NBA: Utah Jazz at Philadelphia 76ers
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid is everything; Jahlil Okafor also exists

With just one win in, the Sixers aren’t doing great. And yet, the silver lining of this poor start is the fact that Joel Embiid is as good as advertised. The third-year rookie is statistically the best first-year player in the NBA and, for the better part of the Sixers’ 10 games, the only reason to watch.

On Monday, the Sixers lost 115-88 at Houston, and Embiid had just 13 points in 23 minutes, collecting five fouls and turning the ball over six times. But he started out gangbusters, scoring seven of the team’s first nine points on 3-of-4 shooting, as it looked like the Rockets were going to have their hands full all night.

Until they didn’t.

Still, despite the turnovers, and fouls, Embiid isn’t the Sixers problem. Pretty much everyone else is. Jahlil Okafor shoots the ball almost whenever he gets it — he was 2-for-11 from the floor on Monday, and a -21 in 21 and a half minutes — and he doesn’t play much defense, either. Ersan Ilyasova has helped the Sixers spread the floor, adding necessary scoring at times, but he’s proof that 6-10 stretch forwards don’t get traded during the season if they are really as good as a contending team (or a team with more than one win in 10 tries) need him to be. He’s a clear improvement in his short time in Philly over Jeramy Grant, but he’s a role player, at most.

So, too, is Dario Saric. The rookie is a do-everything guy and is a solid player already this early in his career. Tracking his development this season, and throughout his Sixers career, will be fascinating. And with that, here is the Sixers Big Man Tracker’s points per game chart.

sixersbigmanpoints-11-15
Billy Penn Illustration

Embiid is averaging 18 points per contest he plays, but as he’s appeared in just seven games so far this season, he’s at 12.6 points per team game played. Okafor has missed time too as he gets back to form, and his minutes have been limited even in the games he has played. He’s averaging just 10.4 points per game and 9.4 points per team game, less than Saric, who has played every game and is at 9.7 ppg/pptg.

Richaun Holmes is averaging 6.2 points per game, while Ilyasova is putting down 12.4 points per game since he came over from OKC.

sixersbigmanminutes-11-15
Billy Penn Illustration

Those scoring numbers, of course, mean little without the context of the minutes each player is getting. The point of this exercise all season is to track how Brett Brown manages his bigs, and how many minutes each guy gets will say a lot as to who is here by the trade deadline, and who is part of the Sixers’ longterm future.

For now, Brown has had a solid rotation of Ilyasova and Saric at the four, while the five has been a rotation of Embiid, Okafor and Holmes. Embiid’s minutes restrictions will continue through the end of 2016, but what happens when Okafor is healthy enough to warrant more minutes? What happens if and when Nerlens Noel comes back?

Does Holmes, who offers raw energy the other bigs don’t, start a string of DNP? Even if Holmes does sit, if Embiid and Okafor are getting 24 minutes each, where are the minutes for Noel? And when Ben Simmons finally makes his debut, will he actually play the four, or will he be able to play point forward from the three, because Robert Covington has shown he has not been good enough to help the Sixers win regularly or, almost, at all.

Alas, comparing the two bigs who are playing the most, Embiid is averaging more minutes than Okafor thanks to a three-minute cameo for Okafor a few games back, thereby tanking both his minutes per game and his points per game. Outside of that game, his averages are higher, but still not as high as Embiid’s.

It’s abundantly clear through 10 team games that when Noel comes back and Embiid is healthy enough to play more minutes, the Sixers should take whatever they can get for Okafor on the trade market. Embiid is so dynamic, and such a better scorer than the Sixers expected this early in his career, that the defense Noel provides is much more valuable to the Sixers longterm plans than the shoot-first, defend-whenever style Okafor seems to employ.

Here are the shot charts for Embiid and Okafor this season, side by side.

embiid-okafor-shotchart
NBA.com/Stats - Billy Penn Illustration

One of these things is awesome and one is…not. That’s actually a great motto for the 2016-17 Sixers, at least as of November 15. To be fair, Embiid has taken too much on himself at times on the floor, as evidenced by his shooting percentage on the low block. He is shooting 55.3 percent when he touches the ball for fewer than two seconds, while his percentage drops to 41.9 percent when he holds the ball between two and six seconds. He’s also shooting 58.1 percent when he doesn’t dribble, a rate that drops to 42.9 percent when he takes one dribble and just 20 percent when he dribbles twice. These are things he will improve upon as the season continues. As good as he is, he will get better the more he plays.

Speaking of which, the Sixers play the Washington Wizards, who are also terrible, on Wednesday then travel to Minnesota on Thursday — another back-to-back situation where Brown will have to juggle his bigs.

We are getting closer to having more to track, and that’s a positive, even if the wins aren’t coming yet.

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