Game Preview: In Embiid, Colangelo Sees "Foundational Piece"
Sizing Up the Sixers (7-20):
As the 2016 portion of the NBA season begins to draw to a close, and the ninth month of Bryan Colangelo’s tenure along with it, the 76ers’ president of basketball operations found himself confidently looking forward Monday to a future he called “incredibly bright.”
The team, in 27 appearances, has won seven times, a number that - by Colangelo’s own admission - isn’t high, but one that signifies improvement. It took the Sixers until their 46th game last year to reach that same mark. The year before, they needed 36 outings to get to seven victories.
In terms of defense, the side of the floor that Brett Brown has prioritized since joining the Sixers in 2013, there have been encouraging collective strides. The club has so far generated the NBA’s ninth-best defensive rating (103.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) in the month of December, after finishing 24th in the league in that statistical category a season ago.
Unignorable in relation to the two developments highlighted above is that Joel Embiid has not only been a healthy, contributing member of the Sixers roster, but, at times, an overpowering force. Sunday’s one-point victory over the Brooklyn Nets provided a perfect example.
That night, Embiid became just the 11th player in league history to register 33 points and 10 rebounds in one of the first 18 games of his professional career. He now keeps company with the likes of Blake Griffin, LeBron James, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O’Neal, and Michael Jordan.
Embiid’s dominant two-way effort versus Brooklyn, highlighted by 24 second-half points, was decisive in helping the Sixers’ earn their third win in five tries, and only reinforced the strength of Colangelo’s initial impressions of and opinions aout the third pick of the 2014 draft.
“You can say Joel Embiid is obviously emerging as a bright young star in this league, and represents a significant foundational piece for this organization going forward,” Colangelo said during a near-50 minute sit-down with reporters Monday afternoon at the Sixers’ training complex in Camden, New Jersey.
Later on in the question-and-answer session, Colangelo referred to Embiid as “obviously a runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year right now.” The statement, at least at this point, would be hard to dispute.
Through nearly two months of action, Embiid is the lone player in this year’s rookie class to boast a double-digit scoring average, and he’s generating 18.3 points in a mere 24.2 minutes per game. His rebounding average of 7.4 boards per game tops all first-year players as well, as do his 45 blocked shots.
Still, there’s more. Embiid’s 44.2 3-point shooting percentage isn’t just best among this year’s rookies, it, by merit alone, is simply an impressive statistic for a player who’s 7-foot-2, 275 pounds.
Finally, it’s worth noting what Embiid has done from the free throw line. He’s converted an above-average 74.8 percent of his shots, and has taken a substantial 111 attempts from the line, another rookie-high.
Given that Embiid essentially went two years without a consistent dose of full-fledged, 5-on-5 activity, and that his first introduction to NBA basketball didn’t come until the 2016 preseason, Colangelo has considered the big man’s contributions to be a revelation.
“Walking into the gym in April and May, and seeing him on the court, playing in limited in 2-on-2, 3-on-3 situations, I think anyone would have been skeptical,” said Colangelo, who was hired by the Sixers April 10th. “But, he was showing his ability to do certain things on the court that you can’t teach or imagine from a guy who’s only been playing basketball for such a limited amount of time.”
The potential that Embiid had been flashing behind closed doors during those spring workouts, as hindsight has since demonstrated, was rooted in the realities of the rare combination of advanced skills he possesses at the still relatively young age of 22.
At the outset of the season, Embiid was placed on a tight playing time limit of 24 minutes per game. He was, after all, coming off an exhaustive rehab from two separate right foot procedures in 2014 and 2015.
The week after Thanksgiving, Embiid received a CT scan on his right foot. The results were positive enough to convince the Sixers’ medical staff to bump Embiid’s budget up to 28 minutes on November 30th, about three weeks ahead of schedule.
Colangelo feels that with this longer leash, Embiid has recently been playing with more freedom and patience than he exhibited at the start of the campaign.
“You’ve even seen him evolve over this short window of time, where he was on a very narrow minutes restriction to a much wider one now,” Colangelo said. “There was even a moment where I think he was timing his activity on the court per the minutes he knew he was going to be there, so he may have been playing a certain style that wasn’t conducive to what we were trying to do as a team.
“Now that that window has opened, you see him being a much more thorough, complete basketball player, because he’s not in a hurry to score. He’s getting others involved, he’s passing the ball out of certain situations. He’s learning what he can get away with in an NBA game, he’s learning the nuances of all the things that affect his role on the court.”
Revisiting from earlier the idea of how the Sixers’ defensive success is tied significantly to Embiid, Brett Brown has several times this season referenced the following statistical correlation. Accounting for all the games Embiid has played, the Sixers - with him on the court - produce a defensive rating good enough to rank second in the league. Without Embiid, that figure slips to the NBA’s bottom six.
“It’s quite incredible what he’s been able to accomplish, to see him having the impact that he is, to be the elite defender that he is, or to see us play defense the way we do as a team the way we have with him on the floor,” said Colangelo.
Embiid’s hustle, toughness, and his connectedness to the Sixers’ fanbase are all intangibles that Colangelo has taken stock of, too, in assessing the value of the Cameroonian.
“I think he’s showing that not only does he have all this on court, he’s got the off court element as well, which is the personality and the persona and the fun that comes with having success,” Colangelo said. “He is a complete package as it relates to all of that.”
All the more reason for Colangelo and the Sixers’ front office to feel good about the present, and what lies ahead.
“We couldn’t be happier, obviously, with where we find him,” said the Sixers’ personnel chief. “When I use the word foundational piece, I don’t use it lightly, but he clearly has demonstrated that he deserves to be considered that.”
Sizing Up the Pelicans (9-20):
New Orleans will be wrapping up a three-game road trip Tuesday. The trek began in daunting fashion, with visits to Houston and San Antonio. The two Texas teams rank second and third, respectively, in the Western Conference, and have a combined record of 43-12. The Pelicans dropped both contests by a combined margin of 35 points.
All-Star Anthony Davis enters play Tuesday averaging 29.6 points and 2.8 blocks per game, figures that place second and first, respectively, in the NBA. Davis’ 16 double-doubles are eighth-most in the league.
Facing New Orleans for the second time in two weeks, the Sixers will be seeking a sweep of the teams’ two-game series. The Sixers’ 99-88 victory over the Pelicans at Smoothie King Center on December 8th gave the visitors their first road win in 24 attempts, and was highlighted by Ersan Ilyasova’s 23 points, eight rebounds, and four assists. He hit several key shots down the stretch, while Joel Embiid generated a plus-27 rating in the game.