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.
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