There was once a time when centers ruled the hardwood and franchises would build their teams from the inside-outside. Those days are long gone.
Building teams from the outside-in is the way to go in today’s NBA, with offenses catering heavily to screen-and-roll play, the three-point shot, spacing and small-ball. However, I still believe there is value in great big men and controlling the middle is a way to succeed in today’s evolving game.
Proof of that is in bigs like Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert, yet none of those centers presently effect the course of a basketball game in the variety of ways then 76ers' center Joel Embiid does.
As a 7-footer, Embiid is not only, in my view, the best center in basketball but also the most complete center the league has to offer. His offensive game is better and far superior to Gobert’s and Drummond’s. He defends better and is more athletic than Jokic. He passes better in the post and on the perimeter than Cousins. He plays with more assertiveness, physicality and is stronger than Towns. His face-up game, post-game and overall moves are better than Davis’.
In that regard, Joel Embiid stands as the most dominant center in the NBA since Shaquille O’Neal was demolishing foes with the Miami Heat in the mid-2000s.
Often injury-prone throughout his young career, the 25-year-old from Cameroon has emerged has possibly the most difficult cover in the league, as some would make a case for James Harden, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Offensively, there isn’t anything really Embiid can’t do.
The nimble two-time All-Star has a formidable throwback back-to-the basket game that purists would drool over. His off-the-dribble play, footwork, spin moves, turn-around shot, hook shot, shoulder-shake and up-and-under forays are sometimes reminiscent of the one-and-only Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon. He can knock the midrange jumper down, and has extended his range out to the three-point line this season, making a career-high 79 threes in the regular season.
The unique thing with Embiid is that he uses his strength well and has wonderful body control when maneuvering around the basket, whether single-covered or double-teamed. He’s a massive wrecking ball as a scorer to handle, who can go through and around defenders.
Embiid put up Shaq-like numbers this season finishing in the top 10 in points, rebounds and blocks. His PER was sixth in the league at 26.1. Embiid also collected 58 double-doubles and was one of two centers -- Jokic being the other -- to have multiple triple-doubles.
To get an idea of how valuable he is to Philly on the offensive side of the ball, then examine the 76ers' offensive rating with and without him on the court. According to nba.com, the 76ers had a 111.3 offensive rating in the regular season with Embiid on the court, but dipped to a 105.9 without him. That might not be a considerable disparity, but that’s enough of a gap to perhaps decide the outcome of a game.
Here are some of the monstrous games he’s had this year:
- 42 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks vs. Charlotte on November 9
- 35 points and 18 rebounds vs. Miami on November 12
- 33 points, 17 rebounds and six assists vs. Brooklyn on December 12
- 40 points and 21 rebounds vs. Indiana on December 14
- 42 points and 18 rebounds vs. Phoenix on January 2
- 40 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and three steals vs. Milwaukee on March 17
I haven’t seen stat lines like that on a consistent basis from a center since Shaq in his prime.
What I love the most about Embiid and what most star players should have is the overwhelming confidence he exudes in his ability. He proclaimed himself the “most unstoppable player in the league” after a game in March against the Celtics. It’s hard to argue with that statement at times but what also needs to be underlined is his aptitude as a passer. I consider Jokic as the best passing center in today’s game, but Embiid is lurking behind him and he has improved every year in that category, with his assists per game increasing in each of his three played seasons.
Look no further then to Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals versus the Toronto Raptors. The big fella was involved in maybe the two biggest plays down the stretch for his team.
Embiid just received a pass on the low post with Marc Gasol guarding him. He takes two dribbles and then Pascal Siakam doubles down on Embiid, leaving Ben Simmons because of the non-shooting threat he is.
He tries to turn to his right shoulder, nothing there. He then makes an attempt to go in between the two, but they’ve collapsed on him. With seemingly no avenue to get around, he suddenly spots Jimmy Butler across the court on the wing and whips a one-handed, over the head pass that he knocks down for a 3-pointer to put Philly up by eight with about two minutes left.
Later on, you will see Embiid receive the ball on the top of the key with the 76ers up one with 30 seconds to go. One thing I love about this play is the balance and patience that Embiid shows. He gives Gasol a slight pump fake that the defender doesn’t quite bit on, but then goes to a countermove where he takes two dribbles to the right and comes back inside the paint with a spin move. Siakam just gets over on the left side to help as Embiid shows them both the ball, they fly in the air and he lays it up off the backboard for two crucial points down the stretch.
Not many big men have the composure, self-awareness and moves to makes those plays in those pressure-pack sequences.
On the defensive side of the ball, he’s the best defensive pivot as well.
He’ll likely be voted on the first or second All-NBA Defensive team this season and it would be totally deserved. His presence in the paint, where he blocks practically anything in his area with either hand, is something that opposing teams are wary of.
He runs the floor and chases down blocks and while he can struggle sometimes defending a pick-and-pop big man that floats to the perimeter, he’s proven adept in guarding them off penetration. He’s also mobile enough to defend smaller guards off switches.
His impact defensively can’t be overstated. With Embiid on the court, the 76ers defensive rating stood at 103.3 but when he was off the court, it went up to 109.1. As the team's best player, he’s also its most valuable.
With the Sixers heading up north for Game 7 of their Eastern semifinal series against the Raptors, The Process has the platform in the postseason once again to prove in his own words that he is the most unstoppable player in the game. And in the face of recent criticism from the Hall of Famer and Turner Sports analyst, he also has to show that he is truly the best big thing since Shaq.