Embiid's expanding versatility means more than Player of the Month honor originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
It’s become difficult to identify what Joel Embiid is incapable of on a basketball court.
Sixers acting head coach Dan Burke, who once schemed against Embiid as a Pacers assistant and opined that the 7-footer “gets away with a bunch of crap the league ignores,” has learned plenty about his versatility firsthand.
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“I always thought he was a post player who’d shoot an occasional three, flop all the time. He doesn’t flop anymore, by the way,” Burke joked Monday night after a win over the Rockets. “But the skill level he brings, he’s just much more than a post player. He has high IQ; you can use him in different spots, you can move him around the floor. … I’m just impressed with his skill set.
“And then, on a personal level, even from last year to this year, his approach coming in every game, every practice, I see an improvement. And all I mean by that is coming ready. Now, just like other players, he’ll say, ‘Oh, we’ve got practice.’ But he’s a guy where it’s like going to a family reunion; you complain about going there, and then when you’re there it’s a great time and you’re glad you did it. He’s been a joy at practice. He’s got to lead that way, in my mind.”
Embiid, who posted a 31-point, 15-rebound, 10-assist triple-double against Houston in his first game of 2022, was named the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Month for December on Tuesday.
He beat out nominees DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Darius Garland. DeRozan was an especially strong contender.
In truth, a Player of the Month honor isn’t deeply meaningful in the grand scheme of things. What’s more significant with Embiid, in our view, is his ever-expanding versatility.
Burke remembered that, during his Pacers days, he felt Embiid was “going to wear down in the fourth quarter.” Conditioning is no longer an apparent impediment for the 27-year-old, who scored an NBA-best 58 clutch points in December and only needed 36 field-goal attempts to do so. It now feels borderline routine for Embiid to save the team from bad losses. The Sixers are 17-8 this season when he plays and 3-8 when he doesn’t.
They’ve missed Ben Simmons’ speed and do-it-all defensive traits, but Embiid has assumed more responsibility as both a transition playmaker and half-court facilitator. His 0.66 assist-to-usage ratio and 10.8 turnover percentage would both be career bests, per Cleaning the Glass. And coast-to-coast Embiid fast breaks haven’t been rare at all.
“I think I’ve always had it,” Embiid said Monday. “My handle has gotten better every single year, so I’m much more comfortable. And obviously losing our point guard, it puts more on me. … So that’s part of my game based on the circumstances that I’ve had to evolve, and I think we’re doing a great job, whether it’s me pushing the ball, attacking or finding guys. I think it’s been great.”
That Simmons is under contract but yet to play this season after a summer trade request is, quite obviously, not optimal for the Sixers. But Embiid has played and led with a passion that indicates he’s never considered the possibility of a “lost season” or moped about being the Sixers’ only available All-Star at the moment.
“I want to win,” he said. “Even based on the circumstances, I still think we have a chance. We can beat anybody on any given night. So I just want to do whatever is necessary to be able to win every single night, whether it’s be our best offensive player, scorer, playmaker, or our best defensive player, just protecting the rim.
“Like I always say, there’s a reason Rudy (Gobert) has won so many Defensive Player of the Years — because the center is the most important position on the defensive end. So whatever I’m asked, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The Sixers are sure asking a lot of Embiid. None of it has seemed beyond him, though.
“Right now, I’m not surprised by anything that Joel does on the floor, because he’s really taken a huge step,” Furkan Korkmaz said. “He plays on a different level. I don’t even know how to describe it, how to explain his game, because he can do everything right now.
“It’s not just post-ups, it’s not just face-ups. He has a really good package and also this year, he’s started to read the game much better. I can tell from his eyes when I’m on the court with him, he knows where the guys are, where the defenders are coming from. If we make more shots, he’s going to have more assists; he’s going to have more triple-doubles.”