Embiid as shooter? Not such a stretch
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.
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The Sixers’ Joel Embiid goes up for a long-distance shot late in a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers Saturday at Wells Fargo Center.