76ers

Joel Embiid ranks first in NBA in 3-point percentage

Joel Embiid ranks first in NBA in 3-point percentage

It’s no secret Joel Embiid can shoot threes. Brett Brown has said the Sixers do not plan to utilize Embiid as a predominantly long-range shooter. Still, the 7-foot-2 center is leading the NBA in just that.

Embiid ranks first in the league in three-point shooting (66.7 percent) with six of nine made. He has a large margin over the next most efficient shooter, Andrew Wiggins (54.5 percent). James Harden has made the most treys in the league with 22 of 54 attempts.

“If they leave me open, I’m going to shoot it,” Embiid said.

On Monday before playing the Jazz, Embiid said he planned to attack the basket more than taking jumpers. He did not attempt a trey, but it wasn’t for lack of intention.

“They weren’t giving me those looks,” Embiid said after the Sixers 109-84 loss (see story). “Every time I was open at the top of the key, they were closing out.”

It is common to see Embiid working on three-point shots after practice. He runs through drills with Robert Covington and puts in extra time with coaches. The Sixers and Embiid are working to find a middle ground between inside and outside shooting.

“He has an unusual skill as a five-man that we have to use from time to time,” Brown said. “I still am always with Jo on, back to the basket, drop step, drop step, dunk ... free throws, get fouled. That balance of what he can do is the holy grail.”

Embiid’s long-range abilities create lineup options for Brown. While he is not ready to play Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together because of minute restrictions, Brown sees how Embiid can open up shots for his fellow big.

“Joel affords Jahlil to have space when he can stretch the floor like that,” Brown said.

Brown saw early into his coaching the Sixers that Embiid could knock down three-point shots. Now that Embiid is healthy, the Sixers are finding out how they can maximize his versatility.

“We want to use it,” Brown said. “I just feel like it’s one other layer to what we’re all seeing to be pretty significant ways that Joel can score.”

Alec Burks stands out to Brett Brown in Sixers' bench competition with performance vs. Nets

Alec Burks stands out to Brett Brown in Sixers' bench competition with performance vs. Nets

The 12-44 Golden State Warriors have not been the most compelling viewing this season for an East Coast audience. 

Alec Burks, after scoring 19 points Thursday night in the Sixers’ 112-104 overtime win over the Nets, seemed to acknowledge that reality. 

“Just playing my game, man,” he said. “I know I played on the West Coast. I don’t know if y’all watch the West Coast, but that’s how I play. It’s just playing my game, just trying to feel it out, because it’s only my second game — I’ve only been here a couple days. Hopefully it will get better and better as the season goes on.”

Before the Sixers acquired him and Glenn Robinson III from Golden State, Burks had been averaging a career-best 15.8 points per game. His offensive contributions were timely against Brooklyn as he scored every one of his points after the Nets took a 50-30 lead. 

Brett Brown had said pregame that he wants to have a nine-man playoff rotation but that he doesn’t yet know every one of its members. 

“I think there’s a period of time, especially when you’re talking about the last two, say, spots, where it has to be competitive, and it will be,” he said.

After a bizarre game in which the Nets had a 46-10 run and the Sixers made a season-low 4 three-pointers on 22 attempts while shooting 32 of 35 at the foul line, it would have been fair for Brown to say he couldn’t pass much judgement on that competition. Instead, he identified Burks as a standout, especially in the context of the Sixers’ playing without Ben Simmons (lower back tightness) and searching for solutions at backup point guard.

We’d all have to walk out of here being pretty impressed with Alec Burks,” he said. “He provided a scoring punch. He really was a dynamic scorer. And I think the more I’m seeing him, his ability to pass out of a pick-and-roll is elite. … We’re always wondering what’s going to go on with the backup point guard when [Simmons] is healthy, and I tried [Furkan Korkmaz] a little bit there, I tried [Josh Richardson] a little bit there, Shake [Milton] came out of left field in the second half because I wasn’t entirely thrilled with how I was rotating the group and what I was seeing. 

“And so you’re wondering, might Alec have something to do with being a primary ball carrier, because he’s a really good pick-and-roll player and passer? He stood out tonight. The other guys I thought were solid, but as far as standing out, he did to me.

With the Warriors, Burks was above league average efficiency on pick-and-rolls, isolations and dribble handoffs this season, per NBA.com/Stats. He was well suited for ball handling responsibilities with the Sixers on paper, and Thursday was the first extended look at those skills on the court. Burks had sat out the Sixers’ Feb. 9 game vs. the Bulls as he adjusted to a new time zone, city and team, and he’d only played 14 minutes against the Clippers in the Sixers’ final pre-All-Star break game, scoring two points.

