76ers

Will Joel Embiid live in the paint? How Brett Brown wants to help his ‘unicorn’ build a legacy

Will Joel Embiid live in the paint? How Brett Brown wants to help his ‘unicorn’ build a legacy

Two days before the Sixers’ regular-season opener vs. the Boston Celtics, Brett Brown was thinking big.

The Sixers' head coach reflected after practice Monday afternoon on his “huge” team, his All-Star big man, Joel Embiid, and the big picture of Embiid’s career.

I think he’s going to have a year that puts us in a position to win a championship. … I feel a tremendous responsibility to help him define his legacy. And legacies start with championships. And I didn’t take an ‘s’ off that word on purpose — it’s championships.

“I feel a role and a responsibility to help him. Him owning the paint is as good a place to start as any. It’s where my mind has been centered all summer. It’s the messaging that we’ve discussed as a team and with him. We’ve admitted we’re huge; what does that look like? What can we do to exploit our team? And with Joel especially, I think he’s going to have a fantastic season. … I’m really excited to help him improve and grow.

Brown has spoken on both Embiid’s legacy and the desire for him to “live in the paint” more this season multiple times over the past few weeks. He’s determined to get more out of Embiid beyond the fundamental tenets of conditioning and health

Embiid was second in the NBA with 8.1 post ups per game last season, per NBA.com/Stats, and it sounds like Brown wants that number to increase. 

For his part, Embiid has said he wants to be the “greatest to ever do it.” And he was clear during training camp that his preference is to be stationed more down low and less outside of the three-point line. 

“Like I’ve always said before, I don’t like shooting threes,” Embiid said on Oct. 4. “But this year since we’re going to have Ben [Simmons] willing to take those threes, maybe it’s going to put my game more inside. I’m hoping that he will shoot them, so I do my job, what I do inside.”

Brown had no doubt Monday when asked if Embiid will be more of a low-post force this season.

I don’t think it, I know it. When you look at him, he is a unicorn. When we say who is Joel Embiid like, or who is like Joel Embiid — Joel can score in a variety of ways. Is he [Shaquille O’Neal]? He’s got a little bit of that in him. Is he Arvydas Sabonis? That was a pretty multi-dimensional player. Is he Hakeem [Olajuwon]? [Tim] Duncan was a good low-post player and could step out at the elbow or foul line and make a jump shot. 

“When you start trying to put him in a box and say, ‘This is all you are,’ it’s a huge, naïve mistake. It’s a really naïve mistake. Where is he at his best? We get where it is, and we have to center our gravity more in that area of where it is. I think it’s going to equal free throws and kick outs and all of that. But to think that’s the only floor spot where he lives is really recklessly naïve. You go Shaq, Shaq, Shaq — it’s deeper than that. It’s on me as his coach, and on him, to better understand how do I best impact the game, help this team win championships, take off like I want to take off at the start of the year.

Sabonis, Olajuwon and O’Neal are all enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Duncan, who Brown knows well from his time as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, will surely be inducted in 2020. Brown told NBC Sports Philadelphia last March that the Sixers’ post offense around Embiid “replicates what we did with Duncan for 12 years in San Antonio.” 

While assistant coach Kevin Young said at Brown’s coaches clinic on Sept. 23 that the Sixers plan to run more “Explosion” this season, the free-flowing, improvisational movement off a player in the post that often enabled Simmons to find cutters in 2018-19, the emphasis with Embiid has generally been on having players set at specific starting spots, surrounding the 25-year-old with outlets. 

Embiid said at media day that decision-making out of double teams was one of his focuses during the offseason. He did improve in that area last year, turning the ball over on 13.1 percent of his post-up possessions, the lowest rate of his career. 

Brown and Embiid’s larger ambitions of championships, legacies and the like might sound outlandish to some in isolation. In context, though, there are tangible steps they can take toward those goals.

Both Brown and his big man hope many take place in the paint.

