The NBA world has yet to determine what the full extent of Joel Embiid's ceiling looks like, but we now know his floor.
As revealed on a TNT broadcast before his Philadelphia 76ers took on the Boston Celtics on Thursday night and emerged with an 89-80 victory in TD Garden, the center has officially become an All-Star for the first time in his promising career. And not just any All-Star, but a starter representing the Eastern Conference (and either Stephen Curry or LeBron James, depending on who drafts him).
Rihanna must be proud.
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Receipts if you need them @JoelEmbiid 🙃 https://t.co/oEJKtXei2M2018-1-18 23:09:04
This might be his first selection to the midseason festivities, but it won't be his last, as he should quickly become a mainstay in the frontcourt. Even with Kristaps Porzingis, Al Horford and plenty of other notable figures competing to join James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan in the starting five, Embiid was the proper choice during his sophomore season.
And he's only getting better.
Though Thursday's clash with the East-leading Celtics didn't see Kyrie Irving suit up and featured plenty of ugly basketball throughout a low-scoring first half, Embiid put on a show. Horford was the conference's most notable snub from the starting five, but he never looked capable of affecting the proceedings quite like his younger positional counterpart.
The Boston big finished with 14 points, three rebounds, three assists, one steal, two blocks and too many periods of invisibility. Embiid, meanwhile, recorded a staggering 26 points, 16 rebounds, six assists, one steal and two blocks while shooting 10-of-19 from the field.
Not much of a comparison, right?
That's not to discredit the work Horford has done throughout 2017-18. He's been a key cog in the Celtics' defensive machine while serving as a facilitating hub for head coach Brad Stevens' positionless offense. His impact goes beyond his numbers. But you could lose him in the proceedings this time around, and the same statement almost never applies to Embiid—not just because of the ever-present theatrics.
All night, his touch on mid-range face-up attempts was phenomenal. Aron Baynes has served as a defensive stalwart all season, but he couldn't match up against Embiid's soft jumper:
NBA on TNT @NBAonTNT
Name a better duo than @JoelEmbiid & @TJMcConnell 😂 https://t.co/K6E9u3SY5U2018-1-19 01:40:34
The destruction was only magnified when Daniel Theis, who has consistently impressed on defense during his underrated rookie campaign, matched up against Embiid and ceded another inch. And when the 23-year-old starts pulling out moves ripped directly from Dirk Nowitzki's playbook, things start getting unfair:
NBA on TNT @NBAonTNT
Post work 💪 https://t.co/usfEz6QKzO2018-1-19 00:09:54
But don't be fooled by the proliferation of jump-shooting highlights. His game is by no means limited to that singular facet, and the Celtics found that out the hard way. (Of course, they should already have known this, since he entered the outing averaging 23.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.6 steals and 1.9 blocks while shooting 48.6 percent from the field.)
Only Baynes, Salah Mejri and Hassan Whiteside, all of whom spend less time on the floor, have superior scores in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus, and that's not a fluke. Drive into his domain, and he'll often force a miss or swat the shot away. In fact, players seem to actively avoid entering territory Embiid occupies, instead settling for contested jumpers and action developing away from him.
Except avoiding him is easier said than done, because 7-footers aren't supposed to be so fleet of foot that they can capably stick with far smaller guards on the perimeter for extended periods. As Billy Penn's Dan Levy highlighted, Embiid did exactly that against Terry Rozier before pulling down the rebound and impacting the play in a different way:
Dan Levy @DanLevyThinks
Embiid face guards a guard for 10 seconds, gets the rebounds on a missed shot and has a great pass for an assist on the other end. #AllStar2018-1-19 00:21:20
Thus far, Embiid is the impetus behind Philadelphia's success. And that italicized exaggeration is important, as no one else has this impactful of a presence. The Sixers are outscoring opponents by a whopping 8.7 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, which would leave them behind only the Golden State Warriors (10.7) in the season-long standings. But when he doesn't play, the net rating plummets to a putrid minus-6.2, which is more comparable to the efforts of the No. 28 Chicago Bulls (minus-6.3).
The other biggest swings among rotation members in the City of Brotherly Love? Robert Covington's presence causes the net rating to spike from minus-7.7 to 6.4. JJ Redick boosts Philly from minus-3.1 to 3.9, and rookie phenom Ben Simmons pushes the net rating from minus-1.0 to 2.0.
Only Covington, who fills a complementary role to perfection with his three-and-D proclivities, comes close to matching the Embiid swing. And the center is no complementary piece. He's a star—an All-Star, in fact—with so much more room to grow.
What happens when Embiid learns how to shoot jumpers from the outside with more consistency? His form already looks solid and he steps into his treys confidently, but he's connecting on just 28.9 percent of his three-point attempts and sits in the 26.3 percentile for spot-up points per possession.
And then we have the two biggest weaknesses, which Bleacher Report's Dan Favale highlighted perfectly while he and I ranked Embiid as the NBA's No. 2 center (sneak preview: He'll also sit in the top 15 of our overall top 100 next week):
"He remains an injury risk, someone the Philadelphia 76ers cannot count on for 70 games or in both nights of a back-to-back. He is more than occasionally sloppy with the ball; his turnover rate on post-ups is still too high, and he coughs up possession on nearly 13 percent of his drives—the third-worst mark among more than 175 players to appear in at least 10 games.
"Though Embiid's assist totals are solid for a big man, he suffers from frequent tunnel vision on the block and off the dribble."
The injury risk might never disappear. Maybe it will. No one, presumably even the Philadelphia front office and training staff, knows with any certainty. But even a little bit of sustained health might allow this celestial center to spend more time with his running mates on the practice floor, which can only help him become more effective when the minutes actually matter.
The turnovers, however, should improve as he gains more experience at the professional level.
They currently kill his standing in quite a few offensive metrics, but he's already showing signs of better passing vision. Derek Bodner of The Athletic would agree:
Derek Bodner @DerekBodnerNBA
The rate at which Embiid improves as a passer makes me think the turnover problems are very temporary in nature.2018-1-19 00:23:29
Quite a few of his passes against Boston were impressive, as he consistently hit open players and found teammates lurking in the corners. But perhaps none was better than this feed out of the post to a cutting Dario Saric:
Rich Hofmann @rich_hofmann
Good stuff from Embiid and Saric here. Horford has his eyes on the double, so Dario cuts to the rim. Pass from JoJo is on the money. https://t.co/gX3Ipq3A8g2018-1-19 01:18:44
No one will mistake Embiid for Draymond Green anytime soon, but these remain encouraging signs. Remember, we're talking about a second-year player who's already lost countless appearances and practice sessions to injury. Any growth is good growth, and especially so when the area of improvement has served as a significant weakness.
The big man will continue improving naturally as he builds chemistry with Simmons and learns the nuances of the NBA game. But this kind of targeted surge should inspire more confidence in the long-term progression of a young man who already functions as the game's most dominant center when he's in working order.
He's now an All-Star starter. He'll be brushing shoulders with James, Antetokounmpo, Curry, Kevin Durant and the league's other marquee figures when they all converge on Los Angeles in mid-February.
Except for Embiid, that's only the beginning.