Em­biid as shooter? Not such a stretch

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Jack McCaf­fery jm­c­caf­fery@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @Jack­McCaf­fery on Twit­ter

PHILADEL­PHIA >> If there has ever been a growth in­dus­try within sports, it has been in the evo­lu­tion of the stan­dard po­si­tions of bas­ket­ball.

From for­wards, cen­ters and guards grew shoot­ing guards, point guards, point for­wards, swing­men, stretch-fours, three-point spe­cial­ists, rim-pro­tec­tors and other newage des­ig­na­tions. The lat­est is what Joel Em­biid has be­come for the 76ers: A stretch-five. And be­cause Em­biid has be­come not just an around-the-bas­ket stylist but a three-point threat, he has a chance to al­low Brett Brown to max­i­mize the use of his per­son­nel.

Not that there is any stan­dard so­lu­tion to win­ning bas­ket­ball games, but this one is close: It helps to have the best play­ers on the floor. Yet while lim­its placed by the Six­ers’ med­i­cal staff on Em­biid and Jahlil Okafor con­tinue to com­pli­cate his play­ing ro­ta­tions, Brown con­ceded Mon­day that Em­biid’s re­fresh­ing com­bi­na­tion of inside and out­side tal­ents even­tu­ally may al­low him to play his two young big men to­gether.

“I think it does,” Brown said. “We talk all the time about space, the size of the NBA men. I’ve said this a long time: I wish Nai­smith had made this a four-on-four sport. It would be nice. It’s clean. It’s space. And so Joel af­fords Jahlil to have space when he can stretch the floor like that.”

Brown tried for much of last sea­son to neatly fit Okafor and Ner­lens Noel in the same lineup, usu­ally with Okafor at cen­ter and Noel at the four spot, oc­ca­sion­ally the other way, too. For that, and for other rea­sons, the 2015-16 Six­ers went a ro­bust 10-72. Okafor and Noel could not work to­gether, nor did they seem par­tic­u­larly de­lighted to try. Nei­ther was a threat­en­ing out­side shooter. And on de­fense, nei­ther was an ex­pert at perime­ter de­fense.

By last sum­mer, when Em­biid was cleared to play, the three-cen­ter traf­fic jam was so un­com­fort­able that Noel made a scene at train­ing camp, an­nounc­ing that it would never work. Nor did his em­ploy­ers, whose process was based on col­lect­ing tal­ents first and in­vent­ing ros­ter bal­ance later, quickly shout him down. Noel was right. The Six­ers knew he was right. And the minute Noel com­plained of a sore knee, they would al­low him to do his re­hab­bing in Alabama.

But Em­biid is not Noel. And, yes, that was him lead­ing the NBA in three-point field goal per­cent­age as the Utah Jazz vis­ited the Wells Fargo Cen­ter Mon­day.

“It’s only been five games,” Em­biid said. “So it doesn’t mat­ter.”

Of course not. At a quick 6-for-9 from the arc af­ter five games, Em­biid was hardly yet likely to be in­vited to the dis­tance-shoot­ing com­pe­ti­tion at All-Star Week­end. But his .667 per­cent­age was more than a quirk, for his form is pure. Dur­ing his two red-shirt sea­sons as he re­cov­ered from foot surg­eries, Em­biid was said to have im­pressed his coaches and team­mates with his shoot­ing eye. By the time he made it to train­ing camp, he was out­right boast­ing about his stroke.

“You could see it when I first started coach­ing him that he ac­tu­ally had a touch from range,” Brown said. “He es­pe­cially had it in that trail spot. He is com­fort­able trail­ing into it. So we want to use it. I just feel it is one other layer to what we all are see­ing to be a pretty sig­nif­i­cant way or ways that Joel can score.”

There is a dif­fer­ence be­tween trail three-point­ers and those that come in the of­fen­sive flow. But how­ever Em­biid launches them, it will help the Six­ers in the most fun­da­men­tal ways: On the score­board and at the scorer’s ta­ble. They can project a lack of con­cern with be­ing un­able to fit their most tal­ented play­ers snugly in the same lineup. But they ef­fec­tively tanked en­tire sea­sons to ac­quire Em­biid and Okafor. They need both to be at their best.

Ul­ti­mately, they could move one for value, con­tin­u­ing to de­lay on­court suc­cess. They’re great at that. But if Em­biid can use his out­side shoot­ing to pro­vide enough spac­ing to make Brown com­fort­able pair­ing him with Okafor, the Six­ers would have two, spe­cial, fun­da­men­tally tal­ented big men in one lineup. Even if that might prove stress­ful at the de­fen­sive end on cer­tain pos­ses­sions, it def­i­nitely would be a matchup chal­lenge for op­pos­ing coaches.

“With Joel, when he stretches the floor,” Brown said, “it turns it into that spac­ing-type of four-on­four game.”

Even with Em­biid’s im­pres­sive early dis­tance shoot­ing, the Six­ers were 0-and-5. So Brown was not yet ready to de­clare it a trend … or even a pref­er­ence.

“I still am al­ways go­ing with Joel on back-to-the-bas­ket, backto-the-bas­ket, drop-step, dunk,” Brown said. “Twelve free throws. Get fouled.”

For Em­biid, both big and ath­letic around the bas­ket, that is the most sen­si­ble, long-term bas­ket­ball ap­proach. But if he pops out and is open, or if he is un­guarded be­hind the arc at the end of a break, he is de­ter­mined to at­tempt the 50-per­cent-bonus shot.

“I mean, if they keep leav­ing me open like that, I might shoot a lit­tle bit again,” he said. “If they leave me open, I am go­ing to shoot it.”

If he shoots it, and if he makes it, the Six­ers could have some­thing new, some­thing dif­fer­ent … some­thing that may push them out of a years-long slump.

“I just think you look at a player and say, ‘Wow, he ac­tu­ally has a skill that you have to tap into,’” Brown said. “And as a five man, he has an un­usual skill that we have to use from time to time.”

Could the Six­ers use it to make a cumpled ros­ter work? It’s not a stretch.

To con­tact Jack McCaf­fery, email him at jm­c­caf­fery@21stcen­tu­ry­media.com; fol­low him on Twit­ter @Jack­McCaf­fery


The Six­ers’ Joel Em­biid goes up for a long-dis­tance shot late in a game against the Cleve­land Cava­liers Satur­day at Wells Fargo Cen­ter.

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