Joel Embiid, 76ers

By Jesse Blanchard

In the second quarter of his preseason debut, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid caught the ball out on the wing, almost out to the three-point line.

Facing up, the giant center quickly delivered a jab step and shot feint, forcing his defender out of his defensive stance. Driving to his left, Embiid created contact, stepped back off one leg with a Nowitzkian fade, landed on two feet and ran up the court.

Embiid landing safely qualifies his debut as a success in itself, but as has been the case in every moment he’s stepped onto the court, he exceeded even the wildest of expectations.

In his first game action since Jan. 27, Embiid dominated, posting 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists in just 14 minutes of action.

Long thought to be on the verge of extinction, the center position in the NBA has instead evolved, moving from a stationary artillery piece to mobilized, weaponized size and skill. From Marc Gasol to Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic, the best big men in the NBA have the ability to flow from one action to the next seamlessly, keeping up with a sleeker yet more chaotic game.

Embiid doesn’t just flow from one action to the next on both sides of the ball, he transitions from one Hall of Famer’s skill set to another’s, sometimes on the same possession.

The fadeaway on the baseline, for example, blended elements of peak Tim Duncan’s jab step package from his preferred bank shot spot with Nowitzki’s patented fadeaway jumper. That’s adding one Hall of Famer’s signature weapon with another’s delivery system.

On his basket prior to that, Embiid went full Duncan, using the legend’s rip through bank shot to draw the foul and basket.

One moment, Embiid is showing Kevin Garnett’s old double shoulder fake shimmy to a fall away jumper and the next he’s throwing hapless bodies off him like Shaq to grab offensive rebounds. And like Shaq, he’s a foul magnet, getting 18 free throw attempts in 14 minutes(!).  Unlike Shaq, he hit 77.8 percent of them.

Like Gasol or Jokic, there are the pick and pop three-pointers with enough pull out to the top of the key to distort defenses and unlock new passing angles.

And as a defensive anchor, perhaps only Rudy Gobert rates above Embiid’s ability to deter actions before they begin and clean up mistakes once they’ve happened. And the gap between them is probably little more than the years of experience in games Gobert has accumulated sniffing out opponents’ schemes.

Earlier this week, the 76ers signed Joel Embiid to a massive extension. For all Embiid’s injury risks, everything Philadelphia is trying to do is leaning on Embiid’s ability to do everything. From 3-pointers to drop steps to Eurosteps, Embiid has shown the dexterity to do it all with either hand and off either leg, so long as he safely lands on both.

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The Brooklyn Nets’ D’Angelo Russell is Ready to Ignite

D'Angelo Russell, Nets

By George Kondoleon

The best asset a rebuilding team can have is draft picks. Absent that, the Brooklyn Nets used their next best tool—cap space.

By taking on the massive contract of center Timofey Mozgov, the Nets acquired former second overall pick, D’Angelo Russell. And while Russell won’t start this season with the Nets as a flawless prospect, Brooklyn is counting on him to be a star.

And while it might be bold to bestow so much responsibility on a guard with noticeable deficiencies on both sides of the ball in his first two seasons with the Lakers, something feels different for Russell heading into this season.

D’Angelo Russell’s well-rounded offensive game tantalizes as a future star, but whether due to a young, oddly constructed roster, tumultuous relationship with his first NBA coach, Byron Scott—who pandered to Kobe Bryant’s swan song all season—or his own immaturity, Russell’s development stalled.

Brooklyn Nets Head Coach Kenny Atkinson is renowned for his developmental work and ­­the Nets are banking on his understanding of how to maximize Russell’s talent to justify giving D’Angelo greater control of an offense.

And while the Nets were largely overshadowed by Joel Embiid’s preseason debut in Brooklyn’s preseason finale, Russell’s 24-point performance in the losing effort showed glimpses of how he might help this rebuilding team regain its competitiveness.

Russell has always had the confidence to fire at will, launching four three-pointers and hitting half against the 76ers.

With just over eight minutes left in the first, Russell put himself in position for an open three in transition. It seems like a simple play, mostly led by J.J­. Redick’s poor positioning on defense, but Russell smartly leaked out towards the left wing to give himself the most valuable shot.

The second one came in the form of a contested bomb near the end of the first half. He’s always been a willing scorer who can get to the rim. But it’s an intriguing passing ability that made D’Angelo Russell a top prospect in the 2015 NBA Draft and could be what makes or breaks his season.

In the first quarter of the preseason finale, Russell dazzled fans with a beautiful left-handed bounce pass past Robert Covington to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who finished it with a lay-in. That passing ability is what made Brooklyn confident in acquiring him as the cornerstone piece for the franchise moving forward.

The third year for young point guards generally gives us an understood sense of what path a player’s career will take. For Russell, a fresh start away from a star-crazed organization could do wonders for him. The issues will still linger, from the streaky shooting (9-for-20 from the field) and porous defense that soured many on the young guard.

In Brooklyn, he’ll have free reign backed by a stabilizing force, playing next to Jeremy Lin. A complementary coach and low expectations should allow for him to slowly develop, leaving a hope for Russell to meet his potential.

With a talented player meeting an ideal situation, the ingredients are there for a star to ignite in Brooklyn.

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The Hornets’ Malik Monk is a Point Guard

Malik Monk, Hornets

By Dave DuFour

Malik Monk is not the first player to come from Kentucky to the NBA and show he has a lot more to offer than the one skill he advertised. Make no mistakes, Monk was drafted for his scoring ability. He can definitely put the ball in the basket, but this preseason, he’s had an opportunity to show what I have believed about him since the draft.

Malik Monk is a modern NBA point guard.

In his postgame interview following their preseason loss to the Boston Celtics, Hornets Coach Steve Clifford remarked, “He can score. He can score. He can score.”

Need a catch and shoot partner for Kemba Walker in transition?

Need a guy who can come off a hand-off and finish at the basket through traffic?


Monk is definitely multifaceted as a scoring threat. But what I believe will make him special is his playmaking and creation for others. He has demonstrated patience in the pick and roll, choosing his spots to attack wisely.

But he has also flashed a diverse array of passes out of the pick and roll to leverage his gravity to create open looks for teammates.



His plus handle and athleticism, combined with his ELITE scoring ability, should allow Monk to flourish in the NBA. He is a unique rookie who has flashed shot making, shot creation, and personal gravity in the preseason. As the league has evolved, so too has the definition of “point guard.” Malik Monk checks every box for the position.

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