So, how are you supposed to wrap your mind around Joel Embiid?
Let’s say a good place to start is that he’s great at his job.
After five points and four turnovers in an exasperating first half Wednesday night against the Raptors, Embiid sunk a game-winning three-pointer with 0.8 seconds left in overtime. The shot gave him 33 points, put the Sixers on the verge of a first-round series sweep, and provoked a couple of instinctive reactions.
On one hand: “A 7-footer did what?” On the other hand: “Of course he did that.”
It seems Embiid can handle everything you ask of him, and that makes just about anything feel possible for the Sixers.
He acknowledged as much on March 2 when asked a question about the new All-Star duo of himself and James Harden. A reporter raised a comparison to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
“I’m Joel Embiid,” Embiid said in part. “I don’t play the way Shaq did. I’m dominant in other ways. I’m not physically dominant like he was. He was a freaking monster when he played; obviously a Hall of Famer, one of the best ever. But I’m Joel Embiid. I dominate in other ways on the basketball floor as far as doing everything.”
Sometimes you’ve got to pause for a bit to identify who Embiid just looked like, or to pinpoint what specific skill he stole through his summer work with trainer Drew Hanlen. In this category: Reggie Miller catching the ball beyond the arc, on the move, then draining a clutch jumper and taking a spinning, elated leap or two as the enormity of his shot — and the fact that tenths of a second remained on the clock — sunk in. (Unlike Miller, Embiid didn’t need any maneuvers of questionable legality, like the Pacers guard's push on Michael Jordan, to find open space.)
Embiid has joked that he’s “7-foot-2, 600 pounds.” He’s consistently named Jordan, Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki as players he emulates, and not just in the sense of wanting to win championships. The subtleties of the sport fascinate him because he’s somehow, despite not playing basketball until he was a teenager in Cameroon, able to copy Bryant’s turnaround jumpers and Nowitzki’s tricks at the nail. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers has often noted ways in which Embiid reminds him of Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing.
“Not to brag about it, but there’s a lot in my game,” Embiid said in January. “There’s a little bit of everything when it comes to the great players that have come through this game and this league. You can talk about Hakeem, Pat, Kobe, M.J. I watch all those guys — Dirk. I try to pick up little things that they do so well and try to add it to my game. When you talk about skill, obviously Hakeem is probably considered the most skilled player, especially for his size, ever. Just the way he moved on the court, I’ve always tried to put that in my game.
“And then obviously I’ve got a little more ... his post game was unmatched, so I try to add that to my game. And obviously I’ve got a little more in the sense that I can handle the ball, shooting off the dribble, shooting threes. ... I’m sure if he played in this era, he would’ve adapted and added that to his game. That’s how good he was. But I try to take a bunch of parts of each of the greats that have come through the game, and try to add it to my game and bring it all together.”
On Feb. 12, he tried (and succeeded) at replicating a Lob City-era Blake Griffin dunk and at executing a nifty, live-dribble, one-handed pass fake on the fast break. He recorded a 40-point triple-double against the Cavs.
It’s all a matter of taste, but the open-floor skill and bravado were especially impressive. Embiid confirmed the move was inspired by Chris Paul, an all-time great point guard who happens to be a foot shorter than him.
“Oh yeah, for sure," he said. “As you probably know, I watch a lot of guards, especially (Paul), whether it’s that … whatever I did. I did that early in the season, too. That’s a good way to kind of fake the defense. If they react, make plays. If they don’t, find my wide-open teammate. That’s what we’ve been working on.
“I’m a student of the game. I try to take really a lot of things from every player, whether it’s a guard or point guard, or big man or small forward, just to try to add to my game. Me on the fast break, obviously that’s a huge development for me and it’s allowing me to just take my game to another level as far as making plays for teammates — or attacking, too. It’s fun. Just got to keep on doing it.”
Of course, though Embiid enjoys defying this logic, wanting something to happen doesn’t guarantee it will. The 2019 Game 7 loss in Toronto was publicly painful, and it drove him to develop a wider array of counters to the double teams that troubled him that series. He’s had a couple of rough patches and committed 10 turnovers over the last two games, but Embiid hasn’t been short on answers. In addition to his many guard-like tools, snarling tenacity has been a valuable one.
Wednesday night is a single game, a single shot, and a third win of 12 needed for the Sixers’ first Eastern Conference title since a lovable little guy (by the NBA’s standards) won MVP. There’s still a lot to do for Embiid and the Sixers to join Allen Iverson and company. On paper, it’s far from a probable outcome.
But if you’ve watched Embiid’s career and tuned in for Game 3, the question is reasonable: Why can’t a player capable of nearly everything also do that?