About two minutes into their first conversation in 2020, Doc Rivers set high expectations for Joel Embiid.
“I told him he should be MVP,” the 76ers’ coach recalled earlier this week. “I told him I am going to have very little to do with that. That comes from the desire of the player and the work that he wants to put in.
“And Joel has done the work.”
“The work” fueling the five-time All-Star’s unceasing rise includes a commitment to transforming his body, giving the previously injury-prone Embiid the durability to play a career-high 68 games even with a stint in health and safety protocols. He has also continued to develop skills rare for a player of his size, increasing his dominance and versatility on both ends of the floor. And he has become a more active leader, propelling his team through the tumultuous Ben Simmons situation and the late-season implementation of fellow All-Star James Harden.
The on-court results have been staggering. He was the NBA’s leading scorer during the regular season at 30.6 points per game — the first center since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000 to accomplish that feat and the first at that position to average more than 30 points per game since Moses Malone in 1981-82 — while adding 11.7 rebounds, a career-high 4.2 assists and 1.5 blocks per game for a Sixers team that won 51 games. Next, Embiid will anchor a playoff push that begins with a first-round matchup against the Toronto Raptors.
For the 28-year-old who still relishes in the occasional “Troel” moment, Embiid’s strides have been deliberate, mature and self-aware. And they powered him to a special season, whether or not he wins the NBA’s top individual regular-season award.
“From one year to the following year, the changes that he has made in order for him to be a better player for our team to win are amazing,” Rivers said. “As a coach, I’m just very proud of him.”
In the summer of 2020, renowned sports dietitian Louise Burke got on a Zoom call from across the world to virtually meet Embiid for the first time.
The Sixers had just been swept by the Boston Celtics in the playoffs’ first round, capping an unpleasant Florida bubble experience for Embiid. He felt “disrespected” when he did not make any of the three All-NBA teams. And he was ready to take better care of his health.
A mutual colleague connected Embiid to Burke, who for 30 years was the head of sports nutrition and the chief of nutrition strategy at the Australian Institute of Sport and also the dietitian for the Australian Olympic teams for all Summer Games from 1996 through 2012. In Embiid, Burke saw an opportunity to work with a “genius in their chosen field.”
Burke was fully aware of Embiid’s highly publicized dietary habits, and she knew they did not exactly align with most elite professional athletes. They discussed an approach that would accomplish Embiid’s goals — tone up, stay injury-free, and maintain energy during games and throughout the season — without being restrictive or unrealistic given the grueling travel demands and 82-game schedule.
Burke assured Embiid he could achieve this without eating salads, and while still mixing in flavorful dishes from his Cameroonian roots and building in the wiggle room to occasionally indulge in fast food. Now, Burke collaborates with Embiid’s personal chef in Philly to put together specific meal combinations with the ingredients and nutrients that will satisfy those needs. Then, Embiid and partner Anne De Paula choose dishes — such as salmon, fried rice and mixed vegetables — from a daily menu. Embiid also consumes pre- and post-workout drinks with protein and fruit-based compounds that assist with muscle soreness and recovery.
“They’ve done a great job of not changing anything I eat, but changing how they make it,” Embiid said. “Whatever they put in it.”
Added Burke: “People sometimes think the role of the dietitian is to make this meal plan up and every morsel is accounted for, and there’s some athletes for whom that works. But I think [it’s been] more giving Joel principles of what we want to do and being placed in the food environment, the team environment, where that becomes easier. … He’s part of the process. It’s not being done to him. The structure’s not being imposed on him, but he’s choosing the way we’re going to do things and taking control of what happens.”
For example, Burke suggested Embiid consume carbohydrates during games to replenish the muscle and brain fuel necessary to make good decisions and execute skills. Embiid, however, did not like the taste of conventional sports drinks. So they created one that tastes like a Shirley Temple, the most notorious of Embiid’s diet sins.
(And he will still occasionally enjoy the real thing, such as when he brought the sugary drink into his postgame news conference on Jan. 5 in Orlando, Fla., to celebrate the Sixers’ fifth victory in a row.)
“That’s sort of a microcosm of saying, ‘Here’s what we want to do. The problem that you’ve got with it in the moment can be solved if we can sort of put some things together that you like,’” Burke said. “We can bring it all together in a way that’s unique to his preferences.”
Those nutritional tweaks, combined with a more diligent off-day lifting and workout routine, led to noticeably improved endurance in Embiid in 2020-21, Rivers said. With that higher baseline to build on entering this season, “You could see it walking in the door,” the coach said.
