Joel Embiid Is The Focal Point Of The 76ers Future

Sixers head coach Brett Brown can't prevent himself from invoking the names of NBA greats when describing Joel Embiid's potential.

Sixers head coach Brett Brown called Embiid the focal point for the Sixers | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Sixers head coach Brett Brown called center Joel Embiid the focal point for the Sixers | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

“Sometimes I get myself in trouble doing this,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown told members of the media prior to the start of training camp, explaining his reluctance to compare Joel Embiid to past NBA players.


Brown couldn’t help himself. Speaking about a player who appeared in a grand total of 28 college and 0 NBA games, Brown went on to explain how finding a direct comparison for Joel Embiid is difficult because few have Embiid’s combination of size, physicality, athleticism, coordination, and skill level. You instead come up with an amalgamation of NBA greats of yore.

As Embiid continues to be an active member of 76ers games, practices, and events, Brown continues to struggle with denying what is obvious to many.

The Sixers are Joel Embiid’s team.

“I think that (Joel) is going to be the focal point, both offensively and defensively,” Brown said prior to the Sixers preseason home opener against the Washington Wizards, the second game of Embiid’s NBA career. “You see things through that lens. The people and the pieces around it are going to follow suit with the structure that we’re trying to build on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively, around Joel.”

It’s a sentiment that isn’t exactly new to Brown, who in the past has mentioned that Embiid needs to be the crown jewel of the Sixers’ defense and that he could see him running late-game offense through Embiid. Both were statements made prior to Ben Simmons, the #1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft, going down with a fractured right foot.

Still, the certainty with which Brown speaks may be surprising to some. Embiid appeared in just 28 games at Kansas, 8 of which came off the bench. He averaged just 23 minutes and 11.2 points per game, and never reached double digit field goal attempts in a game for Bill Self and the Jayhawks.

His resume dating back to his high school days, when he was just beginning to learn the game, is even more unimpressive on paper. He averaged 5.8 points per game at the 2013 Adidas Nations event, scored 7 points at the Hoop Summit that year, and recorded just 4 points on 1-6 shooting at the 2013 Jordan Brand Classic, an event which saw fellow 2014 draftees Andrew Wiggins (19 points), Julius Randle (19 points), and Jabari Parker (16) shine.

Yet here Brown is, after watching Embiid shoot 2-6 from the field in his first taste of NBA action against the Boston Celtics, declaring that Embiid would develop into the focal point of the Sixers offense. Could Embiid really have shown his coach that much in just 13 minutes of playing time?

“It’s what I saw from day one. Truly,” Brown explained. “You see him and he just has it. He has it. Years ago you saw it with (Tim) Duncan. I see it with him in regards to being a real target offensively, and a real sort of centerpiece defensively.

“I think that we all know that it’s going to take time. We all get it,” Brown cotinued, trying to step off the gas pedal just a little bit. “There’s going to be some stumbling blocks, but I believe that his potential, his upside, his desire to be great, is real.”

If Brown is trying to temper expectations for a player so young, both in calendar years and basketball experience, he’s doing it wrong. It can create a situation where a lot of pressure is placed upon a player who has converted on a grand total of four made field goals in two preseason games at this point, and an especially precarious situation since it still feels like Embiid’s injury history is one in which it would be impossible for fans not to wonder whether they’re one wrong turn away from losing a player their coach has hyped up with such regularity and enthusiasm to this point.

Yet they’re statements that are also obvious to anybody around the team, and denying that kind of potential seems almost silly when you watch Embiid play.

Weeks ago Brown mentioned how you have to grab bits and pieces of other players to truly describe Joel Embiid’s game, because few have his combination of athletic gifts and basketball skills. Embiid has already started to showcase that, despite appearing in just 25 minutes of preseason basketball.

After his preseason debut, where he scored on a sweet turnaround jump shot out of the post with footwork few 7-foot-2 players possess and then nailed a 23-foot jump shot, Embiid, unhappy that he settled for perimeter shots and that he struggled to react to the double teams thrown his way, determined that he needed to make a more concerted effort to assert himself down low.

“I have to get some deep catches,” Embiid said prior to the game against the Wizards. “I have to make sure I get better angles. My position on the floor has to be better so those double teams can’t be successful.”

Embiid responded by trying, with some success, to bully 7-foot, 240-pound Marcin Gortat in the post.

It’s that diversity Brown was talking about earlier, with the strength and physicality to overpower even strong post defenders, and the size and athleticism to rise up and shoot over virtually anybody down low.

“Part of his growth is going to be deeper catches,” Brown said after the game. “I feel like the judgement, my view of when I really think ‘here he is’ is going to be volume of free throws. How many times does he get to the line? How many times does he get to the rim? How many times does he get to the paint?”

So far, despite both coach and player noting that Embiid needs to make a more concerted effort to get into the paint, Embiid has drawn 9 fouls in 25 minutes of playing time, showcasing the sheer strength and physicality that catches an opponents attention, and that Brown hopes to tap into down the line.

“My wish for him at the start is to be a post player,”Brown said after the Wizards game. “Somebody said it was like Shaquille (O’Neal) with soccer feet. He is nimble and he does things that you can see there’s an athlete in the 7-foot-2 body.”

A few weeks ago Brown mentioned the trouble he can get himself into when looking for a direct comparison for Joel Embiid’s combination of skills. Then in one night Brown compared Embiid to Shaquille O’Neal with soccer feet and talked about how he invoked images of Tim Duncan, while pointing out that Embiid is going to be the focal point of the team on both ends of the court.

They’re statements that, after just two preseason games, appear both patently absurd and also entirely logical.

No pressure, big fella.

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