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Brett Brown to Make Joel Embiid 76ers’ Focal Point

Joel Embiid is back on the court and is reminding everyone why he was drafted third overall in 2014.

Jesse Blancarte

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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.

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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NBA AM: Don’t Count Out Cole Anthony, He’ll Prove You Wrong

Dylan Thayer discusses Cole Anthony’s long road to the Orlando Magic starting lineup and what the future may hold for the talented guard.

Dylan Thayer

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Needless to say, Cole Anthony has been one of the top rookies from the class of 2020 thus far. In the years leading up to the NBA Draft, Anthony – the son of long-time veteran Greg Anthony – had been one of the class’s most prized players, with most experts mocking him in the top five. But the first losing season of University of North Carolina head coach Roy Williams’ career led to scouts turning away from Anthony as a top recruit. The buzz was that ego and attitude problems would stop him from being a safe lottery pick. 

Coming out of high school, Anthony was the second highest-ranked prospect in the ESPN Top 100 for 2019. The Oak Hill squad Anthony led went 23-5 with him on the court, making the national semifinal against fellow recent draftee Isaiah Stewart. Anthony put on a show in his senior year averaging 18.0 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game and 9.5 assists per game, per Oak Hill Hoops. In April of 2019, he committed to the University of North Carolina Tarheels over other top NCAA basketball programs.

The 2019-20 NCAA season was a very rocky one for the Tarheels, to say the least. The team finished 14-19 and had their first losing season since 2001-02. Injuries hampered the team throughout the year and the lack of consistency within the team’s lineup did not lead to the best product possible. Anthony had his own right knee injury that caused him to miss time during the season, and he later revealed that he only played about five games at 100 percent, per Sports Illustrated

But after an underwhelming tenure at UNC, the biggest thing that sticks out is how Anthony matured and reacted to it. In an interview with the front office, Anthony spoke highly of his teammates:

“At the end of the day, we really didn’t get much time to play together as a whole unit,” Anthony said. “But those are my brothers.” 

One of the biggest knocks on Anthony’s game coming into the NBA was that teams feared he would not have a good effect on the locker room, but where did that stem from? For starters, UNC’s record – and the fact that Anthony was supposed to be the star – lead outsiders to place the blame on him due to their collective failures. In an article for The Athletic, opposing coaches did not speak very highly of Anthony’s skillset. In fact, they said his shot was very inefficient, his defense was not consistent, his dribbling was not strong enough and, worst of all, he would just be another player that inefficiently scores points for a bad team. Leading up to draft night, Anthony’s stock had definitely taken a hit – but he managed to go No. 15 overall, the first non-lottery pick of the night.

Without a doubt, so far this season, Anthony has been a steal for the Orlando Magic. Originally, he was in charge of running the team’s second unit, but once starter Markelle Fultz suffered a season-ending injury, Anthony was handed the keys to the point guard position. Losing Fultz was a big blow to the Magic’s season, but Anthony is a very good replacement for him as their high motor play styles are similar. 

Anthony has not been the most consistent or efficient player as of yet, but he has shown plenty of promise throughout the early part of his rookie season. Additionally, an insanely short offseason means there are still major adjustments that these young guys must make at the NBA level. On Monday night against the Charlotte Hornets, Anthony had his best game of the season by putting up 21 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists over 31 minutes.

Already, the scorer has cashed in on 15-plus points in five games so far. Even better, Anthony is averaging 11.0 points per game, 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while ranking in the top five among rookies in those respective statistical categories. 

Still, the downside to Anthony’s play is definitely how inconsistent he has been on a game-to-game basis. On the season, he is shooting a meager 36.9 percent from the field, placing him sixth-to-last in that category, per NBA Advanced Stats. Surprisingly enough, he has shot the ball at a better clip than No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards. His three-point percentage is just under 34 percent and he has shot the ball at a very good level from the free-throw line at 84.6 percent. Regardless, there’s plenty of room to improve.

