Why Is Everyone Biting on Joel Embiid's Most Predictable Move?

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistMay 2, 2019

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid celebrates after a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings, Friday, March 15, 2019, in Philadelphia. Philadelphia won 123-114. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

TORONTO — Marc Gasol knew the scouting report. Every member of the Toronto Raptors did. Stay down on Joel Embiid’s pump fake. Don’t jump until both of Embiid’s feet leave the floor.

There were 28.9 seconds remaining in Game 2, and just six on the shot clock. The Philadelphia 76ers, down 1-0 in this Eastern Conference semifinals matchup, were clinging to a one-point lead. A stop would give the Raptors a chance to take the lead in the final seconds. 

Embiid caught the ball at the top of the arc. Gasol shuffled up toward him. Embiid had hit just one shot all night—a driving scoop in the lane. He’d misfired on all three of his three-point attempts and 15 of his 19 postseason triples. He knew settling for a jumper would be handing the Raptors the resulted they wanted.

He pumped the ball above his head and lifted his heels off the ground. It wasn’t as slow or long as usual, and Gasol never jumped. But he did momentarily straighten his knees and lift his arms, pulling himself out of a defensive stance. That was all Embiid needed. He took two hard dribbles to the right, spun left and pumped the ball again. Gasol, trailing Embiid just a bit, just enough for him to feel like he was trailing and shift into scramble mode, leapt again, gifting Embiid an open layup, a knockout shot lifting the Sixers to a series-tying road win.

“It feels like guys are too aggressive on me and that they’re going to bite on it, so I always pump fake,” Embiid told B/R in the visitors’ locker room at Scotiabank Arena on Monday night after the game.

But it’s one thing to fall for a deke inside the paint, especially when deployed by one of the game’s premier interior scorers. It’s another to be juked off the ground by a spot-up shooter who struggles shooting.

Embiid launched 263 three-pointers during the regular season, good for 4.1 per game. He drilled just 79 of them—an even 30 percent. In other words, Embiid is very frequently willing to take a shot that very frequently misses. An Embiid three is exactly the result defenses should be chasing. And yet, time and time again, sometimes during a game’s most consequential possession, a defender—even one as astute as Gasol, the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year—will close out on Embiid as if he were one of the game’s top snipers.

“His fake is one of the best,” said Brooklyn Nets center Jarrett Allen, who was victimized by the pump a number of times during his team’s first-round playoff series against the Sixers.

The pump fake from deep has become one of the signature moves for one of the game’s signature players and an essential part of the Sixers offense.

Embiid played 66 percent of his regular-season minutes alongside Ben Simmons, a player unwilling and incapable of shooting from deep. Simmons, as a result, spends a good chunk of his playing time camped out near the basket. No modern NBA offense wants to operate with two players clogging the paint, so Embiid is often relegated to the perimeter (Case in point: Julius Randle is the only designated “center” who averaged more dribble drives per game this season, according toNBA.com).

How does a poor outside shooter turn himself into a threat from the outside? The pump fake is part of Embiid’s solution.

The move also symbolizes why Embiid is a top-10 player. Yeah, he’s big and quick, but he also possesses a preternatural feel for the game’s intricacies despite not picking up a basketball before the age of 15. It’s a strain of genius that’s propelled him to the top of the sport, and that’s empowered him to discover distinctive methods for manipulating opponents. The pump fake from the perimeter might be the best example.

“I shoot 30 percent from three, but guys still jump when I shot fake and I don’t know why,” Embiid told reporters in January. “... But just because you take them, people are compelled to guard.”

He was reminded of this quote Monday night in Toronto.

“That’s true; I don’t get it,” he told B/R. “But I mean, guys are always coming up from [the paint] and guarding me at the three-point line and it looks like my shooting motion. It’s slow, you don’t know if I’m going to shoot it or not  and then at the top of it I just decide not to shoot it.”

The speed of the pump—or lack thereof—appears to be one of the keys. Most pump fakes are quick and tight, like jabs. Embiid’s looks like someone hit a slow-motion button. He also raises the ball above his head (most players bring the ball up to around their eyes) and simultaneously lifts his toes and hips.

