Likes and Dislikes: Embiid’s Defensive Awareness Developed Beyond His Years

As promising as Embiid's offensive skillset is, his awareness on the defensive side of the court, in spite of a 2.5 year layoff, is truly impressive.

Joel Embiid blocks Wade Baldwin's shot in the Grizzlies 121-91 preseason victory | Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid blocks Wade Baldwin’s shot in the Grizzlies 121-91 preseason victory | Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Each week we’ll focus on a couple of aspects that we both like and dislike over the past week of 76ers basketball. You can read previous installments of this series here.

This week, we take a look at Joel Embiid‘s defensive awareness, which is developed well-beyond his limited basketball experience. We also look at Jerami Grant‘s improved shooting the Sixers’ struggling guard play.

Like: Embiid directing traffic defensively

There has been a lot to like about Joel Embiid’s preseason so far.

There’s Embiid’s sheer production, with him totaling 25.9 points, 15.4 rebounds, 3.3 blocks per 36 minutes played. That per-minute scoring output ranks 15th in the NBA among players who have played at least 50 minutes so far this preseason, with his rebounding (5th) and shot blocking (4th) reaching even loftier heights.

Beyond that there’s just the raw potential that’s been so evident in everything he’s done. From dominating in the post, controlling the glass, controlling the paint, or shooting from the perimeter, Embiid has shown virtually every skill you could ask from a big man in 2016. He even made a few nice passes Thursday night in Washington, passes which while they weren’t converted at least showed a concerted effort to improve upon one of the few weaknesses he displayed after a 2.5 year layoff.

Yet one of the things that stuck out to me was wasn’t even physical in nature, but instead how Embiid communicates defensively. Embiid has not only been aware of his own responsibilities, to a degree that you wouldn’t expect after missing so much time, but has also been directing his teammates and making sure they’re in the correct spots, a critical trait for a center who is the team’s last line of defense.

This is a guy who has barely played basketball, relatively speaking, with 647 college minutes and 65 NBA (preseason) minutes on his resume, with a 2.5 year gap in-between. For him to be as aware as he is on defense, and have the wherewithal to try to direct his teammates as well, is truly shocking. There are big men who can spend their entire lives playing the sport and not have the kind of defensive awareness that Embiid currently possesses, and it’s exciting to think about what he could do with 3-4 years of NBA experience under his belt.

That combination — towering size, brute strength, physical mentality, quickness, awareness — really has the chance to develop into something special defensively. To be honest, Embiid will be a plus, and versatile, defender in his NBA regular season debut despite his limted experience. The game just comes that naturally to him.

In a league dominated by outliers, guys with extraordinary physical skills who develop more than the typical curve, Embiid has the chance to become a true outlier, both physically and mentally.

Dislike: Guard play a problem for the Sixers once again
Here’s an observation nobody else has made (sarcasm): the Sixers perimeter play has been really, really bad so far.

Sergio Rodriguez is shooting 28.1 percent from the field, and has been physically overmatched on defense. TJ McConnell has shot better from the field, mostly due to the selectivity he takes his shots with, but has struggled to kickstart the Sixers’ anemic offense. The lack of strong point guard play is once again going to be an Achilles heal for this team, and Jerryd Bayless (currently out with a sore left wrist) isn’t going to fix many of the problems of that group.

The poor play extends beyond just the point guards, though. Gerald Henderson had one strong game (10 points in 16 minutes against Memphis), but he’s been a net-negative on offense outside of that, shooting 3-12 from the field in the remaining four games. That’s somewhat understandable considering he’s recovering from a hip injury, but still a concerning start to the season. Between Henderson’s struggles, Robert Covington (28.2 percent from the field), Nik Stauskas (16.7 percent), and even Hollis Thompson (37.1 percent from the field, 24 percent from three), the Sixers don’t have one reliable perimeter player at the moment.

Perhaps more concerning than sheer shot making is shot creation, something which took a real hit with the loss of Ben Simmons. Sure, Dario Saric is a creative passer with good court vision, but he doesn’t have the speed or athleticism to really create with regularity in the half court, and functions more as a secondary playmaker. Sergio Rodriguez is the other player with plus court vision on the team, but he’s struggled to get by NBA defenders, and his struggling outside shot hasn’t forced defenders to go over ball screens, which would open up passing lanes for Rodriguez.

With nobody on the team with the combination of athleticism to force the defense to rotate and the court vision to pass out of it, offense is going to be a struggle once again. This will lead to yet another season of high turnover basketball, turnovers which can not only cripple an offense but limit your ability to compete defensively. It could also hurt Embiid’s chances to get easy buckets, which while it may somewhat dampen the excitement to start Embiid’s career, it’s kind of exciting when you think about how much more potential Embiid has if he ever gets a high-level shot creator next to him.

Get well soon, Ben.

Like: Jerami Grant’s perimeter shooting
Jerami Grant’s perimeter shooting has always been a key in his development into a viable rotation player, and that’s only increased in importance with Brett Brown talking about Grant playing more time at the small forward position to accommodate his glut of big men down low.

The early returns have been positive, to say the least, with Grant shooting 40 percent from three-point range and 76 percent from the free-throw line so far this preseason. Sure, we’re only talking about 5 three-point attempts, an infinitely small sample size that ultimately means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but Grant has also looked strong in his midrange game, connecting on 6 out of 10 midrange jump shots so far this preseason. With all three measurements (three-point shots, free-throws, midrange shots) all saying the same thing, the preseason results have been undeniably positive for Grant.

Grant’s teased us with that shot before, though. Let us not forget the 44.3 percent (27-61) he shot during January and February during his rookie season, progress which gave everybody unrealistic expectations for his future as a shooter in this league. The results have been good so far, and he has looked confident rising up and shooting from distance (even if the form is still not exactly what you would teach), but the sample size is far too small to disregard the 24 percent from three he shot last year. Still, I’d much rather have positive results initially than the alternative, especially for a player who will be playing the three in an offense designed around Embiid in the post.

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