76ers

How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

The Sixers, through 22 games, have run the fewest pick-and-rolls in the NBA, and at the worst efficiency

Joel Embiid is in the bottom top 10 percent of the league in efficiency as a roll man. 

None of those stats are encouraging at first glance.

That said, are there any positive signs for Embiid’s progress as a screener and a roller? And how can he get better?

Rolling isn’t always the right option

While Brett Brown said after practice Wednesday that he wants Embiid “screening and rolling more than popping,” rolling isn’t always the right option for the All-Star center.

Because Ben Simmons frequently stations himself in the “dunker spot,” Embiid often needs to float out behind the three-point line for the Sixers to maintain proper spacing.

When opposing big men drop on the pick-and-roll, there’s typically not much to be gained by Embiid rolling.

Embiid pops on the play below against the Raptors, and it’s a reasonable move with Marc Gasol dropping into the paint on Josh Richardson’s drive. Ultimately, the bigger issue is he settles for a mid-range jumper instead of either taking an open three or putting pressure on Gasol to guard a drive to the rim. 

A game-winning variation  

Before Richardson’s hamstring injury, the Sixers were incorporating the action above more into their offense. It’s a basic look — Richardson rubs off a screen to the top of the key, then Embiid steps up to give him a ball screen. 

Embiid’s game-winning dunk on Nov. 12 vs. the Cavs came from a smart variation. After Embiid’s roll to the rim, he set a strong down screen for Tobias Harris, flowing into a perfectly executed high-low.

On most of the occasions Embiid rolls to the rim and doesn’t receive the ball initially, a deep post-up is the next best option. Instead of finding Embiid on the high-low Nov. 15 in Oklahoma City, Al Horford swung the ball to Harris and created a good angle for a post catch. Embiid will score or get fouled in these positions more often than not. 

Getting snug

The “snug pick-and-roll” is, in theory, a way to allow Embiid and Simmons to both be near the rim at the same time without the only result being claustrophobic spacing. 

Embiid set a hard screen on RJ Barrett, forced the desired switch and got an and-one Nov. 29 against the Knicks. 

“We've been trying to do that bit by bit over the years,” Brown told reporters. “I think that you have a deep pick-and-roll with those two, a lot of times they do switch. I thought Ben did a good job of finding that and if they don't switch you got Ben going downhill, and we're trying to just continue to work on his finishing. And it is a look that I think, especially in crunch-time environments, interests me a lot.” 

The obvious problem with the snug pick-and-roll is there’s minimal space for anything to develop. Simmons has little margin for error with his first read. 

Though Embiid eventually had the switch the Sixers wanted against the 6-foot-5 Malcolm Brogdon on the play above, Simmons had already committed to a righty jump hook on Myles Turner and didn’t have room to change his mind. 

Developing the tricks of the trade 

Embiid’s value as a roller increases against teams that aggressively hedge the pick-and-roll.

He didn’t even roll very far on this play from Nov. 8 in Denver — just a couple of feet after screening for Richardson — but the scheme the Nuggets were using meant Will Barton had to tag Embiid before flying out to Furkan Korkmaz. Barton couldn’t recover in time.

Embiid’s chemistry with his new teammates is predictably not yet at an advanced stage. Richardson has a tendency to snake back in the opposite direction of his initial drive, and Embiid still seems to be figuring that out. 

They were on different wavelengths here. 

Since Embiid draws so much respect from opposing defenses, many pick-and-roll actions involving him are going to be inelegant. Especially late in games, teams often know what’s coming and load up to stop it.

He can still be helpful in those situations by focusing on doing the simple things. The technique isn’t textbook on this play, but his screen on Donovan Mitchell gets the job done. 

One of the next steps in Embiid’s evolution as a screener and roller will be applying a few of the dark arts that are prevalent across the NBA, whether it’s stealthily using his upper body like Horford or giving the ball handler space to drive by sealing his man in the lane.

He did the latter well vs. Larry Nance Jr. and the Cavs. 

As a 7-foot, 280-pound player with diverse offensive skills, Embiid is a threat as a roller, at least on paper.

It often won’t be as easy for him as just rolling with purpose to the rim and being rewarded with dunks, but he’s shown he has the ability to help himself and his teammates get good looks. 

For Embiid, it’s clearly important to work on dealing with double teams, refining his post game, limiting turnovers and hitting open three-point shots at a decent rate. 

But the 25-year-old big man also has plenty of room to improve as a screener and roller. 



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LeBron James is on the verge of history; Sixers don't care

LeBron James is on the verge of history; Sixers don't care

The Sixers welcome LeBron James to the Wells Fargo Center as the King is looking to make history.

They’ll be shorthanded as Joel Embiid will miss his ninth straight game and Josh Richardson will sit with a left hamstring strain.

