Earlier this week, Tim Bontemps of ESPN published the results of a straw poll he conducted to gauge the status of the MVP race as we near the halfway point of the season. The 100 media members involved had LeBron James by a pretty wide margin, but in second place was a player who’s arguably had a better, more impactful season: Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid.
It’s still too early to really dive into the MVP race and debate the merits of the various leading candidates, but it is worth taking a closer look at Embiid, who is putting together the best season of his young career. Nearly two months into the 2020-21 campaign, Embiid is averaging 29.1 points, 11 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game, while shooting 54.7 percent from the field.
His scoring and efficiency are at career-high levels, and the impact he has on the Sixers’ success could not be more obvious when you watch and look at the numbers. Philly is 17-3 when Embiid plays this season, and just 1-4 in the five games he’s missed. In his 640 minutes on the court, the Sixers have a 117.5 offensive rating, and in his 565 minutes on the bench they have a 102.6 offensive rating. That’s the difference between second and last in the league. They are, in essence, two completely different teams with and without Embiid.
The big man has been a main driver of the team’s success ever since he was healthy enough to play on a consistent basis, but this season he’s raised the bar. How, though, you might be wondering. Well, one of the most interesting and noticeable trends with Embiid is that he’s turned himself into the best mid-range shooter in the league.
Not good, not great, the best. He’s making a somewhat absurd 56.8 percent of his 4.8 mid-range attempts per game. Of the 21 players averaging at least four such shots, only six others are shooting 50 percent or above, and none have been as efficient as Embiid.
In fact, what Embiid is doing this season is historic. The zone-based shooting data on the NBA’s stats site only goes back until 1997, but in those 20-plus years you’ll find only one player who took at least four mid-rangers per game and made a higher percentage than Embiid is making this season: Stephen Curry in 2012. That’s right, literally the greatest shooter who’s ever lived.
What’s maybe most interesting, however, is that there wasn’t any trend here that suggested this would be coming. Embiid completely bypassed any sort of gradual improvement and went from average to historic in one single leap.
(Note: His abbreviated rookie season is not included in this chart.)
That, of course, opens up the possibility that this is an extended hot streak. But while we’ll have to monitor this trend to see if it continues, especially considering there’s been either no fans or limited crowds during this strange COVID-19 season, we can’t discount what Embiid’s been doing.
When you watch Embiid operate, what stands out immediately is how in control and deliberate he’s been this season. Watching him jab step and pump fake until he has the defense right where he wants them is like watching an artist paint his masterpiece. The movements might seem strange at first or in isolation, but as a whole they’re beautiful. Even the way his right leg kicks out gently as he fades adds to the artistic flair.
Now, all of this isn’t to say that Embiid has become one of the best players in the league solely because he’s shooting lights out from the mid-range. He’s still a force around the rim, gets to the free throw line more often than anyone else in the league and makes life much easier for the rest of his teammates by attracting so much attention. And that’s not even getting into his impact on the defensive end.
But when you’re doing something few players have ever done before, it’s worth digging into the specifics, especially when it seemingly comes out of nowhere. The big question now, is whether Embiid can keep this mid-range dominance up.