This Perfect Defensive Possession Shows Why Joel Embiid Has The Makings Of A Two-Way Force

Joel Embiid appeared in an organized basketball game on Tuesday night for the first time since March 1, 2014. The on-court results were about what you’d expect from a player who hadn’t played in public for 948 days, but is so gifted that expectations for his debut season remain sky-high nonetheless: six points (2-6 FGs), four rebounds, two blocks, and three turnovers in 13 minutes, all of which came before halftime.

The 7-foot-2 big man’s talent was just as obvious as his rust. Embiid showed advanced footwork in the post, soft touch on his jumper, and a blend of length and timing all great shot-blockers possess. But he was also clearly not in game shape, didn’t fight for deep position on the block, and failed to successfully pass out of double-teams on multiple occasions. Needless to say, the highlights above aren’t just an indication of the 22-year-old’s potential – they’re also a reminder of how far Embiid must still go to reach it.

Consistent offensive prowess is almost sure to come. You can count the active players who boast Embiid’s combination of size, skill, and athleticism on one hand. Health permitting, the Philadelphia 76ers will eventually possess a rare go-to scorer at center. What could perhaps take Embiid from All-Star to superstar, though, is if his performance on that end of the floor can be matched his impact by the other – and a specific sequence from the Philadelphia’s 92-89 exhibition win over the Boston Celtics suggests it’s possible.

Embiid’s towering block on Jaylen Brown is the highlight of this play, and rightfully so. Boston’s rookie swingman is one of the most explosive players in basketball. The vast majority of big men would have been on the receiving end of his first NBA poster, but not Embiid. That ability to erase mistakes is the biggest reason why Sixers coach Brett Brown recently told CSN Philly that he “needs to be the crown jewel, the centerpiece of our defense.”

But blocking shots alone doesn’t make a defender elite. Rim-protection isn’t just about swatting, tipping, and contesting shots; it’s also about preventing them altogether, and Embiid did just that before rejecting Brown’s ambitious dunk attempt.

The No. 3 pick of the 2014 draft deftly handled another pick-and-roll before ending the possession at the rim. That’s Embiid in a perfect defensive stance with arms outstretched and feet wide in the still below, preventing Terry Rozier from turning the corner and making an accurate pass to Zeller on the pop.

Just over half a second later, Embiid is already in position to contest a potential jumper from Zeller – one of the game’s most accurate mid-range shooters – as he corrals an errant pass.

There are only so many centers in the league capable of moving with such controlled quickness in parameters so small. Embiid not only does it, but also has the physical dexterity and mental wherewithal to realize a dribble hand-off is coming moments later.

Here’s a better look at how that went for Boston.

It’s no secret that Embiid has the tools of a franchise cornerstone. Health is the only thing standing in the way of him living up to that billing. There’s a pretty big gap between stat-stuffing stars and perennial MVP candidates, however, and many über-talented youngsters never develop the necessary subtlety and nuance to fill it.

Will that opportunity come for Embiid? There’s no way to tell for sure. But if it does, there’s already reason to believe he’ll take full advantage.