When the Sixers visited Dallas on April 12, Joel Embiid wanted to pay homage to a Mavs icon.
Embiid scored 36 points in a Sixers victory, including a one-legged fadeaway inspired by Dirk Nowitzki.
“He texted me the day after,” Nowitzki said on the Takeoff with John Clark podcast, “and said, ‘I had to show respect to you and shoot it on your silhouette.’ My silhouette is now on the Mavs’ floor, and he said he had to shoot one for me. That made me of course feel really good. I’m honored that he thinks it’s a good shot to have.”
How does Nowitzki assess Embiid’s form on his signature shot?
“It looks pretty good, I’ve got to say,” he said. “He’s so big, but he’s so agile and he’s so athletic and he’s still got the touch. He’s a wonderful player and so much fun to watch. It almost looked better than the real thing, I’ve got to say.”
Embiid cited Nowitzki last month as a player he studied with the goal of becoming better in the middle of the floor. Instead of predictably attacking from the post on most touches, he’s enjoyed being able to survey the court and do damage from different areas in his first season under head coach Doc Rivers.
“It changes everything,” Embiid said on April 16. “When I got hurt and I was coming back to the court, me and my trainer, we started talking about … how to attack teams that double team me, or that come from the baseline, or that directly come as soon as the ball is in the air. And we were trying to find ways to go against it. I have watched Dirk before, but we started watching a lot of Dirk film and just playing at the nail and the moves he was using. It’s hard to double from that nail, because I see the whole court. As soon as someone comes, I see everybody.
“When you’re in the post, it’s kind of hard. People might think they’re open on the opposite side, but there’s a lot of hands that the ball has to get through. Even if the ball gets to them, by the time the ball gets to them it might be too late for them to have a wide-open shot. But it’s hard to double from that nail area.”
Nowitzki, a 14-time All-Star, MVP and NBA champion, already sees Embiid as among the most talented big men ever.
“I feel like he’s got the body of a little smaller (Shaquille O’Neal), but he’s got the shot from the outside,” Nowitzki said. “He’s got the finesse like Hakeem (Olajuwon) a little bit, the footwork. All the best centers that ever played, he’s got to rank up there with all of them for his all-around game — inside, outside, defense. He loves blocking shots. You can tell he gets energized off of it. He’s a force on both ends, so he’s got to rank up there with the best of them.”
As a 7-foot player with a sweet shooting stroke and 87.9 percent career mark from the foul line, Nowitzki was an NBA pioneer. Stretch fours and stretch fives are relatively common these days, though Embiid’s combination of skill, strength and shooting ability is rare.
“He’s obviously a lot bigger,” Nowitzki said. “He’s a lot better on the block. My game was more strictly face-ups. Maybe a little bit on the post-up and shooting over guys. He is so unique in the fact that his skill level is so good that he can go outside, and he’s still got the handles and the crossover.
“But then if they put smaller guys on him, he just takes them right to the block and he can overpower somebody, because he’s so big, so strong. His legs are so big and strong, and his butt is so wide. He’s just a matchup nightmare, because he’s got both worlds. Mine was a little more outside-based. If I took somebody down low, it was more shooting over them — more finesse. But to me, he’s a great combination of power and finesse. On any given night, he can use both. He’s a matchup nightmare, for sure.”
Nowitzki, who retired in 2019 at 40 years old, will no doubt be part of the 2023 Hall of Fame class.
He thinks Embiid is on a path to join him.
“Of course, a force like that … if his health holds up, which of course we all hope, because he’s so much fun to watch,” he said. “If it does, to me that’s a no-brainer. If you look at hopefully a long body of work that he’s going to put in — and he’s already unstoppable. He’ll stay unstoppable for a long time. The health there is the only question, but I think he’ll be great.”