Sixers Likes and Dislikes: Joel Embiid Drawing Attention Down Low

In this week's likes and dislikes Sixers column we take a look at Joel Embiid's prolific ability to get to the free throw line.

Sixers center Joel Embiid is averaging 18.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.3 blocked shots per game so far as a rookie. | Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Sixers center Joel Embiid is averaging 18.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.3 blocked shots per game so far as a rookie. | Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

This week we continue our Likes and Dislikes series, taking a look at a few things that have stood out over the course of the Sixers season. We also discuss 5 other random observations which impact the Sixers below.

Like: Joel Embiid drawing fouls
There has been much to like about Joel Embiid‘s start to his NBA career, but one of the most impressive aspects of his game has been his ability to consistently draw fouls and get to the free-throw line.

This was on full display in the Sixers first win of the season, a 109-105 overtime victory over the Indiana Pacers last Friday where Embiid scored 16 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. Of those 16 points, 7 came from the free-throw line, where Embiid went 7-8 from the line in his last 9 minutes of play to help the Sixers close out an important win.

Embiid now ranks 10th in the league at 8.0 free-throw attempts per game, which would be an incredible accomplishment for any rookie, but one that’s patently absurd for a rookie playing just 22 minutes per game as he deals with minutes restrictions placed upon him while he works his way back from a navicular bone injury.

In fact, Embiid is the most fouled player in the league on a per-minute basis, averaging 13 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes played. Russell Westbrook (12.2 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes), DeMarcus Cousins (11.5), and Anthony Davis (10.8) are Embiid’s closest peers.

Embiid’s drawing a foul on nearly 24 percent of his post-up scoring opportunities, the 3rd highest rate among big men who have posted up at least 30 times so far this season, behind just Dwight Howard (26.5 percent) and Anthony Davis (24.6).

That ability to get to the free-throw line, and get to the line consistently, has helped buoy an offensive attack that could have otherwise been relatively inefficient, as Embiid’s shooting just 37 percent on shots derived from post-up opportunities and has become extremely turnover prone in the post, both problems which should be temporary in nature and should be alleviated with more experience and better teammates around him.

That ability to draw fouls in the post is just a small example of what has become an encouraging picture. Embiid draws attention from all five of the opponents defenders, who are keenly aware of where he is on the court whether that be in the post, rolling to the basket, or pursuing offensive rebounds. That attention currently shows up in a meaningful way in Embiid’s ability to get to the line, but as he becomes more accustomed to the attention he receives it should eventually show up in Embiid’s effectiveness as a passer as well.

There’s a decent probability that Embiid’s incredible free-throw rate comes back down to earth in time, both because of the nature of early season sample size fluctuations and also because the addition of more talent around Embiid should make teams more hesitant to double team him, even if just slightly so. Still, Embiid is always going to attract a crowd down low, and proving that he can not only attract that crowd but also use that attention to get to the line at a high rate should create a relatively high baseline of effectiveness for Embiid, with the ability to remain effective even in the midst of off shooting nights.

That’s an incredible gift for a #1/#1a offensive option to have.

Dislike: Sixers don’t force turnovers

In the early part of Brett Brown‘s tenure as head coach, the Sixers were able to force an incredible amount of turnovers to help, even if ever-so-slightly, offset the huge talent discrepancy the team tried to overcome each night.

That style played to the strengths of Brett Brown’s frenetic, pressure defense, utilizing long, athletic, switchable guards like Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten Brown had at his disposal, along with some combination of Thaddeus Young or Luc Mbah a Moute at power forward and, eventually, Nerlens Noel at center.

That style of play helped the Sixers tremendously, as the Sixers forced opponents into turnovers in 15.2 percent of their offensive possessions during the 2014-15 season, generating 14.8 fast break points per game as a result. That dropped to forcing turnovers on just 13.5 percent of the opponents possessions to generate just 12.2 fast break points per game last year, and finally down to turnovers on just 11.7 percent of possessions for 10.1 fast break points per game so far this year.


(Opponent TO% = % of opponent plays that end in a turnover 76ers. FB Pts/g = Fast break points per game scored by the Sixers).

Part (much) of that is the Sixers changing perimeter rotation. For all of the warts that Michael Carter-Williams (recently traded for Tony Snell) and Tony Wroten (currently out of the league) have, and they are many, the two could force turnovers and get out on the break.

Sergio Rodriguez, T.J. McConnell, Nik Stauskas, Hollis Thompson, and Gerald Henderson reside on the other end of that spectrum. Not to mention the loss of Nerlens Noel’s unique ability to generate steals on the perimeter, something which was either marginalized by playing out of position last year or downright lost due to injury so far this season.

The Sixers are currently shooting 41.6 percent when confined to the half court, which is actually better than the 40.4 percent they shoot in transition, which is the second-worst transition field goal percentage in the league. That half court field goal percentage has actually been trending upward the last few years, up from the dreadful 38.9 percent they shot in 2014-15. The overall gains they’re making as a team offensively, however, have been limited by their inability to force turnovers and convert in transition.

5 Random Thoughts:
Thompson, Stauskas finding stride
Despite the previously mentioned defensive shortcomings, wings Nik Stauskas and Hollis Thompson have been playing better so far this season.

Stauskas is averaging 7.9 points and 2.6 rebounds in 23.3 minutes of play, shooting 49 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from three-point range, despite nearly 10 percent more of his made field goals coming unassisted than last year. More of Stauskas’ shots are coming close to the basket, with attempts within 10-feet of the rim making up 39.2 percent of his attempts, compared to 30.8 percent last season. He’s looked more confident both from the perimeter and also creating off the dribble, and hopefully that keeps up.

