76ers

Open Joel Embiid thinks Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal were right, talks about everything he's juggling

Open Joel Embiid thinks Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal were right, talks about everything he's juggling

At times early in this season, Joel Embiid has sounded like he's been grappling with questions larger than how to counter an opponent's scheme. He wondered aloud after the Sixers' win over the Nuggets on Tuesday night whether his efforts to be more mature were worth it

Thursday in Boston, he gave perhaps the clearest picture yet of how he's juggling aggressive double teams, working with his new teammates, the priority on being healthy for the playoffs and many other factors.

He agreed with Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal's criticisms about him not pushing himself hard enough to be great. 

“That’s what they do," Embiid told reporters. "Maybe they’re right. Maybe. I do think they are right. I do need to be more aggressive. Look to impose myself. Look to dominate. I think the whole season I haven’t done that and you can see the ways it’s affecting my efficiency and my stats. I guess I need to go back to having fun and just dominate. I get what they are saying. I think they are right and I gotta make a change.”

Embiid's offensive numbers are down across the board, although part of that can be attributed to the fact that he's averaging 3.3 fewer minutes per game than he did last season. The two-time All-Star is averaging 22.0 points per game, compared to 27.5 in the 2018-19 season, and both his field goal percentage and free throw attempts have dropped. He also missed five of the Sixers' first 25 games as a result of injuries, his suspension for fighting with the Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns on Oct. 30, and load management.

To Embiid, those aren't valid excuses.

I can’t pick and choose whenever I want to dominate. It has to be a nightly thing. Then again, I’ve also got to take care of my body, so I’m still trying to find that balance between kind of putting my body at risk during the regular season and when I have the goal to get to the playoffs healthy. Still trying to find that balance and like I said, playing with my teammates, I’m still trying to learn. It’s been a big adjustment for me this year. I’m still trying to get a balance and get a feel for everything, and I’m sure by the end of the regular season we are going to be ready for the playoffs.

Defensively, Embiid has still been highly valuable. His 95.3 defensive rating is best in the NBA among players who have played at least 25 minutes per game. He's posting up more than any player in the league, too, and doing so efficiently, averaging 1.08 points per post-up possession. However, he's still adjusting to the frequency and aggression of the double teams he's faced.

"I’ve said earlier that I want to get to the playoffs healthy," he said. "The last two years I have not been healthy. Two years ago it was my face, and last year it was my knee and I was sick, so this year I kind of told myself that I want to get there healthy. We’ve got a new group and I’m still trying to get used to it. It’s completely different, the way I’m being guarded this year, just every time I touch the ball, heavy double and triple teams, just trying to navigate through it and be a basketball player, make the right plays.

"If I get double teamed, my teammates know I’m going to pass it. It's a balance between trying to make something happen for the team and making the right plays."

The expectations for Embiid and the Sixers were very high entering this season. Even after watching the Sixers move to 18-7 and 13-0 at Wells Fargo Center, Barkley, who picked the team as his champion before the season, said they "ain't got not chance" at winning the title.

Embiid might not hear all of it, but he understands the gist of those expectations and the essence of the criticisms. He talked Tuesday about not wanting to be a distraction, which he seemed to think might, at times, curb his fun-loving side.

Thursday, he referenced O'Neal's comments about his scoring numbers not being enough.

"Yes, that’s the high standard that I set," he said. "It just feels like if I don’t score 35 points or 40 points, it feels like a down game — even when I have 30, so it’s just the way it is. I signed up for it. I want to be great. I put the work in to be at this level and to be better. I still feel like I have a lot of potential and people feel the same way. So, it’s only right for people to expect me to, like Shaq and Charles said, to drop 35 a night.

"So, like I said, I’m not a selfish player, I’ll take whatever the defense gives me. If they are going to double team me all night, and I only got to take two shots I will do that, too. I’ve got to play within the concept of the game and follow whatever the team wants me to do. I’ve been following it and if it takes me taking five shots a game, I guess I’ve got to do it."

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2020 NBA free agency: 6 bigs the Sixers could target this offseason

2020 NBA free agency: 6 bigs the Sixers could target this offseason

Another big man may not be high on the priority list for the Sixers this offseason, but a lot can change between when/if the season resumes and when next season starts.

Will the Sixers try to move Al Horford’s contract? Does the team trust Norvel Pelle to take on a bigger role next season? Would Kyle O’Quinn consider returning after he reportedly asked to be waived?

Here are six bigs that could fit the Sixers in free agency depending on how everything shakes out.

Marc Gasol

Gasol is most known around these parts for being a thorn in Joel Embiid’s side. A former Defensive Player of the Year, Gasol is big, smart and physical — a combination that has caused Embiid serious difficulty. He’s not the offensive player he was in his prime, but he can still shoot it (40.2 percent from three), pass it (3.4 assists) and is an excellent screen setter.

