How good is Joel Embiid? The Sixers, the Process and the future: An NBA Roundtable

National experts break down the rookie sensation, trading Noel or Okafor and Brett Brown for Coach of the Year.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers
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We love Joel Embiid in Philly. After waiting for two years to finally see The Process (both the man and the concept) take shape on the court, Embiid has — in his limited games and restricted minutes — managed to somehow exceed expectations. He scored 26 points in 26 minutes in the 94-89 victory over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, finishing a +20 in the game. In every game he plays, he seems to find new ways to develop and help the team win.

The Sixers have now played 40 games this season, one shy of the halfway mark, and Embiid has featured in just 29. They are 2-9 without him and 12-17 with him on the floor, but since Brett Brown has decided to stop experimenting with two centers on the court at the same time (and since Nerlens Noel has returned to the rotation) things have taken off.

Still, with Ben Simmons not slated to debut until after the All-Star break, expectations should be tempered. This run is incredible, but the Sixers will need to go 27-15 the rest of the season just to finish .500. And yet, for a team that won seven of their first 31 games before taking seven of their last nine, anything seems possible.

Again, this is Philly, prone to parochialism and irrational exuberance (remember when the Eagles were going to be a “dream team”?), and we’ve fallen in love with Embiid, so I wanted some outside perspective. Earlier this week I reached out to a panel of national NBA experts to ask three simple questions: How good is Embiid; What will the Sixers do with their roster; Is Brett Brown a Coach of the Year candidate?

Our panel includes: David Aldridge of TNT, Howard Beck of Bleacher Report, Trey Kerby of NBA TV’s The Starters, Matt Moore of CBS Sports and Lang Whitaker of NBA.com and NBA TV. Do they… Trust the Process?

Question 1. How good is Joel Embiid?

I ask for this reason. He’s clearly the Rookie of the Year, but I personally hate the rule that lets him be considered a rookie. Sure, he hasn’t played until this year, but he’s been in the NBA for 3 years now, just not on the court. He’s clearly got a sense of the game rookies don’t have and physically he’s a monster he wouldn’t have been as a true rookie.

So is he great, or is he great “for a rookie?” And how much better will he get? It seems like he’s already gotten better this season. I’ve been on the “he’s a young Hakeem” train, so…will I be right? (That’s like 5 questions, file under “Thoughts on Embiid.”)

NBA: Utah Jazz at Philadelphia 76ers
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Matt Moore, CBS Sports:

He’s good. He’s daaaaaaamn good. I didn’t like the pick of Embiid combined with the pick of Saric in 2013, because I felt as an organization you had to make some sort of real step forward. I see now that, instead, what I really thought was, “You can’t make that pick if you want to keep your job.” Hinkie made the pick he thought was the right one. I’ve never seen the fabled medical report that had scouts and executives scattering like particles the wind the week of the draft when they saw it, but the end result is the same. Embiid is everything we saw midway through his freshman year in college.

Hakeem Olajuwon is, in my opinion, the greatest center in NBA history. Played against modern athletes, played on both ends, was efficient, passed, did everything right. And he was unstoppable with his offensive repertoire. Embiid is the only player I’ve ever seen who really, truly reminds me of Olajuwon. The moves, the efficiency, the strength, the fluidity, everything.

Embiid projects not just as a top-tier player, but an all-time great, if he remains healthy. He’s put the work in to be great, and it’s paying off. He’s a man among boys. There’s still a lot for him to improve on, like any young player, but every metric, the eye test, everything shows that he is the franchise-changing player that Sam Hinkie saw when he drafted him.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Philadelphia 76ers
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David Aldridge, TNT:

Who cares what distinction you give him? Call him a rookie; call him a vet. He’s the breath of fresh air that the franchise has needed for a long time. Playing with great energy on the floor, and because he’s doing so well, all the social media stuff he does is viewed as endearing, not self-centered. (When you’re poor, you’re crazy; when you’re rich, you’re eccentric.)

It’s all physical force right now; exciting to imagine how good he’ll be when he really understands the pro game and how to use his body. Don’t put more pressure on the kid by comparing him to Olajuwon; let him be Embiid, and see how far he can go on his own. And as someone who worked in Philly for four years, I’m just happy for the fans that they have a legit budding superstar on the roster after these last few awful years.

Trey Kerby, NBA TV’s The Starters:

Joel Embiid is so good that he gave himself a nickname that everyone uses and everybody loves, despite the fact everyone agrees that you can’t give yourself a nickname. To be able to transcend the nicknaming-yourself-is-bad paradigm before even playing half a season is simply remarkable.

He’s already the best in the league at social media. He’s already validated three seasons of tanking. He’s already got people questioning if they’d take him over Karl-Anthony Towns, who just usurped Anthony Davis as Best Young Franchise Player in the League heading into this season. So ipso facto, I guess he is better than Anthony Davis. (Not really, but maybe?)

