Inside the Process
The following article is based off the script written for Inside The Process, a long-form narrative podcast produced by the 76ers Podcast Network that profiles Joel Embiid's outstanding 2020-21 season. Both the podcast and article are pieces of companion content to the latest installment of HERE THEY COME, the behind-the-scenes video docu-series from Studio 76.
*** 10 YEARS AGO ***
That's a mighty big idea.
What do we do with a word like that?
Many of us aspire to be great, but how do we get there?
Where does greatness come from?
How do you uncover it, nurture it, grow it, become...great?
For some, greatness comes from a path you've charted for yourself.
For others, the path finds you.
Greatness could be born in the shadow of a big city, or a world away.
To be considered among the greats at just about anything is a feat in and of itself.
To be recognized as the greatest, those are some mighty long odds.
As hard as it might be to define greatness, we know it when we see it, and Joel Embiid is having a season for the ages.
He's equal parts power and finesse.
His athleticism is freakish.
His presence? Even the best scorers think twice about driving on him.
Joel Embiid does things at his size that no one in the game of basketball has ever done before.
He's generational. He's a member of the 76ers. And, he's making a serious run for MVP.
But for all Joel Embiid's super-powers, don't underestimate what he does when the bright lights aren't shining.
His work between the ears is just as important as his work between the lines.
*** JOEL'S JOURNEY ***
Let's start in Cameroon.
This was never supposed to be a basketball story, at least not in the beginning.
Maybe some other sport, but basketball? No, that wasn't part of the plan.
"It took a while for me to start [playing]," Joel Embiid said in a recent interview. "It's something I wanted to do for a while, but my dad wasn't into it. He just wanted me to play every sport, mainly volleyball, because I was super tall and had a lot of potential."
Enough, at least according to Embiid, to go pro.
"Growing up, my dad [Thomas] was in the army, a colonel in the army, but he also played handball, and was one of the best in his sport. He was tough, people were afraid of him, and he was really good. I always looked at him as a way I could be pretty good. I saw my dad, how dominant he was, and I want to be better than him."
Embiid might do things that seem superhuman, but in a fundamental way he learns like most of us do:
If he sees something, it typically sticks.
In the summer of 2010, his eyes and mind were fixed on the roundball.
"The first time I remember just watching it and actually paying attention to it was the Finals, in 2009. Lakers, Celtics, Kobe. That's how he became my favorite player.
"That was the first time I watched and saw what basketball was about. I was telling myself, 'That seems interesting,'especially because at the time I was playing soccer, volleyball, it just seemed interesting."
Embiid just needed to convince his father, Thomas, to let him play.
"His dad was a handball player, his uncle was a volleyball player, so naturally you go to the sports you understand," said Luc Mbah a Moute, a fellow Cameroonian and former NBA player. "[Thomas Embiid] never had any experience with basketball, so he didn't know what to expect for a kid who was playing basketball."
Here in the United States, your 16th birthday usually means what?
You get the chance to learn to drive, right?
In Cameroon, it meant Joel Embiid was able to get his hands on a basketball.
"I started playing at 16 years old," Embiid said. "From there, my coach in Cameroon - from the first time we started working together which was very short - it was about 5 months, but he played a huge role in what I became."
Embiid's first formal foray into hoops came at Mbah a Moute's annual basketball camp.
"Pretty simple, pretty basic camp, just trying to help grow the game in Cameroon that helped me," Mbah a Moute said. "Joel stood out, obviously from being one of the tallest, but also for being one of the guys with the most potential. He had good footwork, his dad was a handball player, but his ability to...see flashes. It was like, 'Wow, how did he do that?'
"I remember one time I had asked one of the coaches, 'You said he's only been playing six months?' It tells you how impressive he was. What he's doing now is a continuation of how special he's been since he picked up a basketball."
It's clear what Embiid has become, but how did we get to this point, let alone get there this fast?
He now appears to be at the peak of his powers, but let's not forget: he was doing some pretty remarkable stuff going back to his first year in the league.
One particular game early on in Embiid's career that still stands up as one of his finest performances came on Nov. 15, 2017 against the Los Angeles Lakers at STAPLES Center.
It was a 46-point, 15-rebound, 7-assist, 7-block epic.
This game was Embiid's "arrival."
