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Joel Embiid Has Been Better Than Advertised

Joel Embiid is proving that is even better than advertised and was worth the two-year wait.

Jesse Blancarte

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The NBA has shifted toward a smaller and faster style of play over the last decade. An inherent and obvious result of that shift is the apparent marginalization of the center position. That’s not to say that there haven’t been star-quality centers in the NBA over the last decade. However, it’s hard to deny that centers are, for the most part, no longer focal points on offense, nor are they usually the most important player on any given team.

There are a few exceptions of course – DeMarcus Cousins is far and away the best and most important player for the Sacramento Kings and Marc Gasol has been a focal point on both offense and defense for the Memphis Grizzlies for years. But in today’s NBA, teams generally need a top-tier point guard, a star-quality wing player, a power forward who can space the floor reasonably well and a center who can protect the rim and ideally switch out onto the perimeter when necessary.

The recent wave of quality centers are generally athletic, mobile bigs who can protect the rim, block shots, sprint the court in transition, set solid picks and finish at the rim off of alley oops or dump offs from penetrating guards or wings. Players like DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard and Clint Capela fit this mold. None of these centers are great at posting up in isolation and scoring over one or two defenders, but the league has shifted in such a way that this skill isn’t a necessity anymore. However, there are a few young centers who are combining all of these skills and reminding us just how dominant big men can be, even in the modern NBA.

Joel Embiid was drafted third overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, but missed his first two seasons after undergoing surgery to repair a broken navicular bone in his right foot in 2014 and a second operation on the same foot in 2015. Embiid is now healthy and has been playing extremely well in limited minutes this season. There was a lot of hype surrounding Embiid before he was drafted and it looks as though he is even better than advertised.

Embiid combines a rare combination of size, strength, skill and mobility. Like Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis (who plays power forward but is best suited to play center), Embiid is redefining the modern NBA center and is showing us that big men are still extremely valuable in today’s NBA.

Unlike most current NBA centers, Embiid is a serious threat in the post. He has shown the ability to clear out space, back down defenders, and use a variety of ball fakes and spin moves to get clean looks at the rim. He even has the ability to take the ball off the dribble from the perimeter to get inside post position. There’s no better example of this unique skill than when he used it against the Utah Jazz, pulling off Hakeem Olajuwon’s patented “Dream Shake.”

The reality is that while this is a nice skill to have, it still won’t be the foundation or focal point of a modern NBA team’s offense. Pick-and-roll sets surrounded by good three-point shooting is the most common staple of any modern offense, but having a dominant big man in the post like Embiid does offer another way for a team to generate spacing. This is an underutilized way of collapsing defenses and creating open looks for three-pointers, but that’s mostly a result of there being so few centers that are skilled post-players. Embiid is not only a threat in the post, but he is patient, has good court vision and makes crisp passes to open teammates. He is even able to find teammates while handling the ball on the perimeter, which is something most defenses aren’t equipped or prepared to defend.

Teams are stuck between a rock and a hard place when guarding Embiid. His ability to shoot from three-point range means opposing centers have to stay relatively close to him far away from the basket. This forces shot-blocking centers who heavily prefer to stay in and around the painted area to step out onto the perimeter or risk being burned by Embiid from three-point range.

This is a unique tool in the Philadelphia 76ers’ arsenal and one that teams are looking to add. The Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Knicks have that tool with Towns and Porzingis able to shoot from three-point range, as well as the Kings with Cousins and the Grizzlies with Gasol.

LeBron James described what it’s like defending someone with that unique skill set.

“His ability to not only score in the post but shoot the ball, it keeps the defense off balance,” LeBron James said of Embiid. “You’ve just got to continue to work the defense, work your habits and work the gameplan more than anything.”

Embiid is currently shooting over 50 percent from distance, which is an incredible mark considering that teams are scheming specifically to slow him down. However, he has a very slow release, which may be an issue once teams start figuring out how to contest his three-point attempts consistently.

Embiid is a true focal point on offense because of his ability to handle the ball, attack the rim off the dribble, score in the post, shoot from distance and pick apart defenses with his passing. Embiid breaks the mold of the modern NBA center by being more than just a pick-and-roll finisher. The scary thing about Embiid is he’s just into his second month as an active NBA player and still has a ton of room for improvement.

In addition to being a well-rounded offensive player, Embiid is also a very strong defensive center.

“The statistics are not negotiable of the impact that he has defensively,” 76ers head coach Brett Brown said recently. “We are the second-rated defensive team in the NBA when he’s on the floor. We go to 30th when he’s not.”

Embiid is one of the bigger centers in the NBA, but is somehow still very mobile. He is able to get out to the perimeter to contest a shot, recover in time to grab defensive rebounds, track guards and wings off the dribble and use his excellent timing to block shots. Embiid has all of the physical tools and instincts to anchor a defense as a rim protector, while also guarding opponents reasonably well in space. Embiid doesn’t just have the physical tools to be a great defensive anchor, he also has the competitive drive to compete consistently and challenge as many shots as possible.

Beyond being a force on both ends of the court, Embiid also has the confidence and personality to become one of the league’s more charismatic stars and he’s already a fan favorite in Philadelphia.

“How many times do you see over our past few years where somebody is going to go stalk somebody down, like LeBron [James], in open court at 7’2, at 275 pounds and bat it off of the board and then look at the crowd … and want Philadelphia to stand up, and Philadelphia stands up?” Brown said regarding Embiid. “And he’ll pound, pound [with his dribble and then] dunk. And he’ll flex and he’ll go to the line and Philadelphia stands up.

“And there is a confidence that I love because it’s also mirrored by talent. There’s a toughness that this city demands – it’s Philadelphia – that I just think this city is going to wrap their arms around him the more he plays. He’s still like a gangling 20-something-year-old to me … And that doesn’t cloud his mojo, his swagger, his attitude and I love it. I love it. It’s what our program needs.”

The main concern with Embiid is, of course, his notable injury history. Embiid is still on a minutes restriction and doesn’t play in the second game of back-to-backs. If Embiid can stay healthy, play 30 minutes or more per game and continue developing his overall skill set, he should become one of the most dominant players in the league sooner rather than later.

“This in infant stages, early days for him,” Brown said. “His body of work, given his lack of playing basketball, really is jaw-dropping for what I think he can be. To jump in and get rookie of the month I think is a real, sort of, quick snapshot view of him now. I think what he’s going to be is going to be extremely special.”

Embiid is still in the beginning stages of his developmental process, but the early returns have been very promising. It’s clear that Embiid is better than advertised and, along with players like Towns and Porzingis, is redefining the modern NBA center.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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