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Joel Embiid Is Chasing Something Bigger Than Stats

The NBA’s reigning MVP channeled Wilt with a 70-point master class on Monday, but gaudy numbers and awards are no longer fueling the Sixers’ center. His pursuit has shifted toward something else—and it’s showing.

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Joel Embiid, the smooth, methodical, graceful, yet vicious center of the Philadelphia 76ers’ universe, carries a heavy weight. His 38.97 percent usage rate, which leads the NBA, ranks third all time in NBA history. It’s difficult to shoulder the burden of all that decision-making, a fact that Embiid, who is still clawing for his first conference finals appearance in his eighth season, knows well.

In an ideal world, Embiid wouldn’t have to be the Sixers’ alpha and omega. But in the absence of that ideal, as Philly mulls ahead of the deadline what to do with the trade assets it got in return for James Harden, Embiid has threaded the difficult needle of taking on more responsibility while making benevolent choices, dishing out a career-high 5.9 assists per game and fueling Philly to the second-best net rating in the league.

His finest performance yet, a 70-point, 18-rebound, 5-assist, one-turnover tour de force against Victor Wembanyama and the visiting San Antonio Spurs on Monday was a culmination of a career-long learning (yep, I’m going there, and don’t say I didn’t warn you) process, an oracular master class born from figuring out how to exert his dominance and when to lean on the game-changing gambit of letting go and trusting the basketball Gods.

Elsewhere in the league, a different high-scoring, franchise-record-breaking game from a different gifted 7-footer devolved into force-feeding nonsense, resulting in a loss. But Embiid stayed grounded even as the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center begged him to run up his numbers. Going into the fourth quarter with 59 points, he told his teammates not to force it. “Let’s just play basketball,” he told them. “If I’m open, pass it. If I’m not, make sure you make the right play.”

Embiid relinquished the ball when double-teamed, and earned his 70th point while turning defense into offense, deflecting an entry pass that created an open runway for a transition layup. He finished 24-for-41 from the field and 21-for-23 from the line. MVP chants poured down through the night, and rightfully so. “I felt like if I did focus too much on it, I could have missed shots or turned it over trying to force it,” Embiid said after the Sixers’ 133-123 win, “so I was just focused on closing the game out.”

Embiid’s 70 points broke the Sixers’ franchise record, topping Wilt Chamberlain’s 68 in 1967, and he became the first player in more than 60 years to put up 70 points and 15 rebounds. He’s the only one to add five assists to that tally, too. Per ESPN, only one other player has had 65 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists in a game: Michael Jordan—and he needed overtime to do it. When Embiid was informed of this, he was more awed that Chamberlain hadn’t done that than by his own performance. “To be in that class is great, but it doesn’t really mean anything until you win the whole thing,” Embiid said. “I think the whole conversation changes about what people see about you. That’s what I’m working towards.”

In the past two seasons, as Embiid openly campaigned for the MVP award and eventually claimed his first trophy, a stubborn single-mindedness overtook his game. He led the NBA in scoring (and leads it again, averaging a mind-boggling 36.1 points per game, which would be top 10 all time), but the singularity of his focus blunted his overall impact. His defense atrophied. He missed open teammates. Now, the only thing he says he’s focused on is postseason success. After a few years of plodding, he has rededicated himself on defense this season, forcing opponents to shoot 10 percent worse within 6 feet of the rim and 6 percentage points worse overall. But playmaking has always been Embiid’s most untapped resource and his most essential adjustment.

There was a moment, with under five minutes left Monday, after Sixers fans (of course) booed Danuel House Jr. for shooting an open corner 3, when Embiid briefly acquiesced to the crowd’s demands, shooting over a triple-team. It was reminiscent of last season, when opponents would collapse on Embiid and he would shoot over them anyway.

On the next play, Embiid snapped out of it, opting for the same balance between scoring and playmaking that’s made him the most terrifying cover in the NBA this season, spinning the ball between his legs in transition and dumping the ball off to House Jr. himself. When Embiid’s teammates, despite his protests, force-fed him the ball again, resulting in an awkward clanked banker and a turnover and allowing San Antonio to pull within single digits, Embiid did this:

As soon as the double came in the clip above, Embiid whipped a no-look, behind-the-head pass to a cutting House that eventually turned into a point-blank layup for Kelly Oubre Jr. What’s noteworthy isn’t the pass, but the quickness and clarity of Embiid’s vision. His passing metrics have been trending upward for years, but there was often a split second of reluctance when he gave up the ball, resulting from both his own uncertainty and a desire to take matters into his own hands. That allowed defenders to recover and mollify the Sixers’ dynamism. Those one-handed, off-the-dribble passes he’s whipping with regularity this season simply weren’t a regular part of his arsenal before.

For this very reason, after the Sixers perished in the second round once more last spring and the Denver Nuggets hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy behind the pass-happy attack of the greatest playmaker of his generation, the basketball cognoscenti practically agreed that the MVP they (and I, let’s be real here!) awarded Embiid should have gone to Nikola Jokic. Despite—no, because of—Jokic’s lack of interest in winning the award again, the Nuggets center yanked the conversation back in his favor. Now, Embiid’s doing the exact same thing.

The Sixers, it turns out, also believed they could learn from the title-winning Nuggets. According to The Athletic’s Sam Amick, there was a psychological component to the Sixers’ decision to hold training camp in Fort Collins, Colorado, this summer: its proximity to Denver.

Embiid hasn’t outright said he’s taking a page from the Joker’s book this season—he outfoxed him just a week ago—but there’s plenty of subtext to suggest that’s the case. “When I get stuck into just being a scorer, that’s not the best version of myself,” Embiid said on media day. “I like sharing the ball. I like when the ball moves. I don’t like when we’re static. I think the best way to win, as you’ve seen, the last couple years, the teams that have won, they move the ball. Nothing is static, so that’s how we should play.” Even though the internet argued over them for the better part of the past four seasons, last season’s regular-season MVP and Finals MVP have a deep mutual admiration. It makes sense for Embiid’s evolution to be informed by studying Jokic. And there are probably lessons about the virtues of selfishness that Jokic, who didn’t unlock his greatness until he finally took the shots he previously loathed to take, learned from the Cameroonian too.

Embiid has become less predictable, and therefore more dangerous. The Spurs, much like the rest of the NBA, tried everything on Monday: single coverage from Wembanyama, already one of the NBA’s stingiest defenders, and Zach Collins; double-teams from the nail; fronts and doubles and triples and defenders waiting for him at the rim. Embiid passed, pass-faked, finished, and nailed his midrange jumper, where his 50 percent accuracy this season makes those attempts a losing math equation for opponents.

Before the game, Embiid sized himself up against Wembanyama’s 7-foot-4 frame, raised his eyebrows, shook his head in disbelief, and gestured a prayer. It turns out, it worked. The basketball gods, here and in all manner of things, continue to reward him.