Remember the old adage, “you can’t coach height?” Well, for the past few decades in the NBA the old saying has definitely rang true. After painfully watching the likes of All-Star Centers like Dwight Howard, Shaquille O’Neal, and DeAndre Jordan struggle to hit a free-throw - not to mention those grueling periods when teams use the “hack-a-Shaq” method - or even attempt a post move other than a drop step to a dunk, it seems like it has been a forgone conclusion that NBA Center’s have lacked skill. I can still hear the voices of my basketball coaches screaming at the tall kids on the team to “Get to the block!” or lecturing the Centers on why they should never wander out to the three point line, dribble the ball, or even shoot a jump shot further than 5 feet from the basket. The sad part about all of it was that for awhile, I agreed. We all grew up with the stereotypical uncoordinated, clumsy tall dude who runs awkwardly down the court and struggles to dribble - or catch a ball for that matter. Even the athletic big guys out there never really had any skill other than sprinting down the court getting a bunch of offensive rebounds, and then proceeding to chuck the ball against the backboard repeatedly before getting fouled - only to miss both foul shots.
The era of the 2000's
Being born in the 90’s, the early 2000's would be what I like to call my childhood era of basketball, and to be honest, front court players just weren’t that impressive. After guards like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and others simply dominating the league for so many years, all the media attention and highlight reels seemed to revolve around guard play. How great these players were in juxtaposition with the so-called "dominant” big men of the time - Outside of Tim Duncan - like Ben Wallace, Shaquille O’Neal, Dikembe Mutombo, etc. made it all too easy for me and my friends in elementary and middle school to buy into the idea that big men were only good for rebounding, defense, and the occasional monstrous dunk or alley-oop. And, no disrespect to Shaquille O’Neal, he is not only a hall-of-famer, but one of the best to ever play his position, but come on. The fact that he was such a terrible free throw shooter throughout his career was just embarrassing, and it's not like he had a plethora of post moves to rely on. Shaq's most impressive post move was just turning around, overpowering anyone in his way, and then dunking the ball over the nearest opponent.
Despite my views on what dominant big men looked like, my father being a basketball historian - and just an overall history buff in general - would constantly challenge my views. He showed me footage on ESPN classic and made me lookup the statistics of legends like Kareem, Moses, Wilt, Bill Russell, Hakeem, Patrick Ewing, etc. After awhile I started to see the light and realize that everything I thought I knew about forwards and centers was all wrong. Why was no one capable of doing a “Dream Shake”? What about the Kareem’s patented hook shot? How is that no one over 6’9” can shoot a fifteen foot jumper? After my revelation It felt almost as if I was a character straight out of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, since when I came back and tried to illuminate my friends and tell them about what I learned and saw, they thought I was crazy and refused to listen, at least initially.
The big man situation in the NBA didn’t really get that much better over the coming years, yes there were talented mainstays like the future hall-of-famers Tim Duncan, The Gasol Brothers, Dirk, and the sensational Yao Ming, who were supremely skilled - especially Duncan who I, along with many others, believe to be the best power forward of all time - but let’s just say that the likes of players Kwame Brown, Hasheem Thabeet, Bismack Biyombo, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, and (insert other unskilled and/or bust of a big man here) haven’t exactly positively contributed to the cause. Naturally, this caused many people to start questioning the importance of the “stereotypical” big man in the NBA, even suggesting that teams didn’t necessarily need a great Center to win a championship. This trend continued and eventually, in 2012, led to the NBA eliminating the Center position from the All-Star game all together, and ultimately culminating with what we know of today as the “small ball” revolution - which of course reached its peak with the Golden State Warriors winning the NBA Finals in 2015. Hell, even the Lebron James Heat teams that won prior didn't use of a traditional Center. Obviously, there are other factors that have contributed to the small ball revolution, like the dominance of guards like Michael Jordan (mentioned previously), AAU basketball and its addiction to athleticism, youth coaches not knowing how to properly coach big men, the emergence of skilled athletic wing players like Lebron James, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant who can play/guard every position on the court … the list goes on an on. However, when you boil it down to it’s most basic components, this so called "small ball revolution” is due to the fact that - besides a few exceptions - big men really haven’t been as talented and skilled as they used to be.
