Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers took a half-beat to evaluate the location throughout a late-season sport in opposition to the Boston Celtics. As is continuously the case, he sensed a bonus.
Embiid, a 7-foot, 280-pound middle, cradled the ball close to the highest of the important thing as he confronted up in opposition to the Celtics’ Grant Williams, a 6-6 ahead who crouched right into a defensive stance as he waved his left hand in Embiid’s face. It may as smartly had been an act of give up.
Embiid had a large number of ordinary feats throughout the common season to place himself as a favourite to win his first NBA Most Valuable Player Award. In addition to main the league in scoring for a 2nd consecutive season, with a career-high 33.1 issues according to sport, he averaged 10.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.7 blocks.
But there was once something he did extra continuously than the rest, an underrated talent for him that destabilized opposing defenses and helped raise the 76ers to the third-best document within the NBA: He took 5,526 dribbles.
During that ownership in opposition to the Celtics, Embiid wanted simply two of them — a couple of laborious dribbles to his proper as his teammates cleared out to the 3-point line, dragging their defenders with them. Embiid pulled up within the paint, then created area in opposition to Williams with a double pivot earlier than he sank a brief fadeaway jumper over him.
“How are you going to stop that?” Ian Eagle, TNT’s play-by-play voice, mentioned throughout the tv broadcast.
The quick resolution for the Celtics was once that they were not. Embiid completed with 52 issues in a slender win.
Not goodbye in the past, NBA facilities made their lunch-pail livings by way of tenting out close to the ring. A between-the-legs dribble out close to the 3-point line would have almost definitely landed them at the bench.
But the sport has modified, in fact, and the plodding large guy is a relic. The trendy NBA is teeming with large gamers who can release 3-pointers, run units from the excessive publish and, in some instances, stretch defenses by way of dribbling like their Lilliputian teammates.
Enter Embiid, whose advanced polish as a ballhandler — and his affection for the craft — have made him much more potent because the 76ers face the Nets within the first-round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Philadelphia leads the collection, 3-0, with Game 4 on Saturday in Brooklyn.
“I think he thinks he is a guard,” 76ers shooting guard Tyrese Maxey said of Embiid.
Embiid wasn’t always so comfortable handling the ball. As a first-year player during the 2016–17 season, he averaged just 0.78 dribbles per touch. In fact, he averaged fewer than one dribble per touch until Doc Rivers was hired as the team’s coach before the 2020–21 season.
At the time, Rivers said, he heard from fans who wanted Embiid to stop drifting to the perimeter. Their argument was that he was too big and too skilled at the basket to be messing around near the 3-point line. But Rivers said he resisted their pleas to shape Embiid into more of an old-school center.
“Everybody was saying: ‘Get him on the post! Get him on the post! Rivers recalled in an interview. “But this is a guy who can bring the ball up for us, he can run pick-and-rolls, and there are very few bigs who can do that. He’s a 7-footer who plays like a guard, so you know what? Let him do it.
Last season, Embiid averaged 1.41 dribbles per touch, which ranked second among centers behind Bam Adebayo of the Miami Heat. This season, Embiid averaged 1.18 dribbles per touch — another robust total that again placed him among the league’s most dribble-prone big men. He averaged nearly 84 dribbles per game, according to NBA Advanced Stats, a department at the league office that produces metrics based on player tracking data.
“I believe I can do anything on the basketball floor,” Embiid said. “You ask me to be a scorer, I’ll be a scorer. You ask me to be a playmaker, I’ll be a playmaker.”
He shouted across the locker room at James Harden, the team’s starting point guard.
“James,” Embiid said, “am I good at ball handling?”
Harden, who averaged 4.77 dribbles per touch this season, arched an eyebrow. (It’s all relative.)
“All big men want to be guards,” said 76ers forward PJ Tucker. Why? Because being a guard is cooler. Who wants to hang out in the paint and just take hook shots?
Along those lines, Maxey acknowledged that he sometimes gets nervous when Embiid grabs a defensive rebound and insists on dribbling upcourt himself.
“But at the end of the day, he’s Joel Embiid for a reason,” Maxey mentioned. “There’s only one of him.”
In the halfcourt, the calculus for defenders is unforgiving. Embiid is gifted sufficient as an out of doors shooter — he took 3 3-pointers according to sport and made 33 p.c of them this season — that opposing forwards and facilities will have to admire him. But in the event that they overextend by way of urgent up in opposition to him, Embiid is able to dribbling by way of them.
Bigs? They don’t have any shot,” Tucker said. “I imply, they may be able to’t guard him anyplace.”
And if opponents try to trap him, Embiid will find the open man.
“For him to do the stuff that he does at his measurement is ridiculous,” said Norm Roberts, who coached Embiid as an assistant at Kansas.
During Embiid’s lone college season, Roberts envisioned him developing into a “Tim Duncan-type man,” an early sign of Embiid’s high ceiling. During Duncan’s Hall of Fame career with the San Antonio Spurs, he was more of a traditional center — a big man who could dribble, but one who largely thrived around the basket by sealing defenders and using a smorgasbord of post moves.
The challenge for the coaching staff at Kansas was that Embiid did not consider himself a traditional center, and perhaps that was because he was unfamiliar with the concept.
Growing up in Cameroon, Embiid played soccer and volleyball. His first real exposure to basketball came at age 16, when Luc Mbah a Moute, a Cameroonian player who was then a forward for the Milwaukee Bucks, invited him to a summer basketball camp. Embiid was raw, but he was 6-10 and agile, and he soon found himself playing high school basketball in Florida.
Some of Embiid’s earliest lessons came via YouTube. In addition to studying footage of Hakeem Olajuwon, who was one of the more dominant centers of his era, Embiid was riveted by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, slick guards who torched defenders with their quickness and their sleight of hand.
“Those are the fellows I’ve all the time been extra interested in,” Embiid mentioned. “They’re obviously way smaller than me, and I can’t move as well as they do. But I love watching the way they move, how fast they are, and I still do. That’s how I learn, and that’s how I try to add to my game.”
He added: “When you look at the best ballhandlers, it’s not necessarily about dribbling. It’s all about footwork. You need to have good footwork.
At Kansas, Embiid had good footwork — the years he had spent playing soccer were a big help — along with terrific hands and great vision as a passer, Roberts said. But he was still a work in progress, and Coach Bill Self set healthy boundaries.
“He always liked to dribble it,” Roberts said, “but we weren’t going to let him dribble it.”
As the 2014 NBA draft came into clearer focus, there were exceptions. Whenever scouts rolled through Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse, Self would have Embiid head to a basket with a defender so that he could handle the ball and “do the Olajuwon stuff” for five or 10 minutes.
“He’d do the Dream Shake to perfection,” Roberts said, referring to Olajuwon’s hallmark spin move.
After the 76ers drafted him third overall, Embiid missed his first two seasons as a pro with a broken foot. But those two seasons, in an accidental way, were fundamental to his growth, Roberts said. Limited in what he could do with the team, Embiid had plenty of time to sharpen his feel for the game — by dribbling.
For his part, Embiid wants to continue to improve. Two keys, he said, are keeping his dribble low and knowing when to pick it up. But he otherwise has the freedom to do what he wants.
“I don’t think I’m a guard, and I don’t think I’m a big,” he mentioned. “I’m a complete basketball player.”
Additional paintings by way of Andy Chen.