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How the Sixers are trying to help Tobias Harris snap out of it

How the Sixers are trying to help Tobias Harris snap out of it

They say that shooters shoot.

Tobias Harris has been shooting plenty — they just haven’t been going down.

After going 0 for 11 from three on Tuesday night against the Cavs, Harris went 0 for 3 and 3 of 13 overall in the Sixers’ loss to the Magic in Orlando Wednesday (see observations).

The last three Harris hit was in the first quarter of the Sixers’ loss in Phoenix on Nov. 4. He’s missed his last 23 attempts since.

When Harris was acquired from the Clippers last season, he was shooting 43.4 percent from downtown in a healthy sample size.

So what the heck is going on?

“I'm not making shots, I'm not in a rhythm,” Harris said to reporters postgame. “That's it. Obviously, it's easier said than done but I'm going to find my rhythm and once I do those shots are going to be there and they're going to be able to be made. Until then, I'll watch film and see the looks I can get, see the easy ones I can get to, but when they're not going for me, get to the free throw line. 

“In the fourth quarter I thought that was two questionable whistles, a travel and offensive [foul]. So those are two turnovers that kind of affected our fourth quarter. But I just gotta find a rhythm. That's it.”

On top of missing, Harris just looks indecisive. During early parts of the season, he appeared to be passing up open shots. In his pregame availability before Tuesday’s win, Brett Brown made a point to talk about needing Harris to have a scorer’s mentality.

Over the last two games, Harris seems like he doesn’t know when to shoot the basketball. After shooting so poorly from the outside against Cleveland, in Orlando he appeared to just get caught in between while trying to drive to the basket more.

It just seems like Harris is in his own head.

“I think it's just human nature,” Brown said. “He wants to please, he wants to shoot the ball, he wants to score, we need him to score.”

Harris is an easy target for fan ire. GM Elton Brand gave up an awful lot to get him before last year’s trade deadline. During the summer, the Sixers gave Harris a five-year, $180 million deal — the richest in franchise history.

But to his credit, Harris hasn’t made any excuses. He faced the music Wednesday night after not playing well and not feeling well.

Brown mentioned Tuesday that Harris had been dealing with an illness. Harris didn’t want to take the easy way out and attribute that to anything.

“When I get out there and play, I'm playing,” Harris said. “I'm under the weather, yeah, but if I get out there and play, I believe I can go.”

Forget the big contract and disappointing start for a second — Harris is a worker. He’s worked on his game tirelessly to rise to the level he did last season in L.A. During the offseason, he stepped up as a leader that all of his teammates are eager and willing to follow. He’s been depended upon by the young players and veterans alike.

Now, it may be Harris who needs their support.

“Tobias has had great looks and he's a great player, great shooter,” Ben Simmons said. “I mean, at times, everybody gets down when they're not playing their best game. They know that they can do better. But he's one of those guys. He's always positive. And we all believe in him.”

The Sixers’ road trip continues Friday with a date with the Thunder. Oklahoma City is the site of Harris’ finest game as a Sixer. On Feb. 28 of last year, Harris poured in 32 points and led a tough road win without Joel Embiid.

Maybe the memory of that game will spark something in Harris.

If that doesn't work, what else can you really say?

“Keep shooting,” Brown said. “Don't listen to any of you guys. Don't read anything. Keep shooting.”

After all, shooters shoot.

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Sixers Talk podcast: What is going on with Tobias Harris?

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NBC Sports Philadelphia/USA Today Images

Sixers Talk podcast: What is going on with Tobias Harris?

Danny Pommells and Paul Hudrick discuss Tobias Harris' struggles continuing, Ben Simmons' unwillingness to shoot the ball, and why Matisse Thybulle isn't seeing more playing time.

• Another rough night for Harris. What the heck is going on?

• Simmons was strong, but still refuses to shoot the basketball outside the paint.

• Should Thybulle be getting more minutes?

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