At 35, it will be interesting see what kind of offers Gasol will get. The only scenario in which the Sixers would likely be able to make it work is if they successfully trade Horford and his massive contract. Is it worth taking a shot on Gasol with the team’s mid-level exception? With the Sixers having other pressing needs, it’s a tough call. Gasol would make an excellent Embiid backup and mentor.

Aron Baynes

Baynes had a solid run in Boston and was having a strong season in Monty Williams’ system in Phoenix. The Sixers were the first team to experience Baynes’ evolution as a three-point shooter in the 2018 playoffs. He was hitting 35 percent on over four attempts a game before the 2019-20 season was suspended. He also has proven to be a solid post defender and screen setter.

This is going to be all about what Baynes’ preferences are. If he wants to get paid like a starting center, the Sixers aren’t the team for him. If he’s willing to accept a backup role to Embiid on a lesser deal, there’s a possibility. It seems more likely Baynes could find a better situation, but he’d be a solid option for the Sixers if he can’t.

Alex Len

Len hasn’t lived up to the status of being the fifth overall pick, but he’s become a solid rotational NBA big. His career numbers per 36 minutes are solid: 14.6 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.8 blocks. Though he struggled to hit threes this season, he’s had some success for a big (33 percent for his career).

Still just 26, there could be a team that views Len as having a higher ceiling. Being so young, he also could value playing time and money over being a reserve on a contender. Like Baynes, if he can’t find a better situation, the Sixers could do worse in a backup center.

Noah Vonleh

Vonleh is another top-10 pick that hasn’t quite panned out but has shown he can be a serviceable NBA player. After a strong campaign for the Knicks in 2018-19, Vonleh had a tough year for the Timberwolves. He was eventually shipped to the Nuggets in that crazy four-team deal ahead of the trade deadline.

Signing Vonleh would be similar to when the Sixers signed O’Quinn this past offseason. He won’t have a definitive role but could be a nice insurance policy if there are injuries and Pelle struggles. Though he’s only 24, the price shouldn’t be high given his struggles in Minnesota this season.

Dario Saric

If you’re reading this, you should know all about this guy. Saric hasn’t been the same player since he was dealt to the Timberwolves in the Jimmy Butler trade. Still, he’s played a solid role for Williams in Phoenix. Saric has flashed the combination of skill and grit he did here, but his lack of athleticism has limited him.

Saric is a true four. Though you could get away with using Saric as a small-ball five in certain lineups, you wouldn’t want him back there for an extended period of time with a true NBA center. Saric did love his time here and played the best basketball of his NBA career. He's a restricted free agent so the Suns would likely have to rescind his rights for the Sixers to have a chance. If the price is right, you can’t rule out a reunion.

Markieff Morris

The Philly native was having a good year in Detroit before being bought out and signing with the Lakers. He’s struggled with his shot during his eight-game stint in L.A. but was hitting just below 40 percent of his threes with the Pistons. Morris plays with an edge and could bring that physical style and attitude back home.

Morris could be repetitive with Mike Scott already signed for next season. Though Scott struggled this year, he’d come on a bit before the season was suspended and looked more like the player we saw during last year's playoff run.

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Charles Barkley '100 percent sure' NBA will continue season

Charles Barkley '100 percent sure' NBA will continue season

Charles Barkley had a busy weekend cracking jokes at Tom Brady's expense during Sunday's popular charity golf outing with Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, and Phil Mickelson.

Barkley followed up his big Sunday on TV with a guest appearance on The Paul Finebaum Show on ESPN on Monday in which he made a statement about the NBA returning this summer with a rather high assurance level.

"(The NBA is) gonna make a decision in the next week," Barkley said on Monday. "I'm 100% sure we're going to play. I know my friends in Major League Baseball are going to play. I know that the hockey league is going to play. I think the pro football and the college football, they have to sit back and see how it goes for us."

This isn't just some betting hunch that Barkley has, he told Finebaum (via the Score) that it's based on conversations he's had with his bosses.

"I do know this, talking to my bosses at Turner: we're going to play basketball," Barkley said. "It's gonna be in Florida and Vegas, or just Florida."

There does seem to be momentum building towards pro sports returning in the States. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said pro sports teams in his state are allowed to start practicing and competing as long as they follow the proper health protocols.

This would appear to be an early step in sports returning. Now that teams are allowed to start training in New Jersey, it will be up to the leagues themselves to come up with a more concrete plan.

The Sixers and Flyers have practice facilities in New Jersey. Both are a short drive across the river from Philadelphia which could have a differing timeline.

With the return of the NBA season looking more likely, it's no longer clear if all of their players will want to participate. Portland's Dame Lillard said he will not play if the Trailblazers don't have a realistic shot of making the playoffs.