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at New Orleans Pelicans
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Howard Beck, B/R:

I say this without hesitation: Joel Embiid is already elite, and he’s probably only scratched the surface. How great he becomes depends (as with any young player) on health and hard work.

He’s one of four players averaging at least 19 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. The others?  Anthony Davis (All-Star), Giannis Antetokounmpo (All-Star) and Kristaps Porzingis (future All-Star). And he’s doing it all despite playing on a minutes restriction.

Want to get really excited? Check out Embiid’s stats on a per-36 minute basis: 28 points, 11 rebounds, 3.5 blocks. That ranks favorably with the rookie stats (also per-36) of Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Out of that group, Embiid leads in per-36 scoring (by a lot) and is second in blocks. And Embiid also shoots 3s — well.

The guy clearly loves the game, and loves to dominate, and that matters a ton. We’ve seen plenty of young talents flame out because they lacked a true passion for basketball, or just didn’t care whether they reached their potential. It appears that Embiid most definitely does. He’s not just a get-my-numbers guy (though he needs to pass a little more); he seems to put just as much energy into defense, which is also a great sign. And he plays with a palpable joy. He seems like a great guy to be around, which will help attract talent.

Is he really a “rookie”? Of course he is. Spending two years rehabbing injuries and watching film is not the same as “being in the NBA.” Maybe the NBA coaching helped, but nothing can replace practical, on-court experience. A four-year college player may be more developed than the one-and-done kid, but we don’t differentiate once they enter the NBA.

Embiid is 22 — same age as Olajuwon was as a rookie, a year older than Duncan was as a rookie, and two years younger than Robinson was as a rookie. Most guys peak in their mid to late 20s. Assuming good health (knock on interlocking hardwood panels), Embiid has a chance to be one of the all-time greats.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com/NBA TV:

I mean, clearly he’s really good. Physically he’s just so gifted, which is basically what he’s getting by on right now. I was in Philly for the season opener against OKC, and Embiid was brilliant and the crowd was so fired up and everyone was all excited, and it was a lot of fun! I didn’t want to rain on the parade, but watching him play I was thinking, Um, can he pass the ball?

To me, learning the game is the next step he will need to take — when to pass, how to take on double teams, help defense, etc. And once Simmons gets on the court there will be more adjustments needed. To answer your question, Embiid is really good. And he’s getting better.

Embiid-Look
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Question 2. What should the Sixers do?

Ben Simmons will be back soon, Jahlil Okafor sat for a week then showed he can score in bunches, but he’s a terrible defender, so he sat again. Nerlens Noel is what we know he is, which is a very good defender and extremely limited offensive player. Richaun Holmes is getting hosed by sitting in the D-League.

Bryan Colangelo said he’s in no rush to make a trade, and finally Brett Brown was like ‘whatever, I’m trying to win even if guys don’t play.’ So what should they do? And is ‘give up all the draft picks for Jimmy Butler’ an option? (Someone please say Melo!)

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers
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Howard Beck:

Let’s start with the (semi-)obvious: The Sixers’ future is Embiid and Simmons. Everyone else is ultimately expendable and/or superfluous. It’s tough to get value for guys on rookie contracts (which are artificially low), but I absolutely believe they should (and will) ultimately trade Okafor and Noel. They’ve got capable backup bigs in Saric and Holmes. Plenty of other teams could use Okafor’s low-post scoring and Noel’s shot-blocking. Finding the right deal is challenging, given NBA cap rules, but if they can swap their surplus bigs for solid two-way wing players, that seems like the logical path forward. If they can get a few playoff-seasoned vets in the process, all the better. Talent is never enough. You need some wisdom in the locker room.

Do the Sixers — who also have a surplus of draft picks — have the pieces to acquire an established star? Maybe. But those deals don’t come about often. The Bulls might never part with Jimmy Butler. Carmelo Anthony, given his age and gradual decline, doesn’t make sense for this team. Scratch off Cousins and Millsap and any other bigs, because Embiid and Simmons are the present and future frontcourt. Colangelo is right to bide his time and wait for the right deal. If the Sixers end up using all of their picks, it won’t be the worst thing. They have the cap room to find veteran help, and a young core that should be attractive to free agents.

Trey Kerby:

Whatever the Sixers do, they shouldn’t be in a hurry. Like it or not, we’re living in the LeBron and the Warriors Era, so no matter how promising Embiid plus Future Simmons plus Saric plus Whatever Other Big They Keep plus Future Draft Picks seems right now, there’s no need to rush just to make the playoffs. Just chill, develop the young dudes, look for opportunistic trades and let this team grow into the next Thunder.

