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.
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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