Hollywood, national television, facing a legacy franchise.
As Embiid's star was beginning to rise, the rest of the league quickly took notice.
"It blew me away when I first saw him play the first time," said Doc Rivers, who back then was coaching the LA Clippers.
"You watch him in college and I don't remember seeing all that. He didn't play much, obviously. There are a lot of players in the NBA who have this potential and athletic ability but aren't skilled. I think Joel's skill level is what surprised everybody in the NBA."
In one sense, Embiid isn't surprising anyone anymore. No way. Game-planning against him is a futile pursuit.
On the other hand, he continues to amaze because he continues to get better.
So again, it begs the question:
How did we get here?
*** A STUDENT OF THE GAME ***
"I'm the type of guy that if you show me something, I just need to see it once or twice and I'll be able to do it," says Joel Embiid. "I'll be able to do anything."
How many times have you been in situations where you wish your brain could move that fast?
It's a gift.
As far back as Embiid can remember, he's always been a visual learner. As it turned out, his first basketball coach in Cameroon gave him a DVD of some of the greats.
"It was Hakeem [Olajuwon], Pat Ewing, Dirk [Nowitzki], Tim Duncan. As I kept watching, I liked Hakeem because of the way he was moving on the basketball court. It was art. It was fun to watch. The way he shook his body, the way he moved. That was the first one I really got into and tried to become like him.
"A lot of people talk about my shooting touch, and I always thought it came from the first move I ever did. It wasn't a hook shot or typical big man move. It was the Dirk fadeaway. I used to go off one leg, take a dribble, spin, and fadeaway on one leg just like Dirk.
"As I kept doing it I got used to it and became consistent."
The next part of the story you probably know.
Embiid left Africa for the United States before his junior year in high school, and attended a couple of high school powerhouses - Montverde Academy and The Rock, both in Florida - before landing at the University of Kansas.
"We were recruiting a couple of other guys off a terrific AAU basketball team out of Florida, and we're watching and I was like, 'Who is this skinny kid who can run a little bit and they never throw it to him and he's pretty good?'," said Bill Self, who coached Embiid at the University of Kansas in 2013-14. "We look into it and he attended the hottest high school in America, Montverde. He was at Montverde and didn't play at all his junior year because they were loaded.
"The following year he went to a school in Gainesville called The Rock. He was recruited some - us, Texas, Marquette, Florida - but he wasn't recruited like he deserved. We made it a priority. We recruited him hard, we got him here."
It's kind of staggering how normal Embiid's stats were on the surface at Kansas. He averaged 11 points, 8 rebounds, and took 5 total threes, making one of them.
But he was a freak. It was never about numbers. It was always about potential.
"There's no question he's always had soft hands," Self said, "but the thing that separated him was his feet. I said this at a Hall of Fame dinner, that my guy's footwork reminds me of Olajuwon a little bit. I had pros who played with Olajuwon at the dinner laugh at me. They said, 'You just have no idea how good that man was!' And you know what, I probably didn't! But Jo studied Olajuwon and learned by just watching him.
"Joel was a guy who could play a piano by sound. He could just pick up stuff quickly. He watched [Olajuwon] and learned some stuff."
Daryl Morey was the general manager of the Houston Rockets at that time..
"Before I go [to a college game] I'll get briefed by the staff who the top players are," said Morey. "They mentioned Joel. I was unlucky. I caught a game he didn't play. I didn't actually see him live at Kansas."
"Every time NBA people came to our practice," said Bill Self, "I always did an individual improvement with Jo after practice so he could show off the things he didn't do in practice that day - show off his footwork, that there are similarities, and there are.
"We're talking about now, a guy who's playing to that type of level on the NBA stage. It is pretty remarkable. His feet were just different. He was like a ballerina out there."
Thinking back to the summer of 2014, when Embiid was on the verge of getting drafted, Morey said, "Folks thought he was going to be super dominant, but not seeing him live I didn't know much about him.
"B.J. Johnson, [Houston's] scout who passed away this past year, he would always go to Basketball Without Borders - Africa, and he was up on the African prospects. Besides being briefed that he was supposed to go see [Embiid], I didn't know much about him."
At the beginning of Embiid's freshman season, he came off the bench. That changed after 8 games.
