The First 27 Minutes of Joel Embiid’s Return

Washington taking on Philadelphia was an excellent choice for ESPN’s NBA season-opening game. Washington was returning their full squad (minus Markieff Morris, for now) from a breakout year that fell one quarter short of the Eastern Conference Finals, and they made sound moves to possibly convert their disastrous bench into less of a black hole to first quarter leads. For Philly, you had the past two #1 overall picks playing in their rookie debuts, Dario Saric coming in for his second season after a solid EuroBasket performance, as well as J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson playing their first games as Sixers. You also had the reinstatement of the minutes-restricted phenom of NBA Twitter, Joel Embiid.

Without diverting attention towards Simmons and Fultz, or John Wall playing like an MVP, let’s pan the magnifying glass on Embiid’s performance.

The roof of recently renamed Capital One Arena was nearly blown off into oblivion, taking the internet with it, when Embiid attempted to hammer home a Wilkinseque tomahawk over the corpse of Jason Smith, less than a minute in.

In the early-goings, Embiid was largely used to distribute dribble handoffs and pop out of ball-screens to remove the paint defense of Marcin Gortat; it was a similar approach to what Denver does with Nikola Jokic. There was a glimpse of the handoff potential among Embiid and Redick on this play:

And with Fultz on this play:

Embiid even snatched a rebound to pilot the ball up the court, and find Redick in transition for a hockey assist.

Of course, the multiple dimensions to Embiid’s offensive talent involve shooting from deep-range. Accounting for that factor kept Gortat off-balance, unsure whether to give up a drive or let Joel fire up 3’s. He didn’t connect on any 3-point attempts, but hit this long-2 with his toe on the line.

Mahinmi didn’t look any more comfortable out there, and Embiid showed off his refined pump-and-go technique when the shot-contest was too aggressive

Being matched-up with Gortat did present a couple sparing post-up opportunities, but it was clear that Ian Mahinmi was seen as a pushover that could, indeed, not guard Embiid. Joel smoked him for a quick 4 points, getting to the line once, and hitting a remarkable one-dribble hesitation pull-up on another possession.

While the exterior component of Philly’s defense failed to keep Wall and Beal out of the lane, the Sixers played some spectacular paint defense, mostly bolstered by Embiid’s help around the basket. Unfortunately, I felt the officials did a poor job of enforcing the verticality concept with no-calls, particularly in the first half, which diminished what looked like a key ingredient of the 76ers well-prepared scouting report. Embiid only tallied one block, but fared much better than Amir Johnson as the defensive anchor. Being able to avoid Wall’s aggressive run to the rim is one thing, but the timing of this block is very impressive.

There were varying reports on what the precise number was for Embiid’s minutes restriction, and it was unclear if he would play in the fourth quarter after playing about 20 minutes in the first three quarters. Washington had a massive third quarter pushing the pace and getting to the free throw line, and when Amir Johnson fouled out at the 7 minute mark of the fourth quarter, it felt like the Wizards had all but spun the safe shut on their first victory of the season. Even though it was still a tied game, when Brett Brown inserted Saric at the 5 against Gortat (and McConnell came in for Covington), the paint defense that had kept the Sixers in the game took a deathblow. Washington ripped off 8 points in less than 2 minutes by cleaning up both misses for 4 second chance points, on 4 possessions. After a show-stopping oop from Beal to Wall, Brown yanked Saric and replaced him with Embiid for the final 5 minutes, with Philly down 108-102.

The Sixers actually outscored Washington by a point in the final five minutes, and had a serious chance late in the game. Embiid scored 6 of Philadelphia’s final 13 points by rolling to the basket after a DHO with Redick, connecting on a put-back, and going back to the one dribble hesitation pull-up he used earlier.

He did, however, miss a crucial boxout when trying to help against Wall:

And then get dissected by a brilliant pick-and-roll pass from Wall in the lane:

I’m not sure even Rudy Gobert instigates a stop on either of those plays. The only time Embiid looked particularly ineffective, was when he tired in the third quarter. On this play, he let Gortat beat him down the floor in transition; Gortat then sealed him to give Wall a 1-on-1 run to the rim.

As this young Philly core rides the rookie and sophomore roller coasters through the season, there will be plenty of excitement and mistakes to go around. Simmons, Fultz and Saric have significant weaknesses to address, but Covington and Embiid stand out as the more well-rounded prospects available. It will take time for Embiid to get into the shape a full season’s worth of minutes demands, but if he can avoid any major set-backs, he looks ready to resume from where he left off last season. Even in playing less than 30 minutes a game, his rare skills and coordination as a big man presents the largest obstacle in an opponent’s path to victory; and he’s likely to let them know that.

Tommy Driscoll



All clips made using YouTube and Giphy.