For as good as Joel Embiid has been this season, there are still times when he plays like an inexperienced 25-year-old. He depends on his ability to physically dominate his opponents. He doesn’t always have a Plan B against a stout interior defender like Marc Gasol, his primary defender in the 76ers’ second-round series against the Raptors. None of that is unusual for a young big man with elite physical tools. The problem is that he may not have as much time to develop as most players his age. He has dealt with injuries numerous times in his career, and he hasn’t been healthy in this year’s playoffs. The Sixers are in a race against time. Their future depends on whether their star big man can figure out the game mentally before his body breaks down any further.
Toronto is a tougher challenge for Embiid than Brooklyn, which didn’t have anyone who could guard him. Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis are undersized centers who didn’t have the strength to prevent Embiid from getting to his preferred spots on the floor. As a result, he averaged 24.8 points on 50.7 percent shooting and 13.5 rebounds per game in 24.3 minutes in four games of the first-round series, a 4-1 Sixers victory. Things have not been as easy for him against Gasol and the Raptors: He’s averaging 18.0 points on 36.0 percent shooting and 8.0 rebounds in the first four games of the second round. His play determines his team’s ceiling. His best game of the series (33 points on 9-for-18 shooting and 10 rebounds in Game 3) resulted in a 116-95 blowout. He came back to earth in a 101-96 loss in Game 4 on Sunday that tied the series at 2-2, with 11 points on 2-for-7 shooting and eight rebounds.
Gasol gives Embiid trouble on defense. He’s bigger than his listed size (7-foot-1 and 255 pounds), and he knows how to use his frame to win wrestling matches in the paint. Gasol, a 34-year-old in his 11th season, is one of the savviest defenders in the league. He’s not as quick as he was when he won the Defensive Player of the Year Award earlier in the decade, but he’s still a sound positional defender with the basketball IQ to anticipate instead of react to the offense. The Raptors traded for Gasol at the deadline partly to neutralize Embiid in the playoffs. Embiid is shooting 9-for-28 from the field with Gasol as his primary defender in the series after shooting 6-for-18 against him in the regular season.
Toronto head coach Nick Nurse has adjusted his rotation to keep Gasol on Embiid. Embiid checks out early in the first and third quarters so that he can be the primary option on the second unit at the start of the second and fourth quarters. He killed Serge Ibaka, a less capable interior defender, in those minutes earlier in the series. Embiid is at his best when he can get to the free throw line, and he has made almost as many free throws with Ibaka as his primary defender (12) as Gasol (15), even though Gasol has guarded him for nearly twice as many possessions (148) as his backup (72). Those opportunities were gone in Game 4: Gasol was the primary defender on Embiid for 54 possessions, with Ibaka getting only nine.
Gasol has done many of the same things as Al Horford, who frustrated Embiid in the second round of last season’s playoffs. They are elite defensive big men who won’t get bullied at the rim and won’t bail out Embiid by jumping at his pump fakes and letting him live at the free throw line. Embiid shot 17-for-40 from the field when Horford was his primary defender in last season’s second-round playoff series and made only five free throws. He’s so big that it’s easy to forget how young he still he is. Embiid doesn’t always play under control in the post, and he can get baited into turning everything into a personal battle. That doesn’t matter when he’s feuding with overmatched defenders like Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside in the regular season or taking cheap shots at Allen in the first round. But the level of competition is much higher in the latter stages of the playoffs.
Beating a defender like Gasol takes a more well-rounded approach. The big change that Embiid made in Game 3 was setting more screens in the pick-and-roll and popping out on the perimeter. He doesn’t always have to beat his head against a brick wall—he can side-step it. There isn’t much that Gasol can do when Embiid faces him up and uses his quickness to get around him off the dribble. The key for Embiid is making enough shots to force Gasol to guard him on the perimeter: He shot 3-for-4 from 3 in Game 3 and 1-for-7 in the rest of the series. One of his favorite moves is pump-faking at the 3-point line, which only works when his defender isn’t parked in the lane. Gasol fell for the move in the fourth quarter of Game 3, giving Embiid an open lane for a windmill dunk.