"The more he played the more comfortable he got," said Self. "We played Duke right off the bat in the Championship Classic and Wigs was unbelievable - best player in the game, Jabari Parker vs. Andrew Wiggins. We put a 7-foot freshman in there who didn't start [Embiid], and if I'm not mistaken Duke doubled him on the post. Why would they double him? I just remember the poise he had, handling traps, handling things and seeing things that had never been thrown at him before. You just knew it was a matter of time before everything clicked for him."
Self said that Embiid's progress guided his development.
"From a skillset standpoint I don't think we said let's do this or do that because I don't know that we really gathered what his ceiling was until we saw him the next day, then the next day, then the next day. It seemed to me his ceiling changed the more we watched him.
"I don't think we set any goals for him except just trying to get him against his ceiling. But his ceiling changed. His ceiling in November wasn't the same as December, or January, or February."
Embiid didn't play in the NCAA Tournament at the end of his freshman season. That's when his bad luck with injuries started.
Embiid had a stress fracture in his back. Then, a week before the Sixers took him third overall, he had the first of two surgeries on his right foot.
"I think everyone was concerned about the injuries," said Morey. "It was very obvious Sam [Hinkie] was going to select him.
"I thought it was the perfect selection because he had a chance to be what he's become, which is the most dominant player in the league."
Embiid's second foot procedure cost him the 2015-16 season as well.
"I can't even imagine being in the organization when you have a talent like Joel and he's in the building but he's not playing - for the coach, for the franchise, for the fans," Doc Rivers said. "But I don't think anyone knew how good he really was. I think they realized he was talented, but when they got to really see him play I can't imagine sitting there as a coach and taking all those losses for the franchise and thinking I have this talent in my back pocket the whole time."
When Embiid finally graced the floor in a 76ers uniform on Oct. 26, 2016, the promise was immediate.
Had Embiid played more than 31 games his first season, he would have been Rookie of the Year. He averaged 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks in just 25.5 minutes a game.
Since then, his impact rating has gone up every season except for last year.
While Embiid's God-given ability and athleticism have been on full display over the last five seasons, there's more to his success than DNA.
Embiid wouldn't be who he is, or gotten to where he is, without his work ethic or mind.
He's one smart dude.
"The way he thought," said Self, "he could see things and have a feel for things that guys who had only been playing basketball for two years don't feel."
"I think the basketball IQ is a part of my game that I don't think people pay attention to, especially defensively," Embiid said.
"Where it really takes over is on the defensive side of the ball, the way I place myself, the way I move, guard pick and roll, the way I guard guys, especially when they're coming off picks and try to attack me. Just giving them space sometimes to think they have an advantage on me but really don't. I just use that to my advantage. The basketball IQ is one of the biggest parts of my game. On the offensive side too, especially with fouls drawn. I always end up on the free throw line."
"What's the old saying, 'You don't know a player until you coach a player?,'" Doc Rivers said. "I always knew he was talented and we also saw his skill, but I don't think you can appreciate his basketball IQ until you're around him. Very clever, very smart, understands defenses. Offensively there's not position on the floor he can't see, he doesn't feel. He has the rare ability that very few players have - they're skilled, athletic, smart, and have feel. Very few players walk in here and have all of those, and Joel has them all."
Embiid says teammates ask him how he does some of the things he does, all while making it look relatively easy.
"It's hard to explain, but when I'm being guarded, guys tend to be physical with me," said Embiid. "That's not the right way to approach it. That's how I take advantage. If you put your hands all over me, I'm going to use it to get to the free throw line. If you get in foul trouble, I use that to my advantage too. I can do my thing and be a bully and get any shot I want.
"The basketball IQ is one of the biggest parts of my game."
And this year, it's the reason he's turned himself into an MVP.
*** BUILDING AN MVP CASE ***
"I think the average fan sees a guy like Joel and thinks he just shows up, rolls out of bed, and just plays that well. You're not that skilled without a lot of work and a lot of hours in the gym. You could be given God-given ability, athleticism, size, but to shoot the way he shoots, dribble the way he dribbles, have all the up and under moves, that takes hours upon hours working on your craft." - Doc Rivers
The game ends, and Joel Embiid needs a fix.
His film fix.
