Joel Embiid is, without a doubt, the NBA’s best scoring center.
The 76er was fourth in the league in scoring at 28.1 points per game. The Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns, the next-highest point-producing center, was tied for 18th at 24.8.
Becoming a dominant scoring threat has enabled Embiid to also be a face of the NBA and receive a four-year, $196-million super-max contract extension with the Sixers. But Embiid knows much more will be required from him for the team to be successful this season.
“I want to be a better playmaker this year,” the sixth-year veteran said. “Kind of use the advantage we have with me, and kind of making these guys better.”
To go with his scoring prowess, adding playmaking skills could turn Embiid into a modern-day Wilt Chamberlain. Like the former Sixers great, Embiid dominates the paint and is a multi-faceted agile big man. That’s not to suggest that he’ll average 50 points or 27 rebounds per season like Chamberlain was known to do, since that was a different league era.
But as great a scorer as Chamberlain was, one of his most gratifying career high points came during the 1966-67 season. The Sixers had hired a new coach in Alex Hannum, who suggested that the Big Dipper give up some of his scoring to involve teammates more. The result was the 1967 NBA championship. The following year, Chamberlain led the league in assists. He would later win a second NBA title, leading the Los Angeles Lakers to the 1972 crown.
Embiid’s sacrifices and improved playmaking ability could help give the Sixers a similar and much-needed boost in a time of uncertainty.
There’s a great chance that Tyrese Maxey will be Sixers’ season-opening starting point guard. Ben Simmons, who has requested a trade from the team, ended his 14-day holdout on Oct. 11. The three-time All-Star point guard cleared the league’s COVID-19 protocol on Friday and practiced with the team Sunday. But there is no telling when or if he’ll play or at what level.
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In the preseason, Embiid played a total of four quarters in parts of two games, averaging 12 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 14 minutes. He played 19:56 through three quarters in a 125-113 victory over the Toronto Raptors on Oct. 7. Then Embiid played the first 8:08 of the Sixers’ 115-104 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Oct. 11.
Perhaps knowing his time on the court would be short, Embiid sought out buckets against the Nets. He scored 14 points on 6-for-8 shooting to go with three assists. Against the Raptors, Embiid was more focused on getting teammates involved. The four-time All-Star had 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting to go with six rebounds and three assists.
The Sixers ran a chunk of their half-court sets through power forward Tobias Harris and Embiid against the Raptors. Harris and Embiid passed to cutting teammates on the perimeter and found open three-point shooters. There was also a collective effort by the Sixers to move the ball, especially during their four-out sets.
“It’s rare that you have three or four guys, all of them can put the ball on the floor,” coach Doc Rivers said of the Sixers. “They can do dribble handoff. So take advantage of it.”
But the key to this shared playmaking effort working is sustained unselfishness.
Embiid is hard to defend in the post, and he is the Sixers’ best scoring option. They’re going to have nights where they’ll need him to take over and dominate. But the team will be at its best when there’s balance scoring and the three-point shooters are knocking down shots. So that will take a buy in from everyone to continue moving the ball and making plays for others regardless of circumstances.
“With freedom comes responsibility,” Rivers said of his read-and-react system. “I’ve had teams that you try it and you do it and within a month you basically stop doing it because every time it touches that guy’s hand, he thinks he’s the last option.”
The Golden State Warriors are proof that sharing the ball can be successful, even without a top-tier center. Warriors players give up the ball and trust the pass to open up scoring opportunities. That formula made them a difficult team to guard while winning NBA titles in 2015, 2017, and 2018.
But sacrifices are in some part associated with leadership and a will to win, and Embiid’s leadership development has been noticeable this preseason.
“In the past, the way I led, which I still do, I led just on the basketball court,” he said. “Just going with these guys and having the mentality of [putting] them on my back offensively and defensively.”
In the past few months during the Simmons saga, Embiid has been more of a mentor and guide on and off the court for all the players.
“I’m trying to keep the team together because I still believe that we have a chance,” he said. “We just need to have fun.
“Like I said, we’ve been moving the ball, and I’ve been playing freely whether just having the ball in my hands making plays. We have a lot of space. So it’s working out well, and we need to keep building on that.”