But with the guidance of Anthony’s talented hands – including a shocking buzzer-beating game-winner already – the Magic find themselves in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. The Magic have been a familiar face in the lower half in the conference’s playoff bracket over the past few seasons, but Anthony is hoping to aim higher than ever. With the lead guard duties belonging to the blossoming rookie, he needs to step up and perform in big moments if this team wants to go anywhere this season, a ton of that responsibility will fall upon Anthony’s shoulders – fair or not.

From what Anthony has shown throughout his career, however, betting against him would not be a very wise decision.

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NBA

ICYMI: Atlantic Division

To kick off our new “ICYMI” series, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco breaks down what you might have missed from the Atlantic Division this season.

Ariel Pacheco

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Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re introducing a new series called “ICYMI” where we’ll fill you in on some of the NBA’s biggest storylines that you may have missed, division by division. Today, we’ll focus on the Atlantic Division. 

So far, the Atlantic has been arguably the most competitive division in the league. If the playoffs started today, all five teams in the division would at least make the play-in game. But what’s gotten those teams to that point? Who or what might have flown under the radar? Let’s take a look.

Chris Boucher: Sixth Man Of The Year Candidate

After a cold start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have started to figure it out, winning 5 of their last 7 games. And a huge part of that success has been due to the rise of Chris Boucher.

In just 23.7 minutes per game, he is averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds to go along with 2.2 blocks per game. He’s also shown touch from beyond the arc, shooting 45.3% from three-point range on almost four attempts a game. On the year, Boucher also has 4 double-doubles.

Boucher has provided a much-needed spark for the Raptors. In fact, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to do so, many have been clamoring for Boucher to start. Still, as a starter or off the bench, Boucher has done more than enough to mask the loss of both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. And doing so has placed him squarely in the middle of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.

Is Immanuel Quickley the Knicks Point Guard Of The Future and Present?

The Knicks entered the season with a conundrum at the point guard position. Former Lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina have both disappointed while Elfrid Payton, a proven but flawed NBA rotation player, has only exacerbated the team’s issues, especially their need for spacing.

Enter Immanuel Quickley, a rookie out of Kentucky that has not only shown the ability to shoot, but also defend and facilitate at a high level and has developed a floater game that has become his signature.

There’s no question that Quickley is currently the best point guard on the Knicks’ roster. While his 11 points and 2.6 assists per game might undersell his play, lineups with RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson that feature Quickley have outscored opponents by 20 points, albeit in just 30 total minutes. That same lineup with Payton in Quickley’s place have been outscored by 6 points in 371 minutes. Quickley is simply a better fit.

While the Knicks point guard situation in the last decade has been lousy, the Knicks may not have only found their point guard of the future, but of the present as well. 

Doc Rivers, the Tobias Harris Whisperer

After a disappointing year, Tobias Harris is in the midst of a bounce-back season. This should come as no surprise, however, with Doc Rivers now at the helm. Harris played some of the best basketball of his career as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers with Rivers as his head coach. Now, reunited in Philadelphia, Harris’ play has surged once again.

Harris has been an uber-efficient scoring option for the first place 76ers, averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on a 61.5 true shooting percentage. Rivers, meanwhile, has done an excellent job of putting Harris in the best position to succeed. With Brett Brown, Harris was used more as a floor-spacer and spot-up shooter, something that Harris is certainly capable of — he’s shot 45.8 percent from three-point range this season — but doesn’t exactly suit his game. But, under Rivers, Harris has attacked the basket and has been far more decisive with the ball in his hands. It also helps when Harris is shooting a scorching-hot 45.8 percent from three-point range.

Where other coaches have faltered, Rivers has seemingly unlocked Harris’ ultimate ability and, with the type of player he has shown himself to be, Harris might just be enough to push Philadelphia to a title. He’s certainly got them in the conversation.

Jeff Green’s Role in Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden hurt their defense and their depth significantly. They’re betting on sheer star power and their new powerhouse offense to get them far in the playoffs.

They will need role-players to step up and knock down shots, however. Jeff Green has done just that.

Shooting 48.2 percent from three, Green has been playing a bunch of his minutes at center. And, with how the roster is currently constructed, the team may rely on him to play that spot throughout the season. Green, of course, is no stranger to the situation, having played the very same role with the Houston Rockets last season. 