Cleveland and Golden State can’t win forever, so the Sixers just have to hope they can be ready to win when those teams finally fall from their roost.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers
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David Aldridge:

Eventually they have to move Okafor or Noel. I keep hearing Noel’s the guy you can get, though he’s looked pretty good playing next to Embiid in recent stretches. I’d keep him and make the best deal you can for Okafor. (I’d imagine a team like Dallas would have a lot of interest in a young building block like him, and the 76ers could do a lot worse than getting a guy like, say, J.J. Barea in a package as a third guard/spot starter to help Simmons along with ball handling duties.)

No on Melo; why on earth would Philly do that? I won’t dismiss the Butler idea out of hand, though.

Lang Whitaker:

I get it that the Sixers have been bad for such a long time and it looks like the corner has been turned and the process is paying off…but why the rush now? I get that there’s something of a logjam on the interior, but isn’t that a good thing?

Think about it: The Sixers have an excess of players that are good and demand playing time! So I say stay the course and be patient. You aren’t going to contend in the next week or so, so keep developing these guys and wait for the right time to make a deal.

Matt Moore:

Clearly it’s time to cash in all the assets and trade for Melo.

No.

Nelens has played well, he’s impressed me, and if he can get the stink off him in terms of the off-court stuff, which he should be able to at his age, there’s no reason a team like Denver or Boston, that have have multiple assets, shouldn’t take a crack at him. And in that scenario, the Sixers could get back some two-way players on the wing. If there was a knock-out point guard available, I’d say they should be aggressive in their pursuit, because it’s going to make them so much better in so many areas, even with as well as McConnell has played recently. They should kick the tires on Eric Bledsoe. He’s on a pre-TV-deal contract for multiple years, he’s still young, and is healthy this season. He’d give them a great athletic point guard who can also defend. That’s the move I’d be looking to make, but nothing is worth giving up the Lakers’ trade pick. Keep building, be opportunistic without over-extending.

You know. Trust the Process.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers
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Question 3. Brett Brown…?

The Sixers won’t make the playoffs. Even in this run, it’ll be really hard to get there. (Probably.) But…say they win 30-35 games, could Brett Brown win Coach of the Year? Is he getting enough recognition for what he’s doing, locally or nationally?

NBA: Washington Wizards at Philadelphia 76ers
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Aldridge:

He’ll get votes, but won’t win COTY. Hard to see anyone other than D’Antoni getting the hardware. Stop being so Philly-centric; Brown’s been getting plenty of good press and attention, and has for years. Most of the national press I’ve seen on the Sixers in recent years has used some variation of “poor Brett Brown” while crushing and/or defending Hinkie’s moves.

This is Brett’s fourth year as head coach, and I can’t imagine he won’t be there next year for a fifth; has there ever been a head coach that got a fifth season with a won-loss record this bad? BB is fine. And I’m happy he’s going to be around to see some of the fruits of all his labor.

Whitaker:

Brett Brown will not win Coach of the Year. He may get a few votes, but this year that’s going to Mike D’Antoni or Pop or Dwane Casey or Tyronn Lue or, well, a playoff team. That’s kinda how that award seems to work. That being said, Brett Brown is a really good coach, and I think people around the league know Brown and his staff have put in a lot of work on and off the court. Recognition on a national scale among the general public will come as the wins start to stack up.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Memphis Grizzlies
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Moore:

No way. There’s respect for him, and he’s done a great job. But the coaches that are putting their teams in position to win 50-plus games are going to get it. The coaches have their own award, but most of the voters are going to ask coaches for their thoughts anyway, and coaches value winning. “Hey, you made not-poo out of poo” is not going to win COY even if it’s a great performance. His time will come.

Kerby: 

Outside of being buds with Leigh Ellis [also of NBA TV’s The Starters], it’s kind of hard to really know much about Brett Brown. He hasn’t coached a good offense yet, but he also hasn’t coached a team with good offensive players yet. He has coached good defenses, but he’s also coached some trash defenses. I feel the same way about Brett Brown as I do the rest of the Sixers; just chill. He very well might be a good coach, but we don’t know yet and we don’t need to quite yet. As long as he’s not actively bad — which he isn’t — I think he deserves a chance to coach a decent team.

Beck:

Brett Brown should be sainted, or whatever the basketball equivalent would be (Naismithed?). The man has endured one of the most depressing runs in NBA history, and he’s done it with unfailing grace and patience. He’s won games with rookies and D-League talent. He’s developed fringe prospects into useful rotation guys. He’s kept his sanity somehow, and he’s kept his team focused on day-to-day improvement, throughout all the losing. He has not gotten nearly enough credit for any of that.

As I type this, the Sixers have won six of their last eight. [Now seven of nine!] Maybe they’re turning a corner. I don’t know if 35 wins is realistic (they’d have to go better than .500 the rest of the way), but if they keep inching up the standings I think Brett could find his way onto a few Coach of the Year ballots, probably as a second- or third-place choice.