76ers fans waited two full seasons before they got to see Joel Embiid play his first official game. Their patience was certainly rewarded by the rookie center, who finished his debut with a line of 20 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks in just 22 minutes in a loss to the Thunder.
It was a terrific performance that ratified the potential the 22-year-old center showcased during preseason. He clearly is a special prospect, someone who can be the focal point of a contender on both ends down the line.
Like with any rookie, however, there is work to do, especially since Embiid hadn’t played a competitive game in two years. The good has outweighed the bad by a significant margin, which is encouraging. But there's still room for improvement.
Embiid is a deadly scorer with advanced moves
First, the good. Embiid has been impressing on offense since preseason, but whether he could hurt elite defensive talent in a game that counted remained to be seen.
On Wednesday, he did just that by getting the best of Steven Adams. Embiid went just 6 of 16 from the floor but got to the line eight times. He also did damage from inside and out, something that not a lot of seven-footers can do.
"He's hard to guard," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said, according to Philly.com's Keith Pompey. "He's herky-jerky. He's got a lot of [Hakeem] Olajuwon in him."
That's not the type of praise that gets tossed around often, but it fits Embiid. The body control and the moves he has at such a young age are hard to find even in veterans. Embiid has the tools to become the focal point of a good NBA offense sooner rather than later.
His biggest weakness on offense is his tunnel vision
There's a downside to his confidence in his own scoring ability: it often leads to tunnel vision. When Embiid gets the ball, it seems like he has already decided to shoot it. He has not logged an assist either in preseason or in his debut. That makes him predictable, despite having such a wide array of weapons to score.
Having his blinders on came back to haunt him late in a close game against the Thunder. He got the ball with 10 seconds to go in the fourth quarter and never really looked to pass, even though he was at the three-point line. He drove and both Adams and Victor Oladipo were there to meet him at the rim. Instead of passing to an open Gerald Henderson in the corner, he tried to go all the way to the rim and was called for a charge.
Embiid doesn't know his teammates yet. He's been out two years and probably is a little too eager to show off his scoring. He's also a rookie, so the game might be moving too fast for him at the moment.
There are explanations for his lack of vision, but he needs to improve in that area to be a truly great offensive player.
Embiid could be a great defensive player if he showed more restraint
It's rare to see someone as big as Embiid display this sort of mobility. A clip from preseason of him staying in front of John Wall, one of the fastest players in the league, went viral for good reason.
He can guard in space on the perimeter but also protect the rim. The Thunder went 7 of 15 on shots within five feet of the basket in which Embiid was the closest defender. That includes two blocked shots, one coming when he flew in as a help defender and one in transition.
He can cover a lot of ground and he has good timing. Those are fantastic tools. The problem is that it might take him a while to learn the nuances of defense to put them to good use consistently and for a full game.
Against the Thunder, Embiid got caught a couple of times trying to crowd or double-team Russell Westbrook, leaving Adams completely open. He also lost track of Enes Kanter, arguably the league's best offensive rebounder, on one play because he was ball-watching instead of boxing out.
The entire 76ers defense is to blame for those first two plays, as there was clearly a mandate to help on Westbrook and no one picked up Adams. But Embiid telegraphed where the help was coming and never recovered. As for the offensive board, Kanter does that to everyone, so it's not a huge issue.
The little things add up, though. The true defensive anchors not only make highlight plays, but also focus on the details. Embiid understandably isn’t there yet.
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The good news for Embiid and 76ers fans is that it’s incredibly hard to teach his strengths. The touch he has on offense and the tools he's displayed on defense are elite. His weaknesses, on the other hand, are fixable with experience.
The 76ers clearly have a special player on their hands. With a little time, some refinement, and (crosses fingers) a clean bill of health, Joel Embiid could become the franchise star they have yearned to land since The Process began.