Since the Harden trade, he’s averaging 33 minutes per game. Green has also scored in double figures off the bench in 7 straight games. He’ll continue to play a major role for the Nets as the season goes and, if he can continue to perform at this level, Brooklyn will have someone in the rotation beyond the big-three that they can trust.

Be sure to check back throughout the week as we break down what you may have missed from the other divisions.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Khris Middleton Should Be The Bucks’ Closer

Bobby Krivitsky breaks down Khirs Middleton’s season and explains how the Milwaukee Bucks second star has earned more opportunities in crunch time.

Bobby Krivitsky

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For the Milwaukee Bucks, being one of the NBA’s best regular-season teams doesn’t mean much. In each of the last two seasons, the players and their fans have enjoyed this movie’s rising action but, as winning the title is the ultimate goal, left the theatre disappointed.

In order to get that satisfying conclusion, Milwaukee must make some changes. And, to start the 2020-21 season, they’ve tried to do just that. As expected, Mike Budenholzer is more flexible in his approach this season than in year’s past. They’ve reshaped their five-out offense, which now features someone, often Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupying the dunker spot. Those are the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline, where a player can catch the ball, take one or two steps, and dunk.

The Bucks are also pursuing their missed shots far more aggressively than they used to; two seasons ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, last year, they ranked 28th. But, through the first 16 games of this season, they’re snatching up 29.2 percent of their misses, good for the sixth-highest percentage league-wide.

Another meaningful difference, arguably the most meaningful, is how the team has allowed Khris Middleton to initiate the offense far more frequently at the end of games. In the final three minutes of games within five points, Middleton’s usage rate has spiked from 30.1 percent in 2019-20 to 40 percent this season.

Once again, Middleton has put together a fantastic season that’s receiving little fanfare. After he averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game last season, he’s improved to 21.8 points through the Bucks’ first 16 games. Middleton is also taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game (knocking them down at a 42.6 percent clip, the second-best mark of his career) and has increased the amount of two-point field goals he’s attempting to 9.8 per contest, making 58 percent of them. 

That combination has produced an effective field goal percentage of 60.2 percent. Additionally, Middleton has shot 92 percent from the foul line on an average of 3.1 free-throw attempts per game, giving him a true-shooting percentage of 63.7 percent. Those shooting percentages mean Middleton has a legitimate chance to join the 50-40-90 club; only eight NBA players have accomplished that feat. Middleton’s also gone from averaging 4.3 assists per game the last two years to dishing out 5.8 dimes this season and has grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game. 

Add it all up and you have a two-time All-Star that ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, fifth in total win shares and has delivered a compelling opening statement as to why he should make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career.

While it may not seem so noteworthy that one of the best wings in the NBA is off to a hot start, the way Middleton has responded to shouldering more responsibility in crunch time should serve as an ingredient to the elixir that can cure the postseason issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. Out of every player that has made more than one appearance in crunch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game within five points, the sharpshooting Middleton is eighth in points per game. He’s also yet to turn the ball over in that span.

 

As the pressure mounts and the clock counts down, Middleton’s approach doesn’t change from how he’s played the game’s previous 43 minutes. Whether he’s attacking off a screen from Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, shooting off the catch, or using a jab step to create the necessary space for him to rise and fire, Middleton knocks down his shots with the same ruthless efficiency.

That said, he could stand to be a bit more assertive in the game’s waning moments. Yes, his usage rate has jumped in the fourth quarter, but there have been instances where Middleton has taken a backseat; in Milwaukee’s recent 112-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Middleton managed just two shots in the entire fourth quarter, back-to-back threes that turned a two-point deficit into a four-point lead the Bucks never relinquished.

Of course, there’s a balancing act that Budenholzer must work out between Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Late in the game, Budenholzer can’t simply take the ball away from Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and Holiday, a fantastic player in his own right, needs opportunities to have an impact.

But Middleton has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of even more opportunities than what he’s taken for himself this season. And, if the Bucks want to win a title in the near future, it may be in their best interest if Middleton’s the player primarily in charge of initiating their late-game offense.

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