More than once this season Brett Brown has said that Joel Embiid is the defensive player of the year. The 76ers coach believes that his star center deserves the NBA’s end-of-year accolade and said as much following the Sixers' 114-97 win over the Jazz late Thursday.
Embiid wants it, but he doesn’t feel like he’s shown enough this season to deserve it. Despite a dominating defensive performance in Utah against the reigning DPOY, Rudy Gobert, in which Embiid posted 23 points, 15 rebounds, and five blocks, he said there is room to grow.
“This year so far? I wouldn’t say me because I’ve been trash, but I’m definitely top three,” he said after Thursday’s game. "Tonight, I did a better job defensively. We’re all still getting used to the new concepts, and I’m still figuring out how to best put myself in a position to where I can really help the team and be the best defensive player in the league.”
Defense is always on Embiid’s mind, and he wants the DPOY honor more than the MVP because he believes it will signify that he has become a complete player.
“A lot of the guys in the league are one-dimensional. It’s either offense or defense, and there’s not a lot of guys that do it on both ends of the court,” he said. “Getting into the league I didn’t know what I could accomplish offensively. ... I didn’t know I was going to be able to score any time I wanted to. So I was always focused on defense.”
Coming out of Kansas in 2014, after being named the Big 12 defensive player of the year his freshman year, Embiid thought he would be a traditional, run-of-the-mill center who got dunks and easy looks underneath. So it was continued defensive improvement that kept him focused.
Through years of injury, Embiid never imagined that he would be able to improve his footwork and his court vision to the point that he would be a dynamic offensive threat, both as a scorer and a distributor. Still, even though he’s improved on both sides of the ball, being an elite defensive player remains the most important individual goal.
Embiid views the NBA’s MVP award as more of a team honor. An MVP has to be on a winning team and help everyone score. Embiid has no doubt that he’ll eventually be named NBA MVP, but it’s not what he’s gunning for.
“I feel like even if I don’t get it this year, I feel like at some point in my career I’m going to be MVP,” he said. “For me, right now, defensive player of the year is really important.”
Embiid doesn’t say these things flippantly or to grab a headline. He pauses and considers his answers and mulls over words, making sure they are understood with the right intention.
He praises Gobert — even though he thinks he deserved the DPOY over Gobert last season — and is grateful for the matchup because he believes it makes him better.
Improving is the only way for Embiid to accomplish his goals, and so he looks at every game as a chance to incrementally get better. On any given night, Embiid could be playing one-on-one with a defender, facing double or triple teams, watching players fly at him from every point on the court.
“It’s hard to adjust,” he said. “I’m still learning. ... I feel like a lot of people haven’t really seen what I can really do, and I’m still getting comfortable. Sometimes I struggle.”
Embiid said that one of the ways he struggles is by trying to do too much. He prides himself on being a willing passer but knows that he needs to strive to be even better and less selfish. He knows that he turns the ball over more often when he elects to keep the ball despite a defensive crowd, and he’s trying to retool that part of his game.
Though his goals are lofty and he expects that, in his career, he will achieve the highest accolades the NBA has to offer, Embiid remembers that he is just 24 years old and that the best is yet to come. After his first healthy offseason, he is seeing the fruits of his offseason work pay off, and it makes him even more hopeful for the future.
“A lot of people always are reminding me that it’s OK to make mistakes. It’s OK to be frustrated. It’s OK when you don’t have it going," he said. “Then I look at myself, and I’m like, it’s only basically my second year. I’m not even close to reaching my potential.”