It came to a point where skillful big men - in particular their ability to utilize a wide range of post move - were not only being forgotten, but almost becoming extinct. However, recently the NBA culture has started to show signs of shifting back towards the dominant, skilled big man reigning supreme. Starting with Demarcus Cousins coming into the league back in 2011, over the past 5/6 years the league has started to see a mini resurgence in ultra-talented big men who are sure to be powerful forces, perennial all-stars, and win multiple championships in the league before all is said and done. In the half decade since Cousin’s arrival, we’ve seen the likes of the “unibrow” aka Anthony Davis, The Big KAT aka Karl Anthony Towns, the unicorn Kristaps Porzingis, “The Process” Joel Embiid, and even players like Rudy Gobert, Jahlil Okafor (offensively), and Steven Adams who have started to show promise as all around threats. Also, on a smaller scale, players like Nikola Vucevic, Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas, Myles Turner, and Nikola Jokic have contributed to the rise of skill in the average big man as they can all rebound, use an array of post moves, and have shooting touch out to 3 point range.
Now, you may be wondering why I chose Joel Embiid to headline this article when people like Anthony Davis and Karl Towns have just been so dominant for a longer period of time than Embiid - albeit not that much longer. Well, first and foremost, I must admit that I have a heavy bias as I am not only a Sixers fan, but also a devoted follower and firm believer in former Sixers' GM Sam Hinkie and his tanking methods. Therefore, to me Joel Embiid is the second coming, a godsend, a hero if you will. However, besides my obvious bias there is no denying the immediate impact Embiid has had on and off the court. The main reasons why he may transcend the likes of Anthony Davis and Karl Anthony Towns are his personality and how quickly he's learned and improved in the game of basketball. Yes, Towns, Embiid, and Davis all have comparable skill, but Embiid's personality is infectious. Whether he's trolling pornstars on social media, dancing with the sixer dancers after a victory, or joking around about his shirley temple addiction, the man is a constant trending topic as well as a force to be reckoned with on the court while having only played basketball for seven short years.
Discovering the processs
Joel Embiid is from Yaounde, Cameroon in Africa, and before ever discovering basketball Embiid planned on pursuing a career in volleyball. However, around 2010 during a basketball camp, NBA player and fellow Yaounde native Luc Mbah a Moute discovered him, served as his mentor, and helped him transition to a life in the United States where he would pursue a new future in basketball. This all happened just one year later in 2011 when Embiid was only 16. Then, it took Embiid a mere year of playing high school basketball before he would lead his team to a 33-4 record, a state championship, register 13 points, 9.7 boards, and 1.9 blocks per contest, and commit to Kansas after being considered a 5-star recruit and a top 3 overall prospect. Then, after averaging 11 points, 8 boards, and 2.6 blocks a game and being considered a top 30 finalist for the Naismith College Player of the Year - through only one season and 28 games worth of college basketball - he gets drafted 3rd overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2014 NBA Draft. From picking up a basketball for the first time to being drafted 3rd overall happened in just four years time for Embiid - which is unheard of. Now I know what you might be saying, “well he’s over 7 feet tall, of course it’s easy for him to be considered a top prospect with that height”, but I don’t think anyone expected him to become this talented this fast. Whether it was at Kansas showing glimpses of "Dream Shakes” and superior foot work, or even a shooting stroke out to 3 point range in the NBA, he has always been able to wow crowds with his skill. So you’re telling me that in only 4 years of playing basketball Joel Embiid can do things that most big men in the league who have grown up playing the game since they were children can’t do?? Damn, this man is talented.