“I don't know why guys go for it. I think it's because he brings the ball all the way up,” Sixers center Amir Johnson said. Johnson had another theory too: The defenders guarding Embiid are often rim protectors planted in the paint. “When you're closing out on a guy and running from inside to close out, you're scrambling,” he added. “At times like that, any pump fake will get a guy.” 

“When that’s going, you’re not doing the math of what a guy shoots from the spot,” Allen said. “You’re just trying to get out there on him.”

Embiid always had the move tucked in his pocket. His introduction to the NBA was a tape of Hakeem Olajuwon highlights given to him by a coach in his native Cameroon. Embiid watched the tape on repeat. He learned how simple fakes and jabs and stutters could confound even the greatest defenders, and early in his basketball career he began honing his own version of Olajuwon’s Dream Shake. “He did that pump sometimes during our scrimmages,” said Justin Wesley, who played with Embiid at Kansas University. “But it wasn’t as exaggerated as it is now.”

Drew Hanlen, a skills trainer who works with Embiid during the offseason, said the first time he saw Embiid use the slow pump fake from the perimeter was during a summer session in 2016. Embiid was preparing to make his NBA debut after missing his first two seasons due to a series of foot injuries. He and Hanlen knew that in the Sixers’ egalitarian offense, Embiid would often be stationed on the perimeter—“Lots of people can run stuff from that top spot,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said—so they were working on attacking and shooting over closeouts. On one possession, Embiid pumped the ball above his head, sending one of Hanlen’s interns flying into the air.

“He’s 7 feet; you think you’re going to block his shot?” Hanlen asked. Everyone in the gym, assuming this was another example of the jocular Embiid performing for the crowd, laughed.

“At first I thought the move was just him goofing off,” Hanlen said. The fake, Hanlen added, “Wasn’t something (Embiid) was ever taught. It came to him naturally.”

Hanlen and Embiid have spent time drilling ways to attack defenders darting out to the perimeter. Last summer, they studied clips of Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo using a Eurostep-like move (Hanlen calls it a “pound evasion”) to slip by opponents. Embiid’s off-the-bounce game has improved, but he and Hanlen both know upgrades are needed. Embiid’s drives usually feature one hard dribble followed by two long steps, a sequence that turns him into a runaway train. He doesn’t leave himself any room to maneuver and struggles reading the floor (among all players who averaged four or more drives per game, only Chandler Parsons turned the ball over more frequently, perNBA.com).

“This summer we’re going to work on taking one more controlled dribble to give him more options,” Hanlen said. “That’s the next step for Joel. Playmaking off the bounce.”

If history is any indication, Embiid should have no issue developing that part of his game. Take, as an example, the first time Embiid’s varsity coach saw him utilize a pump fake from the perimeter. It was Embiid’s senior year of high school, and he’d just recently transferred to The Rock School in Gainesville, Florida. His coach, Justin Harden, was implementing a new motion offense. The set called for Embiid to receive the ball on the elbow and either hit a cutter backdoor or hand the ball off to one of the two guards. The group ran the set a few times. Harden then told Embiid that he could make his own read from the elbow, too. On the next play, Embiid, who had only started playing basketball three years earlier, faked a pass, faked a shot, drove the ball to the hoop and threw down a dunk.

“He’s always been such a cerebral player,” Harden said. “He’s an anomaly in terms of how quickly he’s able to understand things and take advantage of situations.”

And so as Embiid caught the ball above the three-point arc late in Game 2, he knew his customary slow-motion pump fake wouldn’t work. It never has against Gasol, who rarely leaves his feet before a shooter does, a skill that’s helped him limit Embiid to 34.5 percent shooting in head-to-head matchups over the previous two years. Leading up to that point in the series, Embiid had yet to find an answer. He’d missed on 18 of his 24 shot attempts. He’d coughed the ball up six times that game. He knew he’d need to try something different, something Gasol wouldn’t expect. He sped the pump fake up. It was a move Gasol didn’t recognize. In the matter of moments, he’d processed the situation and downloaded a path to a win.

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, and sign up for his newsletter here.

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