Nikola Jokic vs. Joel Embiid: Who's the NBA's Best Center?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2019

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 8: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers plays defense against the Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets on February 8, 2019 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Led by Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and more, centers are experiencing a resurgence in the NBA.

A position that was once considered dying is now home to some of the game's most exciting up-and-coming talents.

The three All-NBA selections this summer are all comfortably on the right side of 30.

  • 1st Team: Jokic (24 years old, fifth in 2019 real plus-minus)
  • 2nd Team: Embiid (25 years old, sixth in 2019 real plus-minus)
  • 3rd Team: Gobert (27 years old, 16th in 2019 real plus-minus)

And those weren't even the only three centers who were top 25 in real plus-minus this season. Nikola Vucevic (eighth), Al Horford (18th), Jusuf Nurkic (21st), Brook Lopez (22nd) and Towns (23rd) were all there too.

Big men are once again asserting some dominance in the NBA; they've just had to evolve a bit.

Take Jokic and Embiid—the top two centers in the game, according to All-NBA voting—for example.

Among 7-footers with at least as many career minutes as Embiid (4,852), Jokic is first (by a wide margin) in assist percentage. Embiid is third.

Sort the same group by three-point attempt rate (percentage of a player's attempts that are threes), and Jokic is 10th. Embiid is eighth.

Gone are the days when centers were just lumbering post scorers you entered the ball to before watching them soak up the shot clock and try to score off the block.

Now, centers need guard skills. Passing and shooting are critical. Sure, ultra-impactful defenders like Gobert can get away with being mostly roll guys and rim protectors. But a variety of skills is necessary for most bigs to dominate.

And Jokic is pushing the envelope further than most.

"Now we say he's our point guard and he initiates most of our offenses," Denver Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas told ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. "A lot of people ask me how he compares to guys like [Arvydas] Sabonis, you know what a passer he was [from the center position], and I think Joker took it to the next level because he also brings the ball up. He takes the rebound, he brings the ball up and initiates the offense."

Is this the future of centers? Seven-footers who do everything a point guard does?

Jokic may be a glimpse into that future, but is he the league's best center in the present? Despite landing All-NBA first team honors this season, a blind poll of his 2018-19 next to Embiid's went overwhelmingly in the Philadelphia 76ers center's direction:

Andy Bailey @AndrewDBailey

Player A is 2018-19 Nikola Jokic. Player B is 2018-19 Joel Embiid... https://t.co/ooVHA8dgaN

Ditto for the numbers of the two big men over the last three seasons:

Andy Bailey @AndrewDBailey

Player A is the last three seasons of Nikola Jokic. Player B is the last three seasons of Joel Embiid. https://t.co/WJIsPIz7rQ

In head-to-head battles, Embiid is 3-0, though Jokic has been better individually.

In those three games, Jokic averaged 22.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks and 2.7 turnovers while shooting 49.0 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from three.

Embiid went for 19.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 3.0 blocks and 4.3 turnovers while shooting 35.7 percent from the field and 9.1 percent from three.

Jokic's average game score head-to-head with Embiid was 18.2. Embiid's was 13.8.

But a couple of blind polls and three measly head-to-head contests is hardly enough to come close to a definitive answer on this question.

To do that (or, at least, to try to), we'll need to dive a little bit deeper into each of the following categories: scoring, playmaking, defense, durability and accolades.



Embiid does more scoring than Jokic. A lot more. Over the last three seasons, his 28.3 points per 75 possessions leads all 7-footers. Jokic's 22.2 is fourth.

To drive the point home even harder, Embiid's 28.3 is fifth in the NBA over that time frame, regardless of height. Only James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry and Isaiah Thomas (yes, that Isaiah Thomas) are ahead of him.

And, since Embiid has only played three seasons, that's also his career average. Michael Jordan is the only player in NBA history with at least as many minutes and a higher average for points per 75 possessions.

In terms of volume scoring, it doesn't get a whole lot better than Embiid. But in terms of efficiency, he's not quite on Jokic's level.

Over the last three years, according to data from NBA.com, Jokic has scored more points per possession than Embiid in the following play types: isolation, pick-and-roll roll man, post up, spot up, off screen and putback. Embiid has the edge in transition, pick-and-roll ball-handler and cut.

Points per Possessions since 2016-17
Nikola JokicJoel Embiid
Roll Man1.061.02
Post Up1.020.98
Spot Up1.070.92
Off Screen1.060.92

The most common play types for both are roll man, post up, spot up, cut and putback. And with each of those play types combined, Jokic is at 1.08 points per possession, while Embiid is at 1.02.

That may not seem like a big gap, but it could tip the scales in any number of close games over the course of an entire season.

Shooting percentages tell a similar story. Since 2016-17, Jokic's true shooting percentage is 60.8. Embiid's is 58.4. Jokic's effective field-goal percentage is 56.5. Embiid's is 51.4. Jokic has the edge in two-point percentage, three-point percentage and free-throw percentage as well.

