Through two preseason games, Joel Embiid, who recently nicknamed himself “The Process,” is averaging 5.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 12.6 minutes per game. While NBA fans shouldn’t get overly excited about preseason performances, it’s simply encouraging to see Embiid on the court. Embiid was selected third overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, but has been sidelined for the last two seasons with a foot injury that required multiple surgeries.
Embiid is now healthy and is getting a chance to display his immense talent and potential, which had 76ers fans so excited when Philadelphia drafted him over two years ago. Brett Brown, the head coach of the 76ers, is also excited about Embiid and has big expectations for him moving forward.
“I think that (Joel) is going to be the focal point, both offensively and defensively,” Brown said recently to Derek Bodner of Philadelphia Magazine. “You see things through that lens. The people and the pieces around it are going to follow suit with the structure that we’re trying to build on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively, around Joel.”
It’s hard to make fair comparisons to Embiid since he has only played in 28 college games and two preseason games so far. But if you watch Embiid going through drills, in practice and now in his preseason games, you can see why Brown is ready to build the 76ers around Embiid.
“It’s what I saw from day one. Truly,” Brown explained. “You see him and he just has it. He has it. Years ago you saw it with (Tim) Duncan. I see it with him in regards to being a real target offensively, and a real sort of centerpiece defensively.”
Embiid has a rare combination of size, mobility and skill. He is big enough to deter opponents from attacking the basket, quick enough to rotate from the weak side to block a shot at the rim and seems to have the instincts to know where he is supposed to be defensively. We saw this when Jaylen Brown blew by Hollis Thompson and Embiid shaded over, stuck with Brown and stuffed his dunk attempt at the rim. While there are other centers – such as Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan or Hassan Whiteside – who could have probably made this same defensive play, there are few who can then go run back and be a true focal point on offense. Embiid may be able to do that, emerging as a true two-way center in a league that has only a handful of such big men.
Embiid has looked fluid on offense so far, despite his poor shooting percentage. He has shown patience, using jabs and pump fakes to get opponents off balance for a moment to create space for a jump shot or a spin to the basket. He has also shown the ability to take the ball off the dribble, back down opponents in the post and even stretch the court to the three-point line.
The question for Embiid isn’t whether he has the physical ability or skill set to be a franchise center, but whether he can truly overcome his injury issues and continue developing and polishing his game. If he can stay healthy, it’s very likely that Embiid will eventually establish himself as one of the best overall centers in the NBA and a true franchise center for Philadelphia.
There have been concerns about Embiid’s work ethic and dedication toward becoming a great player. However, Embiid has put on a lot of muscle over the last few years and has worked closely with Brown on fundamentals and other aspects of his game, which is apparent in his early preseason outings. Embiid has also stated, in concise terms, that he has worked hard to overcome his injuries and get back on the court. With an improved work ethic and strong guidance from Brown, Embiid is well on his way toward becoming the well-rounded center he was projected to develop into.
“I think that we all know that it’s going to take time. We all get it,” Brown stated. “There’s going to be some stumbling blocks, but I believe that his potential, his upside, his desire to be great, is real.”
To his credit, Embiid has been reflective and critical of his early performances. One particular point of focus has been to not over rely on his perimeter game and to establish himself deep under the basket.
“I have to get some deep catches,” Embiid said prior to the game against the Wizards. “I have to make sure I get better angles. My position on the floor has to be better so those double teams can’t be successful.”
This focus seems to be coming directly from Coach Brown.
“Part of his growth is going to be deeper catches,” Brown said after the game. “I feel like the judgement, my view of when I really think ‘here he is’ is going to be volume of free throws. How many times does he get to the line? How many times does he get to the rim? How many times does he get to the paint?”
As previously stated, it’s hard to find a fair comparison to Embiid considering he has only played in two preseason games so far. It’s not clear whether he’ll primarily be an offensive scorer and facilitator like Marc Gasol, a defensive ace like Gobert, a dominant rebounder like Andre Drummond, a human highlight reel like Jordan, or some combination of these attributes. Coach Brown has made it clear where he wants Embiid to do his damage.
“My wish for him at the start is to be a post player,” Brown said. “Somebody said it was like Shaquille (O’Neal) with soccer feet. He is nimble and he does things that you can see there’s an athlete in the 7’2 body.”
Between stating that Embiid has “it” like Tim Duncan did, that he is like Shaq but even more nimble and that he is going to make Embiid the focal point on offense and defense, it’s clear that Brown thinks his young center has the potential to be a special player. It’s easy for anyone to gush over Embiid’s game after watching him play for even just a few minutes, but as Coach Brown stated, it will take time and there will be bumps along the way. Understanding all of that, it’s just nice to see Embiid finally back on the court playing in NBA games.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.