“You can look at his pace in practice … how long can they sustain effort?” Rivers said. “I think you saw it then.”
In the first quarter of the season opener, however, it appeared that Embiid suffered a stroke of bad luck, when he knocked knees with New Orleans Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas. It impacted Embiid’s ability to jump and move fluidly on the court, which he believes contributed to his sub-par 40.1% shooting rate in the first 12 games he played. He also endured a significant early-season bout with COVID-19 — “that jawn hit me hard,” he said upon his return in late November — but the forced time away from the court allowed his right knee to heal.
Since then, Embiid has missed only four games — three of them for planned rest.
Embiid half-joked that the secret to maintaining his body throughout the season’s grind has been to “take a bunch of jumpers.” When minor injuries — a sore back after a hard fall, some emergency dental work after getting knocked in the face, a finger wound that looks like a “black hole,” personal trainer Drew Hanlen said — popped up down the stretch, Embiid responded with, “I’m fine. Just got to keep pushing.” Embiid now also believes that the steady flow of games played has assisted with his fitness and basketball rhythm.
“It has nothing to do with the people that were here before,” Embiid said. “But I feel like, a lot of times in the past, missing back-to-backs and being on minutes restrictions, looking back, I didn’t think it was the right approach. Because nowadays, the more I play, the better it gets. Because if I’m playing every two days, that means I don’t get out of shape, I keep continuing what I’ve been doing and I stay healthier. I feel like that’s been working. …
“I think that’s the best way to go about it. Looking back at it, I don’t agree with load management.”
When Embiid set his career mark for games played in a season on April 3 at Cleveland, he said, “That’s why I made all these changes. … I’m proud to kind of [put] that narrative way behind me.” Veteran teammate Danny Green commended Embiid’s durability because the Sixers “needed him every game.” Though Embiid on Thursday corrected a reporter who implied he is “fully” healthy going into the playoffs, he added “but I’m right there.”
And Embiid’s new habits are for more than his basketball career. He wants to “set a high bar” for 1-year-old son, Arthur, as he starts to participate in family meals. Burke witnessed this when she visited them at home last month.
“It’s really created some extra incentive and motivation for Joel,” Burke said, “and it’s really driven by Anne, because she’s really committed to this. I really applaud that. … It’s a house full of enjoyment of food and love of food, but knowing there’s a lot of ways in which we can make healthy food fun for everybody.”
After shooting a miserable 3-for-17 in a Dec. 1 loss at Boston, Embiid and Hanlen pulled an all-nighter devouring film.
They watched clips of Kevin Durant, of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, of Hakeem Olajuwan and O’Neal, for inspiration. Then, they flipped to Embiid’s footage from 2020-21 to decipher what had changed from one season to the next. They identified Embiid needed to get deeper post positioning, and needed to turn to his face-up game to counter swarming double teams.
“I’ve got to get easy ones,” he concluded.
It was a watershed moment in Embiid’s season.
The next game, he hit a game-winning jumper to complete a fourth-quarter rally at Atlanta. The game after that, he amassed a then-season-high 43 points on 10-of-15 from the floor and 12-of-14 from the free-throw line, with 15 rebounds and seven assists in an overtime win at Charlotte, N.C. Ten days later, he began a string of scoring at least 30 points in 17 of 20 games, including tying his career-high with 50 in a Jan. 19 win against Orlando. He was the Eastern Conference Player of the Month in December and January, setting up his fifth consecutive All-Star appearance.
During that period, Embiid FaceTimed Hanlen with a new level of confidence.
“He’s always believed in his abilities,” Hanlen said. “But I think, this year, he’s removed that little doubt somewhere deep inside him. Now, he truly believes that, if he’s at his best, the Sixers have the chance to win against anyone, regardless of who’s out there with him.”
It has been the latest example of Embiid continuing to evolve in his prime, and into whatever the Sixers require. He channels guards like his idol, Bryant, in his off-the-dribble game to complement his force in the paint. Though Embiid believes his three-time All-Defensive second team abilities “kind of [get] forgotten,” Rivers said the big man has gotten even better at protecting the rim and calling out coverages while roaming like a football safety.
Yet Embiid has taken the most strides this season as a playmaker, averaging more than one additional assist per game during this regular season than in 2020-21.