Thompson has been a little bit hot and cold so far this season, with big games against the Magic (22 points, 8-10 shooting) and Pacers (19 points, 7-12) mixed in with more pedestrian bench efforts outside of that. After Saturday night’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks Thompson is shooting just 37 percent from three-point range, which would be a career low.

Still, Thompson has looked more confident in his dribble, with an increased willingness to attack closeouts and navigate around defenders. Nobody is going to mistake Thompson for Kobe Bryant off the dribble, or even for Kobe Bryant look-alike Gerald Henderson, but being able to attack a closeout and making a defender have to think, even ever so slightly, before flying by Thompson on the perimeter to contest his shot could open things up for the Georgetown alum. Thompson has committed just 4 turnovers in 180 minutes so far this season.

Jerryd Bayless closer to returning
The Philadelphia 76ers sent point guard Jerryd Bayless down to the Delaware 87ers, their D-League affiliate, today as part of his rehabilitation program. Bayless injured his left wrist during training camp and has not yet played this season.

That likely means that Bayless is getting closer to returning, or at least being a more active participant in practice. In past years the Sixers have used the 87ers as a place for returning players to get scrimmage time, something that isn’t always available in the hectic travel schedule of NBA life.

DeMarcus Cousins on the block?
Sean Deveney of the Sporting News reports that Kings center DeMarcus Cousins could be on the trading block, and that speculation around the league is something that could happen soon.

Cousins, 26, is averaging 26.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game for the 4-7 Sacramento Kings.

Sacramento’s next 5 opponents are the San Antonio Spurs (7-3), Los Angeles Clippers (9-1), Toronto Raptors (7-2), Oklahoma City Thunder (6-4), and Houston Rockets (5-4). While all of those games will be played at home for the Kings, that’s a tough schedule for a team that could be looking at an early-season hole to climb out of, something that the temperamental Cousins hasn’t exactly handled well in the past.

Why does this matter? The Sixers have the right to swap draft picks in the 2017 NBA draft with the Kings, meaning that if the Kings pick is better than the Sixers pick after May 16th’s NBA lottery, the Sixers will swap picks with the Kings.

More importantly, the Sixers own an unprotected 2019 draft pick from the Sacramento Kings. The trading of Cousins could kickstart a lengthy rebuild, one which the Sixers could stand to benefit from tremendously, especially when you consider the lack of production the Kings have gotten out of recent lottery picks Nik Stauskas, Ben McLemore, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Georgios Papagiannis.

The start of the college basketball season
The college basketball season started in full swing last week, with fans getting their first glimpses of many top college prospects.

The Sixers are once again heavily invested in the top of the draft. Besides their own draft pick (currently 2nd worst record), the Sixers also get the Lakers pick as long as it falls outside of the top 3, and also have the right to swap picks with the Sacramento Kings if the Kings pick ends up being better than the Sixers pick after the lottery.

There’s a very real chance the Sixers could end up with two top-10 picks this year, once again providing a huge infusion of young talent.

Markelle Fultz had the biggest stat line of the week, finishing with 30 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists in a loss to Yale. Fultz has perhaps the most complete game among the available point guard prospects, with an emerging outside shot, an ability to change speed and direction to get where he wants on the court, and the size to see over the defense and make creative passes.

Dennis Smith (N.C. State) didn’t put up quite as impressive of a box score, with 11 points and 5 assists against Georgia Southern, followed by 12 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists against St. Francis. Smith is an absolutely tremendous athlete, but his outside shot currently holds him back quite a bit, and he struggled with his own offense as a result.

Perhaps the most divisive among point guard prospects is Lonzo Ball, who has averaged 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 8.5 assists per game so far for UCLA. There’s no questioning the kind of impact, on both ends of the court, the 6-6 California legend can have, but his slingshot, out-in-front-of-his-body jump shot release is anything but picture perfect. The shot has gone in so far — he’s started the season off 4-7 from downtown — but it’s going to take quite some time before people are truly confident in his ability to translate that shot to the NBA, and it’s something he struggled with in high school as well. Still, his vision, creativity, size, defensive potential, and ability to change gears in transition will be interesting to watch throughout the season.

The Lakers hot start
The Lakers surprising 6-5 start has caused some anxiety among Sixers fans, as that pick being another potential top-5 pick in a loaded draft was something many fans were banking on.

The start is even more concerning because the Lakers have impressive wins over the Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks, and Golden State Warriors on their early season resume.

The transition from Byron Scott and his archaic offense to Luke Walton cannot be understated, nor can redistributing the 16.9 shots per game wasted during the Kobe Bryant farewell tour. On top of that, D’Angelo Russell (15.4 points, 4.7 assists) and Julius Randle (13.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists) appear to have made significant steps in what is essentially their second seasons in the league (Randle played a grand total of 14 minutes during his 2014-15 “rookie” season, cut short due to a broken leg).

Still, the Lakers have had some luck along the way, with opponents shooting just 33 percent on three-point shots where the closest defender was 4+ feet away. To put that in perspective, teams shot 36.8 percent on three-point shots with 4+ feet of space last season.

The biggest culprit in this was the Warriors game, where the hot-shooting Warriors shot an inexplicable 1-23 against the Lakers on open three-point attempts.

Those wins count, of course. And the Lakers to legitimately look better. Perhaps the pick won’t be in the 4-6 range many had expected/hope for, but let’s wait a little while before we start worrying about Los Angeles Lakers, playoff contenders. These kind of early season anomalies have a way of working themselves out over time.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.