Here are three storylines to watch:

LeBron on the verge of history

With 18 points Saturday, James will pass not-quite-Philadelphia native Kobe Bryant for third place on the all-time scoring list.

After practice Friday, the Sixers were peppered with questions about James getting to that mark in their building. 

Their overriding response: They don’t care.

“It’s not on my mind,” Brett Brown said. “I think he’s class, and he’s a champion, and he’s incredibly important to our league. To feel at all the need to come in and if he scores whatever number you just said against Philadelphia ... I don’t care. I want to beat the Lakers and it doesn’t enter my mind, that side of the equation of defending him or the Lakers.”

Veteran Al Horford, who’s had plenty of battles with James in his career, was even more indifferent. 

“I don't care about [it],” Horford said. “Obviously, we want to win the game. That's all I care about. He's got a great body of work, career for him when he accomplishes that feat, but I don't care about that.”

The Sixers are dealing with injuries and are sixth in the East. They have much bigger things to worry about.

How do you slow LeBron down?

If the Sixers want to win the game, they’ll have to at least slow James down. Not having two of their best defensive players in Embiid and Richardson makes that task even more difficult.

When it comes to LeBron, there is no one defender that can get the job done. It has to be a collective effort.

“You’ve got a few choices — you can either take a charge and take a few years off your career, or you can wrap him up and make him go shoot free throws,” Brown said. “The unlikely instance where you’re going to go block a shot or steal the ball, I doubt it. And so your options are minimal when you’re on an island. They increase when you can actually show a crowd. And therefore you need a team — it’s a team thing that we’re talking about. Otherwise, you can’t. I don’t think you can.”

Brown wouldn’t reveal who’d get the first opportunity to guard James, but did hint that impressive rookie Matisse Thybulle could get a look.

Brown has been hesitant to put Ben Simmons on the opposing team’s best offensive player because of the big minutes the point guard plays. Tonight may be an exception. Simmons is having a Defensive Player of the Year caliber season and is one of the few players in the league that can match James’ physical prowess. It’d be a big test for Simmons and fun matchup to watch.

Who will step up?

With Embiid and Richardson out, the Sixers are losing a combined 38.4 points per game. For a team that’s had its struggles offensively this season, it’s less than ideal.

So where do the Sixers go for answers?

One player that’s stepped up in a big way recently is Furkam Korkmaz. The Turkish wing, who seems to be in line to start Saturday, is shooting 50 percent from three on 7.6 attempts over his last five games. He’s averaging 16.6 points during that span.

“I think during the season we’ve had a lot of challenges like this,” Korkmaz said. “It’s a long season, anybody can get injured. I hope that’s not going to happen, but when someone is out you need to play more for each other. I think we’re going to figure it out. I don’t know who’s going to lead it … but I think the most important thing is to stay together. And like I said, until now we’ve had a lot of challenges like this, so we’re going to figure it out.”

When Richardson went down just four minutes into Wednesday’s loss in Toronto, Brown turned to second-year guard Shake Milton. Milton played his most minutes since last season’s season finale.

While he spent much of last season in the G League with his two-way deal, he improved his ball handling and in running the pick-and-roll. While his shot hasn't translated consistently on the NBA level, it’s part of what made him so attractive out of SMU.

The one thing the 2018 second-round pick does have is the confidence of his coaches and teammates.

“Offensively, I'm not worried about him,” Horford said. “He can really, really shoot the ball and he'll have his looks, his opportunities and I'm confident in him.”

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NBA trade rumors: Davis Bertans reportedly might not be available

NBA trade rumors: Davis Bertans reportedly might not be available

“The Latvian Laser” might not be for sale.

According to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, the Wizards haven’t been listening to offers for sharpshooter Davis Bertans. 

“Inquiries to Washington have gone nowhere; several executives tell SI.com that the Wizards wouldn’t even discuss a deal,” Mannix reports. “Some teams, though, are holding out hope Washington will make Bertans available before the trade deadline."

NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor and Mannix have all reported that the Sixers have interest in Bertans, who’s shot 42.6 percent from three on 8.7 attempts per game. That’s the best percentage in the league among players who have attempted at least eight threes per contest. 

Hughes reported on Jan. 6 that the Wizards were “fielding calls” for Bertans despite general manager Tommy Sheppard saying the team had “every intention of retaining” the forward in free agency. The Celtics, Lakers, Hawks and Nuggets are also suitors for Bertans, according to Hughes.

Bertans is making $7 million this season but looks set to earn substantially more when he becomes a free agent. The Wizards hold Bertans’ Bird Rights after landing him in a trade this summer, which means they could go over the salary cap to re-sign him.

The trade deadline isn’t until Feb. 6, so it’s certainly possible that the Wizards will be open for business when it really matters. It seems that it would make sense to at least consider offers. 

Regardless, Bertans is an attractive player for the Sixers, and for contending teams in general who want an elite shooter. 

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