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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