"Right after the game when I get home I probably eat and when it's time to go to bed, everyone goes to bed, and right before I got to bed I like to watch the same game I just played," says Embiid. "I watch it right after, good or bad, see how we guarded, how we played as a team, what I can do better, then go to sleep. In the morning, come in, we do the same thing.
"He studies his game," Doc Rivers said, "he studies his opponents game, he understands when we're playing a team what they do well, what they're going to try to do for him - are they going to trap, front, single-coverage? That's another area of preparation though that great players have to put in. People think they show up, they don't. They put a lot of work into it."
In Embiid's case, his ability to process what he sees and map that information from his eyes to his mind is pretty powerful stuff.
This year especially.
"I watch at home, at the gym, right before the game, on the bus, anywhere, really. I'm always on my phone. Any time I'm not doing anything I'm usually watching something basketball related."
The curators of Joel's film collection are the Sixers coaching staff and his personal trainer, Drew Hanlen.
"[Hanlen] goes over the tape of the game for every single game and then he sends a voiceover and we kind of go over and see what we can do better, especially for me, because for me, I see differences," said Embiid. "Toronto, they send four guys at me before the ball is even in my hands. Then Washington, they're going to try to send me baseline where the help is. We try to figure it out every single game.
"After we look at that, we go over to the next opponent coming up, whoever is going to guard me. They send me every clip of how I played against them, where I got my shots from. We go over that, and all day, whenever I get the chance, I just keep watching. Right before the game, same thing to remind me what I have to do to see how they guard me."
"Players have every avenue now," Rivers said. "They can get [film] on their iPhones, iPads, we can break it down for them. In 5 minutes after a game Joel can ask to see all the pick and roll plays that happened tonight, and within five minutes he can be looking on his phone. Things have changed for the better in that department. We can also edit films so they don't have to watch a full game if they don't want to. The edits that we like, the individual players like, we can put on their devices as well."
The result this season is that Joel Embiid is weaponizing his preparation.
"It's helped me a lot. When we go over film, I have so many different moves I can use. At times in the past I haven't really figured out when to use it. That's a good thing about going over film. If I miss something or do what I was supposed to do we talk about it."
The way last season ended was hard. The Sixers were swept out of the bubble by the Boston Celtics.
Embiid put up some impressive numbers, highlighted by three 30-point games in the playoffs.
He left the bubble disappointed - in the outcome and in himself.
“It’s tough. Last year we didn’t win," Embiid said. "We thought we could accomplish winning the whole thing. We didn’t even come close. Obviously, we had bad luck with injuries and stuff, but that should never be an excuse. For me, as you know, it was kinda ridiculous I didn’t make any All-NBA teams, and that sucks. It was kind of like a punch in the gut. It was very disappointing."
Joel had several big focal points last offseason.
"My talk with Joel was more about winning first and things he would have to do to impact winning on our team," said Rivers. "Our first thing with Joel was conditioning. Our second thing was being a better passer out of the post. And the third thing was the ratio of jumpshots, post ups, and in-between shots. We thought jump shots and in-between shots were high, the post ups were low, and we told him before the year we wanted to flip that. To be able to do that you have to be in better shape. That goes back to conditioning. Then for that to work you have to be a better passer out of the post. Give Joel credit. He's done all of those things."
In respect to Embiid's refinements on the court, his commitment to watching film is at the heart of his success.
He studied tape, got his reps in, and now look at him.
Embiid feels his fadeaway and ability to attack off the dribble have unlocked new dimensions to his game.
"The fadeaway I've gotten comfortable with," said Embiid. "That's an unguardable shot, especially being 7-foot tall. No one is going to block that shot.
"Once you get to the playoffs and teams start double-teaming you, you need to find different ways to attack and get the shot off. That's a shot if I'm being doubled it's easy to get to, and it's a shot that's easy to work on and make too."
Doc Rivers said, "It gives him something else that he can do. He's always been a great post player, he just didn't go down there enough. I think the little step-away, fadeaway has given him another counter move, and when you're a post player and you can spin away from the basket and take that shot or spin towards the basket and attack with hook shots and get to the basket, it literally makes you unguardable. His footwork is unbelievable, and adding the fadeaway jump shot to that is great."
"Going into the short offseason that we had, I just looked at myself," Embiid said. "The past couple years, I've been mainly a post player and I felt like I was easy to double. We needed to find other ways to attack so I don't get doubled. That's where ball handling comes in, shooting off the dribble. If I'm handling the ball at the top of the key, it's hard to double."