"I just feel like [Jokic] is unstoppable," teammate Will Barton said, per NBA.com's Alex Labidou. "On the offensive end, [there is] nothing he can't do. He can handle it, he can shoot it, he can pass it. Post moves. What can't he do?"

The Ringer's Tyler Parker explained further:

"There may not be a player in the league with softer hands. There may not be a player in the league with better touch around the rim. He can turn over either shoulder and finish with either hand. He can get a defensive rebound, shotgun it, and lead the break. He can methodically back somebody down and drop a hook in over their head. He can post somebody up, draw a double, and get an assist. He can shoot a jumper over someone smaller. He can go around bigs who try to press up on him. He can bang. He can step out and hit the 3. He'll take and make floaters and fadeaways and go behind his back in a crowd three different times. I have to assume he's right-brained, fearless, and arrogant as hell. It's such a special skill set wrapped in such an odd package. He's 7 feet tall with the ill-defined yet still somehow imposing body of one of those old-timey heavyweight boxers. He's also a gymnast."

Jokic's offensive arsenal is deep. And probably more polished than Embiid's. But there's something to be said for volume.

Over the course of Embiid's career, Harden and Russell Westbrook have been the only players with higher usage percentages. Embiid's ability to maintain an above-average true shooting percentage with that kind of responsibility is impressive.

And that number is buoyed by his ability to get to the line, where he's nearly unrivaled.

Only 16 other players in NBA history have taken at least as many shots per 75 possessions as Embiid's 19.8. His .507 free-throw rate (number of free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt) leads that group by a considerable margin.

Drop the attempts qualifier to 15 per 75 possessions, and Embiid only falls to seventh, trailing Corey Maggette, Shaquille O'Neal, Moses Malone, David Robinson, Adrian Dantley and Harden.

"That mentality, that disposition, to get that close to a basket and that adamant that I'm going to either dunk or get fouled" is a huge part of what makes Embiid such a dominant scorer, 76ers coach Brett Brown said, per David Murphy of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

As a career 78.8 percent free-throw shooter, Embiid is getting nearly 1.6 points per trip to the line. And he's going there four to five times per game. The league average for points per possession this past season was 1.1. That much extra value out of four or five possessions per game is huge.

All in all, this category sort of comes down to a question of volume vs. efficiency and skill. Embiid bullies his way into more points. Jokic crafts (and sometimes bullies) his way into a bit fewer.

Again, Embiid is fifth in the NBA in points per 75 possessions over the course of his career. Jokic is 33rd in the same time frame. But among the 59 players scoring at least 20 points per 75 possessions, Jokic is 10th in true shooting percentage and ninth in effective field-goal percentage. Embiid is 23rd in true shooting percentage and 37th in effective field-goal percentage.

Thanks to the free throws, Embiid's edge in volume feels a little bigger than Jokic's edge in efficiency. There's a pretty strong temptation to mark this one as a tie, but Embiid takes scoring.

Jokic 0, Embiid 1



This one isn't so close. Embiid is better than most bigs across NBA history in passing and creating for others. He's third among 7-footers in career assist percentage.

Jokic, though, is simply the best. He's first on that same list. And the distance between him and third-place Embiid is about the same as the distance between Embiid and 70th place.

Jokic's 6.7 assists per 75 possessions are first all-time among 7-footers. He also leads that group in good old-fashioned assists per game at 5.1.

The 8.5 assists per 75 possessions he averaged this season is the best mark ever posted by a 7-footer. He owns three of the top five seasons on that list. He's only been in the league for four years.

And it's not just the numbers with Jokic. It's the flair with which he passes, the vision, the unselfishness and the timing. He's not just the best passing big; he's among the best passers period.

"I think it speaks to his greatness," Nuggets coach Mike Malone said after a game in November in which Jokic dropped 16 dimes, per BSN's Harrison Wind. "Nikola can dominate a game without scoring at all."

Typically, for bigs, that kind of description is reserved for defensive specialists. Dominating on offense without scoring is unusual for a 7-footer. But that's exactly what Jokic can do.

And as you can see in the polls above, when you combine his scoring with the points he generates from assists, Jokic is accounting for more total points than Embiid.

What's more, there's a less quantifiable benefit to Jokic's passing. Getting everyone involved, finding guys when they're open and empowering teammates to be better offers a boost to chemistry. There's a general increase in fun when he's on the floor.

For that, and the overwhelming statistical edge, this category goes easily to Jokic.

Jokic 1, Embiid 1



First of all, Jokic is nowhere near as bad on defense as his reputation suggests. He isn't terribly nimble, especially defending on the perimeter, but he's smart, has quick hands and is generally in the right place.

This was the first season in Jokic's career in which Denver allowed more points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor than when he was off. And among 7-footers, he's fifth all-time in career steal percentage.

But few, if any, would put Jokic anywhere near Embiid as a defender.

