Joel Embiid is in the midst of yet another MVP-caliber season. He is averaging a league-leading 33.4 points per game, dominating the opposition on a nightly basis. The Philadelphia 76ers are currently in third place in the Eastern Conference with a 45-22 record. At the center of the team’s success is Embiid’s multifaceted mid-range game that he uses to pick defenses apart.
Being an overpowering scorer is nothing new for Embiid. Heading into this season, he averaged 26 points per game for his career. However, his play style has recently undergone a transformation. When he came into the league, most of his touches came out of the post. It became a routine thing to see Embiid atop the list of post touches per game, often by a wide margin. In the 2021-22 season, he averaged 7.8 post touches per game while the second-place player averaged 5.2. This season, his post touches per game are down to 4.9, and he is no longer leading the league in that category. Despite the downturn in post touches, he is still one of the most efficient players out of the post. He scores 1.14 points per post touch, ranking in the 87.8 percentile.
Embiid is perhaps even more of a dominant player this season despite receiving less post touches. Instead of having the offense run through an Embiid post up, the Sixers have adjusted to operating more out of the mid-range. Embiid, guided by his trainer Drew Hanlen, focused on improving this aspect of his game last offseason.
“[Head coach Doc Rivers] just told me that I needed to find whatever area on the floor that I was gonna be most comfortable with. Obviously, me and [my trainer] Drew [Hanlen], we studied a lot,” Embiid said after a win in mid-January over the Portland Trail Blazers, via Jackson Frank of Dime Magazine. “So, we just started figuring out, ‘OK, where can I be a better playmaker and where can I be a better scorer without being doubled and without being easy to double?’ And that was at the nail, so we started all of our work visiting those areas.”
The results of Embiid’s evolution this season are easy to see. The majority of his touches now come from the mid-range area of the floor, specifically from both the elbow (where the horizontal free-throw line meets the vertical lane line) and the nail (placed at the center of the free-throw line). After getting 4.8 elbow touches per game last season, he is currently second in the league with 9.4 elbow touches per game. His 6.8 points per game from the elbow are tops in the league. With 15 games still left in the season, he has already blown by his previous career-high for points at the elbow.
Joel Embiid ELBOW points by season • 17-18 – 78• 18-19 – 144• 19-20 – 108• 20-21 – 117• 21-22 – 245• 22-23 (so far) – 369— Thiago (@ThiagoPHL) March 13, 2023
Joel Embiid ELBOW points by season • 17-18 – 78• 18-19 – 144• 19-20 – 108• 20-21 – 117• 21-22 – 245• 22-23 (so far) – 369
Embiid has become a mid-range maestro, capable of punishing defenses in multiple ways. In the win over the Washington Wizards, a ton of his damage came from the mid-range. Half of his 12 made field goals came from that area of the floor.
Playing through his mid-range game gives an added layer of flexibility. Often in the triple threat position off the catch, he has a better view of the floor. He can either take the shot, drive to the basket or survey the floor. This allows him to quickly make the correct read when teams send over double teams. With his mid-range jumper being on the money most nights, he is nearly unstoppable from that position.
A major catalyst for getting Embiid in position for easy touches in the mid-range is the pick-and-roll with James Harden. The pick-and-roll action has been one of the Sixers’ most successful plays this season. Harden, averaging a league-leading 10.8 assists per game, is more than capable of operating out of that action. He has nearly perfected the art of the pocket pass, easily getting the ball to Embiid around the free-throw line. His passes often hit Embiid in stride, and the results from there speak for themselves.
Playing alongside Harden caused Embiid to become more of a pick-and-roll player. He averaged 3.2 pick-and-roll touches per game in the 2020-21 season. That number is now up to a league-leading 6.9 touches per game. The pick-and-roll combination between Embiid and Harden gives opposing defenses numerous nightmares. There is no perfect way to defend it. Most teams attempt to utilize drop coverage against it, although Embiid feasts on those. He is too good of a mid-range shooter to have defenses get away with that coverage.
Opposing defenses can attempt to switch, but that often will not work out well. Both Embiid and Harden excel in isolation. Embiid is in the 62.8 percentile in points per possession while in isolation. Harden is in the 88.5 percentile in isolation. Both of them would tear up any mismatch that usually occurs when teams try to switch on a pick-and-roll. Sending a double team to Harden will not help either. His excellent floor vision and passing ability mostly results in him finding a way to get the ball out, and the double then gives the Sixers a 4-on-3 advantage the remainder of the possession.
If teams try to load up around the free-throw line to prevent the pass, Embiid has proven willing to roll to the basket. In each of the plays from the video below, the opposing center was sucked into defending Harden on the pick-and-roll. Their rotation back is too late. Embiid is either already past them and at the rim or drawing a foul because the big man was drawn out of position.
Opposing defenses are left with a pick your poison situation. The pick-and-roll duo of Embiid and Harden can attack from a variety of different angles, and it is impossible to stop them all. Their pick-and-roll would not work as well as it does if Embiid did not put the work in to become nearly automatic from the mid-range area of the floor. A lot of their success is enabled by the threat presented by leaving Embiid open for a jumper around the elbow or nail.
The Sixers are third in the league in offensive rating (116.8), and they would not be there without Embiid’s exploits. If they are going to make a deep playoff run this postseason, it will be on the back of both Embiid’s mid-range game and the pick-and-roll duo of Embiid and Harden.
All stats, unless otherwise stated, are from NBA.com.