There’s a video clip making the rounds that could easily be rebranded as a 12-second crash course from Joel Embiid University.
It opens with Embiid standing behind the three-point line on the right wing and Tyrese Maxey biding his time with the ball near half court. As the shot clock dips below 10 seconds, Embiid glances to his right and sees Furkan Korkmaz in the near-side corner. Suddenly, Embiid snaps to attention and begins waving his arm toward the far left corner, where rookie guard Charlie Brown Jr. is stationed. Seeing the big man’s gesticulations, Brown and Korkmaz both leave their respective corners, passing each other on the baseline before settling into the other’s old home.
Two seconds later, his thought process becomes clear. After setting a screen and rolling left down the middle of the key, he gathers in a pass from Maxey and watches the help collapse to protect the rim, leaving Korkmaz alone in the corner. Embiid takes a couple of dribbles, kicks out to Korkmaz, and the veteran jump-shooter knocks down a three-pointer to give the Sixers a 10-point lead in an eventual 115-109 win over the Spurs.
“Whenever he has the ball it feels like he knows what he is doing,” Korkmaz said a couple of nights later. “He doesn’t rush, he reads the game, he reads the floor, especially in the second half he knows that we expect some push from him.”
Even more than his growing court awareness — Embiid is averaging a career-high 4.3 assists and a career-low 2.9 turnovers — plays like the one against the Spurs showcase the singularity of the presence that he brings to his court. As reports about the Sixers’ interest in James Harden continue to swirl, one of the many ironies of Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey’s infatuation with the one-time Rockets superstar is the fact that he might already have the league’s closest approximation. Watching the entire Spurs defense collapse around him as he kicked out to the corner, you couldn’t shake the recollection of Harden’s prime years in Houston. The list of players who attract that sort of attention is a list of one-namers: Steph, LeBron, Giannis, K.D.
Whether you call him Joel or Embiid, the 27-year-old center is in the midst of a run that should remove any doubt about his rightful place among the game’s top handful of elites. His 42-point outing against the Pelicans on Tuesday night was his sixth game of 40-plus points this season, bumping his overall average to 29.0 points per game, a scant 0.3 points behind Kevin Durant for most in the league. He has scored at least 31 points in 14 of his last 15 and in 16 of his last 18. His 616 points since Dec. 16 are 31 more than any other player has scored in an 18-game stretch this season. Also worth noting: that total is higher than any that Harden has posted since January of 2020.
While Embiid’s impact on the game is much greater than his numbers, the numbers are of some interest.
1) Embiid is one of three players in the last 30 years to average at least 34 points and 10 rebounds over an 18-game stretch. Both of the other players finished their respective seasons as MVP (Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 and Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-00).
2) Embiid’s six games of 40-plus points are the most in the NBA this season. Last year’s leaders were Steph Curry (11), Bradley Beal (8), and Damian Lillard (6). In 2019-20, Harden had 21.
3) Embiid’s 20 games of 30-plus points are one behind LeBron James for the league lead. He’s on pace to finish the year with 35 games, which would be the most in Sixers history by any player not named Allen Iverson. Iverson’s team record is 49 games of 30-plus points in 2005-06. He finished four other seasons with at least 35 games of 30-plus points.
4) Embiid has four games with 15-plus free throws made, most in the NBA this season.
5) Barring injury, Embiid will play in his 300th career game within the next couple of weeks. At the moment, he is one of eight players in NBA history with 7,500 points and 3,300 rebounds in his first 296 career games. The other seven are all Hall of Famers: Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob McAdoo, Walt Bellamy, Elvin Hayes, Shaquille O’Neal.
6) Embiid’s 95 games of 30-plus points are the 16th-most in NBA history through 296 career games. Among active players, only James and Durant had more. Of the 13 inactive players on the list, only Mark Aguirre is not in the Hall of Fame.
Seven months after turning in one of history’s all-time great postseason performances on a bum knee, Embiid is again poised to enter the All-Star break as the NBA’s most obvious MVP candidate. Now as it was then, the only question is health. He has already missed a quarter of the Sixers’ 48 games, including a nine-game absence while he battled COVID-19 early in the season. He’ll need to avoid his annual spring trip to the injured list in order to solidify his case.
That said, there’s a reason the Sixers have been more than willing to live with Embiid’s checkered injury history. Just ask Pelicans center Wily Hernangomez, who spent 30 minutes of his Tuesday night on the receiving end of Embiid’s punishment.
“Honestly, I’m exhausted,” Hernangomez said. “And he still got 40.”
For accuracy’s sake, he actually got 42.