Embiid is a special talent. He averaged MVP-caliber numbers in the regular season (27.5 points on 48.4 percent shooting and 13.6 rebounds per game), and he still has so much room to get better. He doesn’t need to make any big leaps, just minor improvements across the board. Embiid is a good shooter with a career free throw percentage of 78.8 on 8.6 attempts per game. He shot 30.0 percent from 3 on 4.1 attempts per game this season, and he should be able to get his 3-point percentage into the high 30s, which would force defenders to cover him all over the floor. He can also clean up his shot selection. In the long 2-point range between 10 feet from the basket and the 3-point line, Embiid takes too many shots (24.4 percent), which defenses are happy to concede. One player shouldn’t be able to guard him, and he should be able to pick apart the defense when he sends help. The final step for him is to keep improving as a passer. This was his first season in which he averaged more assists per game (3.7) than turnovers (3.5).
Most young big men are fairly raw; Gasol and Horford weren’t finished products at 25, either. Embiid had an even higher learning curve than most because he didn’t grow up playing basketball—he was a blank slate who started playing as a teenager. But his incredible physical talents have been a gift and a curse in that process. Embiid will sometimes take shortcuts in the regular season because he’s so much stronger, quicker, and more coordinated than most NBA big men that he doesn’t need to play with discipline. Only defenders as good as Gasol and Horford can test the finer points of his game.
The giant unknown hanging over his future is his health. Injuries are always a concern for supersized big men, and Embiid has never been able to stay healthy for any length of time. His only season of college was cut short by a back injury. He missed his first two seasons in the NBA with a variety of ailments, and he has never played more than 64 games in the regular season. He missed Game 3 of the first round with a mysterious knee injury that has slowed him down at times. Embiid hasn’t looked right—there have been moments when he has been shuffling up and down the floor as though he were Gasol’s age. He was clearly not himself in Game 4, a Sunday afternoon game. Brown revealed afterward that Embiid texted him at 6:20 in the morning to say that he had not gotten any sleep.
Some of his health issues are out of his control. But not all of them. Embiid hasn’t kept himself in peak physical condition in the first few years of his NBA career. His diet is legendarily bad: Former 76ers rookie Landry Shamet said that he would pick up four cookies-and-cream milkshakes for Embiid every time they got on a plane on road trips. Embiid is a bona fide celebrity who enjoys the fame and nightlife that comes with being an NBA star. He doesn’t have the same body that he did as a 19-year-old at Kansas. Just look at these highlights: He was getting out in transition and playing above the rim as though he were a 7-foot version of Andrew Wiggins, his NCAA teammate. A player with his frame was always going to fill out as he got older, so he needed to be vigilant about keeping his weight down.
His lack of mobility has hurt him in the playoffs. The Raptors have been putting him in a lot of pick-and-rolls on defense to get him out of the paint. He could switch screens and stay in front of players at all five positions in college, but he has only shown flashes of that ability in the NBA. While he will never be as agile as a small-ball center like Draymond Green, he could keep himself in better shape to make extra rotations and not get as worn down over the course of the game. Embiid won’t have nearly as much time to rest going forward. He had two days off between games 2 and 3, and between 3 and 4, and he didn’t have to travel since games 3 and 4 were in Philadelphia. The two teams will alternate home games with only one day off between games for the rest of the series.
The playoffs are a learning experience for any 25-year-old. The level of play is so much higher than in the regular season, and opposing teams can create specific game plans to attack every hole in their game. Embiid has a lot of weaknesses to exploit. He needs answers for defenders who can stone him in the post, as well as teams who can force him to beat them as a shooter and passer, and make him guard the 3-point line. The good news for the 76ers is that he has shown he can learn from his mistakes. The bad news is that we may never see Peak Joel Embiid because it’s unclear how long his career will last. He has the game of a young man and the body of an old one. The question is whether his mind can catch up with his body before his body breaks down.