"That's where the jumpshot sets everything up," said Rivers. "If Joel didn't have a jump shot, he wouldn't have a great attack move. The fact that he can face you up and you have to honor that, [it] sets everything up, and he knows how to set it up. That's where the IQ comes in. He does a great job of setting up his defenders."
"Guys are not going to leave their man just to double me while I'm handling the ball," said Embiid. "That's probably the main thing that's made me so successful this year and shooting off the dribble and being able to handle the ball. As the time goes on, I'm only going to get better."
Which is kind of a crazy thought, given how much Embiid already impacts winning.
Working with Embiid is one of the main reasons why Daryl Morey got right back to work after leaving Houston.
"I think it's just rare to have a player who leads on both ends of the floor," Morey said. "You can count on one hand the number of players in NBA history who can do that. To have him be our go-to guy on offense while consistently handling double-teams, and at the same time completely shutting the other team down, it's mind-melting to watch most of the time."
"He drives winning with everything he does," said Rivers. "He creates double teams. If they don't, it gives us a go-to guy on the post. Defensively, I think this is the best year he's ever had defensively. When you put all those things together, you know every night that you show up in the game that you're getting a certain amount of points, rebounds, and a defensive anchor. There are few teams that can say they have that. We're one that can say that, and that's what makes it special."
Morey praised both coach and player for finding the right formula.
"Doc and Joel have done a really nice job of getting [Embiid] to the middle of the floor, a place that's hard to double - just a complete package of dribble-drives, pull-ups, spin moves. Frankly, the only way to guard him is to foul him, and that's what's happening. Either they're fouling him or he's dunking it."
It really is that simple, and Joel has made it look that easy.
*** FINDING BALANCE ***
But it hasn't really all been easy.
Joel Embiid is a dad.
Parenting is hard, and parenting as a professional athlete brings its own set of challenges.
But Embiid is finding his way.
"It's been at times challenging because I'm a family man, I like to be around my family, especially being a new dad," said Embiid, whose first child, Arthur, was born in September. "I want to be around, see everything he does, grow up, me being there with him at every step that he takes."
76ers head coach Doc Rivers has four children of his own. He played 13 years in the NBA.
"It's not easy because you're on the road a lot. When you come home you have to spend time. One thing with kids, you can go 0-30, they don't care. They just want to see their pops. That's what makes it so special."
"It's been challenging, but part of my mindset this year is also because of him," said Embiid, referring to Arthur, who was named after Embiid's late brother. "I want him to see that his dad was pretty good. I want to win, I want to win MVPs, I want to win championships. I just want him to see his dad at his best. That's part of the reason why this year I wanted to go out and dominate every single minute I'm on the floor just to make him proud "
Embiid might choose to keep certain things private, but don't be deceived.
"A lot of people have the perception of me not working hard or playing hard, but I do. Before the Bubble I was in the gym every single day for nearly two months just trying to stay ready, trying to accomplish what we set out to do, but I like to be private about it - working on my family, myself.
"[Whatever] the perception is, that’s fine. But I owe the city a championship, and that’s why I keep working so hard because I need to make it happen. That’s why I was brought here. I need to make it happen."
So far, Embiid's contributions have been jaw-dropping. He finished the 2020-21 regular season averaging 28.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game, while shooting 50.0 and 85.0 percent from the field and free throw stripe, respectively.
Larry Bird is the only other person to post those splits in a single season, doing so in 1984-85.
"You never know anyone's ceiling because that's going to come from within, but as good as [Embiid] is, there's a higher ceiling for him, I can tell you that," said Doc Rivers. "If he reaches that, goodbye league. I don't know how you could deal with him on a daily basis. No one can deal with him now. If there's a higher place that he can go, and I believe there is, then watch out, because it's going to be amazing to watch."
Embiid has always said his life is like a movie.
Over time, he's proven that he knows something when he sees it.
The perfect finish to this script is obvious.
"It's crazy, with everything that's happened - COVID, the team completely changing, a bunch of new teammates, me playing at this level, winning," Embiid said. "Everything's happening so fast. Everything after the other, just happening so fast. A great ending to the story would be winning the whole thing."