another dominant handler in Butler and Simmons established as a star playmaker with a shooting phobia comparable to Ron Weasley’s fear of spiders, Embiid is asked to do double duty and operate as effectively off the ball as he does on it.

Embiid is hitting only 32.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s this season, but he’s enough of a threat that defenses must be wary of him on the perimeter, which is critical for a Sixers offense that spreads touches among its three stars. Embiid is a good screener—and now that Butler is a dynamic pick-and-roll playmaker, more scoring opportunities on the pop or the roll could soon open up. When Embiid receives the ball spotting up, he shows off the “soccer feet” that Brown referenced, Euro-stepping his way to the rim.

Embiid may still lose control of the ball or toss an entry pass into the first row from time to time, but he can do everything at an at least competent level. How many 7-footers throughout the game’s history can you say that about? This is the most complete offensive season of Embiid’s career, and there’s still room to grow as a star in the future. But he already has the mentality, the trash-talking ability, and the one-liners. He’s the NBA’s John McClane.

If it’s his versatility on offense that has him on the fast track to superstardom, it’s his undeniability on the other end that could secure Philly’s fate as a championship contender. Embiid was the runner-up last season for Defensive Player of the Year, and he has returned the same feared presence in the paint. The Sixers allow only 101.1 points per 100 possessions when Embiid is in the game, which would rank first in the NBA. Their defensive rating plummets to 108.2 without Embiid. The biggest difference comes inside the paint. Opponents shoot 9.3 percentage points worse compared with their average when defended by Embiid within 10 feet of the rim, according to Second Spectrum via NBA.com. He’s capable of altering shots with either hand and has gotten significantly better at contesting shots without fouling. With his length and the sheer amount of space he takes up around the rim, sometimes all he needs to do is be present inside and box out for a rebound; he’s developed a better feel for when to fly in for a block and when to simply hold his ground. Even when either he or his teammates make mistakes, he has the presence of mind (and the physical presence, full stop) to erase them.

Embiid is a stout low-post defender for the same reason he’s a scoring threat on the block: He’s as hard to move as a grand piano. Opponents attempt only 34.5 percent of their shots at the rim against the Sixers, 11th best in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass. And when Embiid is on the floor, the team doesn’t allow scorers to live at the line, with a stellar 0.24 opponent free throw rate. Philadelphia’s had success preventing interior chances because of its scheme. It might look like sheer laziness if Embiid doesn’t even contest a midrange jumper or a floater, but it’s by design for all their big men.

The Sixers drop their big man defender to allow midrange jumpers, and they allow a lot of them—the sixth most in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers have recently hemorrhaged points on defense because of the scheme: When the Cavaliers upset the Sixers last month, Collin Sexton drilled midrange shot after midrange shot. Philadelphia will live with that result; it didn’t allow at-rim chances or 3s. It’s generally smart defense. Keeping Embiid near the rim inherently dissuades drives to the basket and improves the team’s odds of securing a rebound. The Sixers secure 92.2 percent of missed shots when Embiid boxes out, according to NBA.com/Stats, and he himself is swallowing 28 percent of defensive rebound opportunities. The way Philadelphia is using Embiid makes sense. It’s not worth it for Brown to install a defensive scheme that asks Embiid to come all the way out to the 3-point line at this point of the season. Fatigue would mount, and the priority should be to have him in optimal shape for a Finals run, not post a marginally better regular-season defensive rating.

Perimeter defense isn’t his forte, anyway. Embiid isn’t particularly quick defending on an island, and he has sloppy footwork moving laterally, so skilled guards and wings can blow by him on switches. While Embiid should focus on improving his perimeter defense, dropping him in the pick-and-roll focuses on his strengths today. However, in a playoff series against a ball handler who can shoot 3s well off the dribble—like Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, or Kawhi Leonard—Embiid will have to defend the perimeter or else players will pull up for open triples.

The Sixers haven’t yet figured out a balance on the defensive end. If Butler or Simmons aren’t defending on the ball, their defense too often seems predicated on Embiid’s ability to contest everything. It’s not Embiid’s fault that the team is horrific on defense any time he takes a breather, even after the Butler trade, or that it lacks perimeter defenders aside from Butler—and sometimes Simmons, when he’s engaged—in a perimeter-driven league. There isn’t a scheme that can hide the Sixers’ gaping holes on their perimeter defense. Rookie guard Landry Shamet is constantly targeted, and even Andrew Harrison scorched Redick. T.J. McConnell is gritty, but he’s not a stopper. It would help if Philadelphia had a 6-foot-4 guard with a strong frame and long arms who could defend multiple positions—but even Markelle Fultz’s defensive prowess was just a theoretical. What the Sixers need is substance; it will be hard for Elton Brand and the Sixers front office to find it in this quiet trade market.

Aside from re-signing Butler, the Sixers have big decisions to make over the next calendar year that will determine whether they will be just Finals contenders or Finals favorites for the foreseeable future. The perimeter defense needs reinforcements, the Fultz saga needs a resolution, and they must spend their cap space wisely next summer. Internal development must occur too. Until Simmons becomes a threat to at least attempt jumpers, playoff opponents will be able to neutralize their offense by clogging the paint. But there’s still a long time between now and April, and, with three stars on the roster, the Sixers are ahead of schedule.

If a team has legitimate NBA Finals hopes, it’s a byproduct of having a legitimate MVP candidate. Embiid’s career got off to a false start, but since gracing the floor, he has put the Sixers on the fast track to contention. There are no guarantees that he’ll earn enough votes over other worthy contenders. But in just his third season, Embiid has gone from slaying lions to slaying scorers; drinking Shirley temples to drinking the tears of Andre Drummond; flirting with Rihanna to flirting with the most prestigious of NBA accolades. Embiid has become everything the Sixers could have hoped for since he was drafted in 2014. Now, finally, he’s become a potential MVP front-runner. All it took was a lot of patience and a lot of growth.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to New Mexico State; it was the University of New Mexico.