There’s a case to be made that raving about the quality of Joel Embiid’s foul shooting is like raving about the condiments at Katz’s Deli. But, then, a Reuben without the Russian dressing is just a corned-beef sandwich, and there’s a long line of big men who would have finished their careers with lot more points — not to mention several more wins — if they’d brought a little more mustard to the foul line.
If Wilt Chamberlain had shot 79 percent from the foul line, he would have finished his career with 3,314 more points. That’s essentially an entire season’s worth of points, and enough to keep him in front of Kobe, LeBron, MJ, and Dirk on the all-time scoring list. If Shaq shot 79 percent, he’d rank sixth instead of 10th.
So, yeah, Embiid’s .793 career shooting percentage from the foul line might be a secondary line on his resume, but that doesn’t make it an insignificant one. Anybody who was half-awake for the Sixers’ 118-115 win over the Celtics last week can attest to that. After missing his first free throw attempt, Embiid proceeded to drain 20 straight, becoming one of 14 centers in the modern history of the NBA, and just the third since 1988, to sink at least 20 free throws in a game. DeMarcus Cousins was the most recent one to do it, this in January of 2017 (according to Basketball-Reference.com). Before him, Dwight Howard (somehow) did it twice, and Moses Malone did it six times. Chamberlain, inexplicably, made 28 of 32 free throws in his 100-point game.
It’s one of the more subtle ways in which Embiid continues to elevate his game. In his first two seasons, the big man averaged 7.6 attempts per game with a .774 conversion rate. This year, he is averaging 10.2 attempts with an .815 rate. That’s the equivalent of more than two additional points per game.
“I think I should be a 90 percent shooter,” Embiid said. “Obviously, I have to work on that. I have to spend more time at getting better at it. But 81 is not good enough.”
That’s a lofty bar. Embiid’s current career rate (.793) already ranks 17th all-time among big men with at least 1,000 attempts. According to Basketball-Reference.com’s data, the all-time leader among centers is Jack Sikma, who hit 84.9 percent of attempts over 14 NBA seasons (the immortal Mike Gminski is just behind him at 84.3). Sikma and Gminski are the only two centers to ever finish a season at 90-plus percent on at least 100 attempts.
Heading into Sunday, Embiid’s .815 shooting percentage from the foul line ranked fourth among 20 NBA big men with at least 150 attempts. But his 611 attempts were also 200-plus more than each of the other three players in front of him. In fact, Embiid is on pace to finish the season as just the second center in the three-point era to attempt 700 free throws while shooting at least 80 percent from the line (the other was Moses Malone, who hit on 81.5 percent of his 904 free throw attempts in 1984-85).
It’s that ability to get to the line, rather than the conversion rate, that Brett Brown pointed to last week.
“That mentality, that disposition, to get that close to a basket and that adamant that I’m going to either dunk or get fouled,” the coach said.
Not only does that inflate Embiid’s own numbers, it bolsters those of the whole team.
As a case in point, Brown pointed to the third quarter of the win over the Celtics, when Embiid drew four foul calls in the period’s first two minutes (two of the fouls came on the play where Marcus Smart shoved him to the court). The Sixers ended up in the bonus for the final 8 1/2 minutes of the quarter, scoring 11 of their 27 points from the foul line.
“That is as significant as making 80 percent of his shots,” Brown said. “ I think there is a great partnership. Between the two, you have something unique. But the mentality is the most important to me.”
Despite the fact that he did not start playing basketball until high school, foul shooting has never been the problem for Embiid that it has been for other bigs. In his one season at Kansas, he shot .685.
“After starting so late, one of the things that I always heard, that people always mentioned, was I guess my touch,” Embiid said. “I feel like I’ve always had a pretty good shooting touch, and I think that’s helped my free throw shooting. Obviously, my three-point shooting is still a work in progress, and I’m sure I’m going to get to a point in my career where I’m shooting 40 percent, and whenever I get to that point that’s really the last thing. Last summer was the first time I really got to work on my game, and my handle got better, but there’s still so much work to do.”