Joel Embiid is not immune to inefficiency, although it sometimes feels that way.
He scored zero points in a game against the Raptors last season and shot 32.0 percent from the floor against them this year. He called his 24-point night Sunday vs. the Timberwolves, his first game back after being sidelined for 10 with a left knee bone bruise, a “bad game.”
By and large, though, his success this season has appeared to hinge entirely on whether he makes shots well within his comfort zone, not the efforts of those trying to stop him. He scored 35 points and drew 20 free throws in the Sixers’ 106-96 win Tuesday night over the Celtics.
Embiid missed four foul shots, dropping his free throw percentage to 84.9.
“I’m actually very disappointed.” he said. “That’s two games in a row … a lot of them. I don’t know why but I’ve just got to focus, I guess. They’re called free throws for a reason; it’s free. And I love getting to the free throw line, and I don’t spend any energy doing so, being at the free throw. I actually rest more. I should just take my time and knock them down. At some point in my career, I want to become a 90 percent free throw shooter and just knock them down every single time, because I go there so many times.
“That’s what makes you unguardable, when you can get to your spot and either score or get fouled. Sometimes teams want to get guys to the free throw line but then again, with me, it’s almost like … well, you can’t guard him and you also don’t want to send him to the free throw line.”
There is no player in the NBA who's earned free throws this season nearly as well as Embiid. He’s taken 11.8 per game, almost two more than Giannis Antetokounmpo. Embiid has been fouled on 21.1 percent of his shot attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.
The closest modern comparison to Embiid in this area might be teammate Dwight Howard, who led the NBA in free throw attempts per game four times from the 2007-08 through 2011-12 seasons. Howard never passed the 60 percent threshold from the foul line during that period.
Dirk Nowitzki is the 7-footer Embiid is aspiring to in terms of accuracy. The future Hall of Famer made 87.9 percent of his career free throws and finished over 90 percent in three seasons, though he was never as excellent as Embiid at earning attempts. Perhaps Embiid could try humming David Hasselhoff songs like Nowitzki — or something more up his alley like Rihanna.
In all seriousness, there’s no good historical precedent for his game. It’s often inspired experimentation and desperation. Boston used an eclectic mix of defenders against him — everyone from 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall to 6-foot-6 Semi Ojeleye — searching for something that might work. Embiid wasn’t at his peak, making only 1 of 5 three-point attempts, but he looked comfortably better than anyone the Celtics threw at him.
“It doesn’t matter who’s in front of me,” he said. “As we’ve seen all season, it doesn’t really matter who has been in front of me. I just attack. Every single game, I want to be aggressive; I want to get the other bigs in foul trouble; I want to get to the bonus early. Now, they’re going to stop playing physical. Even if they’re physical, I’m going to use that to my advantage to get to the free throw line.
“Getting to the free throw line is a skill. A lot of people call it flopping, but I’m physical. I’m going to create contact; guys are going to react, they’re going to put their hand out there. If I catch them slipping, I’m going to get to the free throw line. It’s not as easy as people think. It is a skill; not everybody can do it. You’ve got to have a high basketball IQ to be able to pull it off.”
Playoff results will, of course, influence how Embiid is remembered when future generations are scrolling through history and examining numbers. At this point, however, the notion that the defender in his path is irrelevant doesn’t sound like ludicrous boasting — even if it’s likely a bit of an exaggeration.
“It’s a great intensity that he’s carried through the year,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “Walking out, he turned to me and said, ‘I’m back.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I noticed.’ He was not happy after the first game coming back. He expects so much. You miss three-plus weeks, you’re not going to be that good in the first showing. I thought sitting him the other night allowed him to get some more work in, and then playing tonight was big for him.”