Brown tossed out a bunch of lineup combinations, looking for a group that could bring order to a chaotic game. Though Burks air balled an open three with 1:07 left that would have given the Sixers the lead, he was a clear inclusion for Brown in overtime. He scored five of the Sixers’ nine points in the extra session. 

“He was big for us,” Tobias Harris said. “He gives us another guy that can handle the ball and create his own shot. He has a really good mid-range jumper, he’s got great speed going downhill. He was able to make some huge plays for us, especially in the fourth quarter. We just fed off his energy tonight, and it was good to see him get going. … I think he’s going to be great for us.”

Outside of Burks, it likely wouldn’t make sense to take much away from the play of the Sixers’ bench players. Simmons was out, Raul Neto started and Brown was constantly grasping for someone or something that could have a positive impact.

Burks emerged. 

“Since we got him, I felt like that was another guy that could create his own shot — just come off the screen and pull up behind the three-point line,” Joel Embiid said after his 39-point, 16-rebound night. “And he’s not afraid to take that shot. We need that. We haven’t really had that the last couple years, so it’s a good sight to see. A great job by [general manager Elton Brand] for making it happen.”

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A year after post-All-Star injury problem, Joel Embiid is (mostly) healthy, focused on big goals

A year after post-All-Star injury problem, Joel Embiid is (mostly) healthy, focused on big goals

Last season, Joel Embiid returned from the All-Star Game unhealthy, bothered by a left knee injury that would sideline him for eight straight games and jeopardize his status throughout the playoffs.

Thursday night, he saved the Sixers from what would have been a bad defeat to the Brooklyn Nets, scoring a season-high 39 points and snatching 16 rebounds in a 112-104 overtime win at Wells Fargo Center (see observations). 

He did, however, have a cold. (His postgame coughing had given a reporter a clue.)

Embiid didn’t have a splint on his left hand, though, which he thought “helped a lot” in converting 18 of 19 free throws, including four in the final 35.9 seconds of regulation. In the previous eight games, he’d shot 69.9 percent at the foul line. He dove on the floor, sprinted down it and looked like a player invigorated by the prospect of the home stretch. 

“Like I’ve been saying, I’m getting back to myself,” he said. “I’m telling my teammates, ‘Just get me the ball.’ … But that’s the mindset I’ve got to have. I want my teammates to know that I’m going to be there, especially in those type of situations.”

To call Thursday’s contest the ultimate game of runs would not be hyperbole. The Sixers claimed an early 20-4 lead, followed by a 46-10 stretch by Brooklyn. Because of a 12-2 spurt to finish the first half, the Sixers stayed in the game. It was a weird, unpredictable game ultimately decided by one dominant player.

“The All-Star Game is just proving that I’m here, I belong, and being the best player in the world,” Embiid said. "I just intend to keep coming out every single night, just play hard and try to get wins. Go hard and try to win a championship.”

Though there were areas to nitpick — five turnovers, for instance — Embiid generally did and said all the right things.

He even spun a question about the team’s free throw shooting into an opportunity to praise fellow All-Star Ben Simmons, who missed the game with lower back soreness. Simmons had made 69.6 percent of his free throws on seven attempts per game in the 16 games before the All-Star break, and Embiid saw an opening to recognize that recent improvement. 

“The thing I’m so happy about is Ben,” he said. “He’s been shooting the lights out at the free throw line. It shows his work ethic. He’s been working really hard, and it’s showing. He’s gotta keep doing that — keep working and keep improving — and I think that’s a big part of it.”

Embiid has often raised the issue of his personal disposition this year, commenting at length on topics like maturity, authenticity and his desire to have fun.

He was certainly not in a brooding mood late Thursday night. 

Having fun means a lot of things,” he said. “This year I have not been smiling as much as previous years. That doesn’t mean that I’m not having fun or anything is not going well. It’s just about just playing basketball the right way. First part of the season I was trying to make sure I was comfortable, kind of took a step back. But if we’re going to go somewhere, I’ve gotta be one of the guys. And it starts on defense — just playing hard, running the floor, doing the little things.

That apparent level of clarity and, more importantly, the level of Embiid’s play vs. Brooklyn, are obvious positives. 

Still, he’s started three straight All-Star Games. It’s been clear for a while that he’s one of the top players in the sport. One excellent, healthy game is worth acknowledging, without a doubt. But, if things go according to Embiid and the Sixers’ plan, it shouldn’t be the sort of thing that merits much consideration when one looks back at the season. 

“I expect greatness from him,” Tobias Harris said. “I think we all do as a team.”

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