Further developing this attribute began in the summer. Hanlen started with film study on various schemes and rotations for which Embiid could prepare and recognize quickly. They drilled skills such as ballhandling and footwork to make them second nature, allowing Embiid to focus on making reads from a balanced body position. They put him in live one-one-one and three-on-three simulations, with double-teaming defenders arriving from the nail or down low forcing him to make the exact, real-time passes that he would be expected to deliver in a game.
That ability will be needed against a Toronto defense that is sure to throw a bevy of funky looks at Embiid throughout their best-of-seven series. To prepare for that during a scrimmage portion of Wednesday’s practice, the Sixers initially trapped Embiid every time he touched the ball. Rivers estimates Embiid’s team totaled 20 points in five minutes, though the center himself scored just once. The second scrimmage, the Sixers did not trap as often.
“And Joel scored every time,” Rivers said.
Leading with his voice
When Embiid sat down next to Tyrese Maxey and scoured the box score following a Dec. 28 win at Toronto, he did not hold back.
“Tyrese, you were trash today,” Embiid said in front of humans and recording devices. “Two-for-11? You looked like me two years ago. … You were terrible.”
One could say that was Joel being Troel, with the candid personality that has makes him a wildly entertaining and sometimes polarizing NBA star. But in that one exchange, Embiid was playful with his teammate while also challenging him in a way that immediately yielded excellent results.
After the Sixers’ next game — a key road victory against the Brooklyn Nets with Rivers in health and safety protocols — Maxey enunciated a “ha-ha-ha” as he again joined Embiid in the postgame interview room and held up the sheet of paper waiting on the table. Maxey had hit a then-career-high five three-pointers, and before he could offer any rebuttal to their last exchange in such a setting, Embiid interrupted.
“You were great today,” Embiid said. “Yo, you see what happens when you frickin’ shoot threes? … Hey, that’s how you respond to criticism.”
Embiid downplays the amount of additional emphasis he has put on leadership this season. But it has been apparent to his coach and teammates, especially as they all navigated the hovering Simmons drama.
Rivers has often referenced a preseason conversation with Embiid with a general message of, “I want to be a winner and I have to do more.” Green, who has won three championships and also played with all-timers Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James, said, “I wouldn’t say [Embiid is] night and day, but close to night and day” in terms of personality around teammates. Maxey, who played with Embiid as a rookie last season, added he has been “a different person this year” because of his voice.
“That came from the beginning of the year, starting in training camp,” Maxey said. “We had a lot of stuff going on … and for us to be where we are, Joel was a big part of that. Because he kind of takes no nonsense. Everything’s about basketball and about winning.
“When the head of the snake is really locked in and really focused on the task at hand, then everybody needs to fall in line.”
That manifests in Embiid talking more on the court, from pregame messages in the huddle to directing teammates to where he wants them to be during a possession. And it perhaps most often shows up when he demands in the moment (and in postgame news conferences) that those teammates shoot when they are open.
“Those are some of the things that I notice that are a little different,” Hanlen said. “Whereas before, he might have thought, ‘Damn, I need Maxey to be better.’ Now he called him out and talked to Maxey about it. Or before, he might think, ‘Man, Georges [Niang] has got to shoot.’ Whereas, now, he’s telling Georges, ‘Hey, shoot it. If I throw it to you, shoot it.’
Added Embiid: “It’s never personal, and they know it. That’s sometimes the best way to lead is you’ve got to call guys out, just like I expect them to do the same to me when I’m not doing my job or I’m not doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Embiid has also become more present with his teammates off the floor, such as partaking in conversations on flights or tagging along to group dinners instead of spending road nights in his hotel room playing video games or on his phone. Making that shift easy, Embiid said early in the season, is that this was “probably the first time since I got drafted here that I would say everyone that’s on the team is likable.”
“I actually want to spend time with them off the court,” he said. “It’s not that there wasn’t anybody that was not likable in the past, but it just makes it easier when you’ve got guys like that that care about winning.”
That was on display in January, when cameras caught a gleeful Embiid ending a planned rest day by skipping down a Wells Fargo Center hallway after the Sixers’ thrilling overtime win over the Memphis Grizzlies played without him. That respect and rapport also leads to moments such as an intense-yet-fun exchange between Embiid and Tobias Harris during Thursday’s spirited pre-playoffs practice.
Flashing his wide smile, Embiid said, “I was locking his [butt] up, and I was talking to him. I was letting him know, and he was getting mad.”
“It’s just because I want him to be better, and I want all of them to be better,” Embiid added. “That’s the only way I know. Like I’ve always said, I’m not here to worry about people’s feelings. I want to win, and to be able to win, I need everybody.”