By Bryan Toporek
To those who planned on charting a competitive Rookie of the Year race throughout the 2016-17 NBA season, Joel Hans Embiid had other ideas.
Much like Stephen Curry ran away with the Most Valuable Player award last season, the Philadelphia 76ers rookie big man has annihilated any and all would-be Rookie of the Year challengers through the first third of the season. So long as he stays healthy throughout the year—no sure thing, given his history of back and foot injuries—it’s damn near impossible to imagine any of his rookie compatriots narrowing the gap and making Rookie of the Year into a genuine race again.
When discussing Embiid’s dominance over the field, solely comparing him to his rookie counterparts isn’t sufficient. He holds convincing gaps over all fellow first-year players in points (17.9), rebounds (7.4), blocks (2.4) and free throws (4.5) per game, and perhaps most impressively, he ranks fourth in made three-pointers (1.2), trailing only Denver’s Jamal Murray, New Orleans’ Buddy Hield and his fellow teammate, Dario Saric.
Reminder: Embiid stands at roughly 7’2″ and 275 pounds.
Seeing how the Cameroonian big man is lapping the field against current rookies, historical perspective is needed to emphasize Embiid’s dominance to date. Since the NBA began tracking blocks in the 1973-74 season, only nine players in league history averaged at least 17 points, seven rebounds and two blocks per game as a rookie. Those nine combined for two made three-pointers on 45 attempts.
In just 19 games, while playing under stringent minute restrictions, Embiid has 23 made triples on 55 attempts. Unicorn, indeed.
Lest you think Embiid is stat-stuffing on an otherwise dismal 76ers squad, his on-off splits should quash that concern. With Embiid on the court, Philadelphia allows just 100.4 points per 100 possessions, which would rank second only the Memphis Grizzlies when extrapolated league-wide. When he’s off the court, the 76ers hemorrhage 108.0 per 100, the seventh-worst mark across the NBA. Philly’s offensive rating doesn’t experience nearly as radical of a spike when he’s playing versus when he’s sitting, but it is marginally better with him on the court.
It also hasn’t taken long for Embiid to emerge as one of the league’s most fearsome rim protectors. Among players who are facing at least five shot attempts per game at the rim, the 22-year-old ranks fifth league-wide in terms of defensive field-goal percentage (42.1 percent), trailing only Kristaps Porzingis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gobert and Roy Hibbert. Whereas the opponents he defends typically shoot 60.8 percent from within six feet of the basket, when matched up against Embiid, they’re hitting only 43.2 percent of those shots. He’s also 16th league-wide in terms of contested shots per game (12.0), directly ahead of DeMarcus Cousins, Marcin Gortat and Steven Adams.
Derek Bodner of Philadelphia magazine recently detailed Embiid’s enormous defensive impact from the 76ers’ 99-88 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Dec. 8:
Just in that game against New Orleans, Embiid showed the ability to control the glass defensively, rotate from the weakside to meet, and best, Anthony Davis at the rim, switch onto Buddy Hield and force an airball, trap Langston Galloway 30 feet from the basket, and also switch on to Galloway later in the game to block a three-point attempt. It’s a combination of physical skills and mental wherewithal that you don’t frequently find in a 22-year-old, 7-foot-2 center.
This all from a player who missed the first two years of his professional career to rehab from back-to-back foot surgeries, a player who only began playing competitive basketball at the age of 16. Compared to competitors who spent most of their childhood running the AAU circuit, Embiid’s experience with the game is still in the nascent stage.
That should terrify players and front-office executives of 29 other teams.
In mid-September, head coach Brett Brown said about Embiid, “He needs to be the crown jewel, the centerpiece to our defense.” Less than a month later, Brown expanded upon that, telling reporters, “I think that he is going to be the focal point both offensively and defensively.” A seasoned, decade-long veteran of the San Antonio Spurs’ system, Brown added, “You see him and he just has ‘it.’ Years ago, you saw it with [Tim] Duncan. I see it with him in regards to a real target offensively and a real sort of centerpiece defensively.”
Through the first two months of his career, Embiid has surpassed even the wildest expectations on that front. He passes both the eye test and analytics-based deep dives with flying colors. The Ringer’s Bill Simmons hypothesized by 2022, Embiid could average 26.2 points, 14.9 rebounds, 4.1 blocks and 6.2 three-point attempts per game… and it doesn’t even sound that ridiculous.
For the anti-analytics crowd who believes advanced statistics to be the realm of Dungeons & Dragons-playing nerds, Embiid also has narrative working in his favor for the Rookie of the Year race. One year ago, he was recovering from his second season-ending foot surgery and dealing with the fallout of a damning story from The Cauldron which suggested Embiid’s attitude issues were threatening to undermine his NBA career before it ever got started. The writer of said story, Hoops Critic’s Brian Geltzeiler, reported, “The simple task of getting Embiid to consistently wear his walking boot was a challenge for the franchise, and multiple sources suggested that some people in Philadelphia’s front office wonder whether a second surgery would have been necessary if Embiid had worn the boot as much as he was told to.”
One year later, those concerns are but a distant memory. Embiid remains on a minutes restriction but is otherwise showing no ill effects of his long layoff. His freakish two-way impact has cemented him as a cornerstone of the 76ers franchise moving forward, health permitting. For him to have overcome all of the challenges he confronted since being drafted in June 2014—from the back-to-back major foot injuries and the frustration of not being able to play for two seasons to the death of his brother in Camerooon—seeing Embiid dominate is one of the best feel-good stories of the 2016-17 season.
The race for second place behind Embiid for Rookie of the Year remains wide open—Saric, Murray, Brandon Ingram and Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon have all shown promising flashes intermixed with typical rookie growing pains—but they’re all looking across a Grand Canyon-esque chasm separating them from Embiid. An injury is the only thing that can prevent the Kansas product from claiming that trophy—the first of what Philadelphia fans hope will be many over the course of his NBA career.