Likes and Dislikes: Joel Embiid’s Preseason Debut

Joel Embiid showcased the ability to dominate down low and stretch the defense in his preseason debut.

Joel Embiid showcased his potential in his preseason debut. | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid showcased his potential in his preseason debut. | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Last year we ran a regular column highlighting one thing we liked and disliked over the past week of 76ers basketball.

With the 76ers preseason beginning earlier this week, it’s time to bring that column back. And with Joel Embiid making his long-awaited (preseason) debut we have Embiid playing against actual NBA players, not 5-foot-10 trainers, to analyze. His play, and his long-term potential, will be the focuses of this week’s column.

Like: Defenses keying in on Joel Embiid from day 1

Joel Embiid impressed in many ways on Tuesday night. His sheer size, his mobility, his footwork, his touch, they all came as advertised. But perhaps the most impressive thing was how quickly he gained the respect of his opponents.

After not playing organized basketball in 948 days, and making his first appearance in the NBA, it took Embiid approximately 6 minutes of playing time until Embiid drew his first hard double team in the post, and once that first one came Boston pretty much didn’t stop sending double teams his way. It took a grand total of 12 minutes and one made jump shot until he had a defender biting on a pump fake 24 feet from the basket.

Embiid joked about how quickly the double teams started coming, telling Tom Moore of Calkins Media “that kind of messed me up when they started double teaming me in the second quarter of my first game.”

Part of that is the overall talent level on the Sixers. Much like was the case with Jahlil Okafor last year, Embiid will see more double teams than he would on most teams simply because opponents aren’t worried about his teammates beating them. They’re also going to continue to throw double teams his way until he gets better at navigating out of them. If the Sixers want to make Embiid (and Okafor) more effective in the post, improving the talent level on the perimeter is step number one, and simply getting Embiid repetitions and making him more comfortable dealing with the attention he’s bound to receive is step number two.

Still, Embiid is going to attract a lot of attention down low regardless. He has the size to shoot over virtually any defender, the strength to dislodge them off their spot, and the footwork to be able to take advantage of what the defender gives him. Whenever a man that large, that powerful, and that skilled gets the ball close to the basket, the defense is going to take notice. And, eventually, when Embiid starts anticipating double teams better and his teammates learn how to play off of him (or the Sixers’ talent level around him improves), that’s going to lead to great things for the Sixers.

Perhaps even more surprising was watching defenders close out on Embiid 24′ from the basket. It’s not a fluke, either, as Embiid’s jump shot has improved by leaps and bounds over the past two seasons. If Embiid wasn’t a physical freak and a potential dominant post scorer the, touch on his jump shot, repeatability of his release, and the ease that he is able to shoot from distance would still garner quite a bit of excitement over his long-term potential.

Mere minutes into his NBA career and Joel Embiid was drawing double teams in the post, stretching the floor on the perimeter, altering shots at the rim and cleaning the glass. And you wonder why NBA fans are excited.

Joel Embiid, stretch 5.

Joel Embiid, stretch 5.

Dislike: Lack of offensive movement

The obvious dislike to be included in this column is how Embiid reacted to the double teams thrown his way, and it would be valid. But it was the first time he’s played organized basketball in well over two years and he was fairly good at handling double teams by the end of his freshman season at Kansas, so I think this is something you’ll see improvement upon as time goes by.

What I was slightly disappointed in was how little movement there was offensively, something which head coach Brett Brown promised before the season he wouldn’t let happen.

“It’s my job to tap into (Embiid’s) strengths, and I think that they are many. I feel like to say I’m only going to post him, or we’re going to pick and pop him, I’m not going to do that,” Brown said before the season when asked how he would utilize Embiid offensively. “What I will tell is we need to move. I don’t want to play traditional, static, isolated basketball. That’s not who I am. That’s not how I see the sport.”

Yet if there was one word I’d use to describe the Sixers offense Tuesday night, particularly when Joel Embiid was on the court, it would be static. Joel Embiid sealed off his man, his teammates ran to the corners, and they let Embiid operate 1-on-1 virtually every trip down the floor.

In fact, of the first fifteen times Joel Embiid touched the ball offensively in the half court, none of them involved even a simple screen, either in the form of a pick and roll screen by Embiid or a teammate providing a screen to help Embiid get deep post position. Embiid just ran down the court, got position, and called for the ball.

Below is a video of the Sixers feeding Embiid the ball offensively. This video doesn’t even look at what happens once Embiid has the ball, even though that is a topic that’s certainly worthy of discussion, and it’s a discussion I’m sure we’ll have in time since the Sixers struggled with that last year as well. The point of the below video is just to show the lack of creativity in getting him the ball. Put him in a pick and dive situation and get him the ball on the move, set a back pick, set a baseline screen to help him get deeper post position,  something to make his life easier and give him even more of an advantage down low.

As talented as Joel Embiid is, no post players score 20+ points per night strictly by creating offense for themselves. Easy buckets — in transition, off of offensive rebounds, diving to the rim off of pick and rolls, cutting to the basket off the ball — are necessary, and Embiid’s quickness, athleticism, size, and sheer physical strength should make him tailor-made to be a big pick and roll threat for the Sixers.

Once again, though, it’s game one of the preseason. Brett Brown may have just viewed the game as a showcase, giving Embiid as many 1-on-1 touches to see what he can do, and also reward Embiid for all the hard work he’s done. He may have also wanted to simplify the game and limit Embiid’s responsibilities. And there were times when it looked like Embiid was looking to set a screen, but the timing was off with his teammates and they never made contact. It only becomes a real concern if we’re well into January and still see the same problems.

Still, for a player who was clearly pressing to start the game and who has had as much time off as Embiid did, getting him an easy bucket here or there rather than asking him to create for himself every trip down the floor could have helped settle him down a little bit, and would have given fans a glimpse at yet another way Embiid can make an impact.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.