Embiid finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2018. He was fourth this season. Three seasons into his NBA career, he already has two All-Defensive selections.

Here are his ranks in defensive real plus-minus in each of the last three seasons:

  • 2016-17: 36th (Jokic was 34th)
  • 2017-18: 10th (Jokic was 52nd)
  • 2018-19: 5th (Jokic was 26th)

The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor explained some of what makes Embiid such a special defender:

"He's capable of altering shots with either hand and has gotten significantly better at contesting shots without fouling. With his length and the sheer amount of space he takes up around the rim, sometimes all he needs to do is be present inside and box out for a rebound; he's developed a better feel for when to fly in for a block and when to simply hold his ground. Even when either he or his teammates make mistakes, he has the presence of mind (and the physical presence, full stop) to erase them."

Embiid is good enough on that end to be an anchor. Jokic relies more upon being surrounded by good defenders. While he doesn't hurt the Nuggets on that end, as some might suggest, he's also not lifting Denver to greater defensive heights.

Jokic 1, Embiid 2



In most one-to-one comparisons, this wouldn't be a category. But Embiid is a unique case.

He missed two full seasons after being drafted. Then, in his rookie campaign, he appeared in just 31 games. He managed 63 and 64 appearances in each of the last two years.

Altogether, in the five years since Philly selected him with the No. 3 pick, he's played in just 38.5 percent of 410 total regular-season games. Jokic has played in 93.9 percent of his team's games.

That matters.

All the individual scoring and defense in the world isn't worth anything in games the player has to sit out. And while it's generally not fair to fault players for getting injured, there's nothing wrong with rewarding those who can avoid it.

Jokic has been an iron man for the Nuggets over the last four years. Denver is plus-1,059 in the 8,718 minutes he's played (plus-5.8 per 48 minutes). It's minus-826 in the 7,121 minutes he's sat (minus-5.6 per 48 minutes).

His career net rating swing (difference in the team's net points per 100 possessions when a given player is on or off the floor) is plus-8.3. At 11.2, Embiid's is even bigger. But again, he's on the floor to provide that swing far less than Jokic.

Hopefully, in a few years, we'll be able to look back on Embiid's injury woes as a bump in the road to a long and successful NBA career. But to this point, there's just no question that the time he's missed has an impact.

Over the course of his career, Embiid has 17.6 wins over replacement player (value over replacement player times 2.7, according to Basketball Reference). In the same time frame, Jokic has 49.4.

Jokic 2, Embiid 2



This early in their careers, it may seem odd to compare accolades, but we needed some way to attempt to break the tie in what is such a close matchup.

To that end, Jokic has one All-Star appearance (in the better conference) and one All-NBA first team selection in four seasons. Embiid has two All-Star appearances (in the lesser conference), two All-Defensive selections and two second team All-NBA selections in three seasons.

Here, Jokic has reached higher heights (first team All-NBA and All-Star in the West), but Embiid's total has to be taken into account as well. We could also ding him for missing all of the first two and most of the first three seasons of his career.

Maybe this category isn't routine. That's how close these two are.

You're welcome to quibble, but voters identifying Jokic as the game's best center just this season is enough to overcome a few more honors and make this category even.

So, we're still tied.

Jokic 3, Embiid 3


Who Ya Got?

After all that, is it really a judgment call? That may come off as a cop-out, but it feels right with these two.

In 2019 All-NBA voting, Jokic was fifth overall and secured 411 points to wind up on the first team. Embiid was sixth overall with 375 points and ended up on the second team. It's fitting they were right next to each other.

But we can't end this in a tie. Instead, let's let numbers be the arbiter:

  • Box plus/minus since 2016-17: Jokic (4th), Embiid (26th)
  • Wins over replacement player since 2016-17: Jokic (5th), Embiid (40th)
  • Win shares per 48 minutes since 2016-17: Jokic (10th), Embiid (33rd)
  • Win shares since 2016-17: Jokic (9th), Embiid (50th)
  • Game score per 48 minutes since 2016-17: Embiid (9th), Jokic (10th)
  • Cumulative game score since 2016-17: Jokic (13th), Embiid (36th)
  • Five-year market value (going forward) from FiveThirtyEight: Jokic ($337.3 million), Embiid ($293.1 million)

On top of that, ESPN's real plus-minus (which doesn't share multiyear results) had Jokic ahead of Embiid in each of the last three seasons.

And, at some point, we have to mention Jokic's playoff debut. In 14 playoff games this year, Jokic averaged 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 1.6 threes, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. He had the 16th-best single-postseason box plus/minus in NBA history.

If that was a glimpse into Jokic's future, he'll graduate beyond "best center in the NBA" conversations.

Embiid may be the better scorer and defender, but Jokic's all-around offensive game and durability give him an ever-so-slight overall advantage.

There are strong arguments to be made for either side, but this conclusion sides with the Joker.


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