Despite his early success with the sport, his first two seasons in the NBA would prove to be taxing. After, being plagued with multiple navicular bone foot injuries that sidelined him for two straight seasons - and therefore delaying his rookie debut - people started to wonder if he would ever play a game in the NBA, let a lone an entire season. Then came the inevitable comparisons to Greg Oden, and it seemed like he was destined to become another historic bust at the Center position. Sixer fanatics like myself started to believe all the chatter, but it always seemed like just as times were darkest, a new video of Embiid’s famous “one on none” workouts would surface. You would see him doing drop steps, spin moves, step back jumpers, 3 pointers, between the legs ball handling drills, and thunderous dunks and start to think to yourself, “If he ever steps on the court this man is going to be an absolute beast.” However, I doubt that even the most optimistic of Sixers fans - and basketball lovers in general - could have envisioned the impact Joel Embiid would have just half way into his rookie season.
Trusting the Process
Forget the fact that he's become an instant social media sensation, constantly trending and gaining new followers on social media from his hilarious antics on twitter and instagram, the man is averaging 19.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game! As his stats indicate Joel Embiid has not only been the run away favorite for rookie of the year, but has also emerged as a prime candidate for the All-Star Game after putting together an impressive statistical resume all while being on minute restriction averaging only 25 minutes per game. As of right now you’d be hard pressed to find a Center in the Eastern Conference who has been playing better than him, and the fans have seemed to be taking notice as well. In the most recent tally of fan voting for forwards in the Eastern Conference Joel Embiid sits at fourth place and a mere 16,000 votes away from supplanting Kevin Love and earning the third and final starting forward spot for the Easter Conference All-Stars. Even his opponents around the league have started to take note and realize how talented and special of a player he is like Demarcus “Boogie” Cousins who recently said "I don't give a lot of people props, but I like that kid a lot man. I think he got a great chance of being the best big in this league." Of course Boogie had to say that this will only be possible once he himself retires, but the message was delivered loud and clear. Embiid is here to stay.
This has all resulted in an Embiid led Sixers team winning six of their past eight games and having an overall 9-8 record in their past seventeen games. Although I usually don’t look too much stock into analytics and things like "Per 36 min” and defensive rating, it is worth noting - and also pretty damn impressive - that Embiid is averaging 28 points per 36 mins as a rookie, and the NBA record for a rookie’s points per 36 minutes is 29.2 points recorded by none other than the late great Wilt Chamberlain. And, in terms of defensive rating for players playing at least 25 games and 25 minutes per game, he ranks fourth overall in the NBA and first overall in terms of Centers at 99.3 (second is the "stifle tower” Rudy Gobert at 99.6) - which means the sixers as a team only allow 99.3 points per 100 possessions while Embiid is on the court. In comparison, while Embiid is off the court the sixes post a defensive rating of 108.3 which would rank them 25th in the NBA. Also, beyond the fact that in only 25 minutes a game he averages 2.4 blocks a game - which ranks him 3rd in the NBA - his ability to alter his opponents shots from anywhere on the court is astounding. Overall opponents shoot 6.9 percent worse when guarded by Embiid, and at six feet or less from the rim his opponents shoot 18.5 percent worse.
What makes his dominance on the defensive end even more impressive is the fact that he also happens to be the offensive focal point for the sixers. In fact, Embiid has the third highest offensive usage rate in the NBA this season at a clip of 35.9 percent, and just to put that in perspective for you, no rookie has ever posted an offensive usage rate higher than 35 percent while playing more than 320 minutes in a season. His ability to defend at the highest level, unleash any number of the utility belt full of post moves he has, shoot 35 percent from 3 point range, and shoot 79 percent from the free throw line show how impressively multifaceted his game is. But, the fact that he’s been able to accomplish all of this in only 7 years since picking up a basketball for the first time is truly astounding and proves that the sky is the limit for Joel Embiid.