'You Ain't Playing Hard Enough': Why Shaq's Right About Joel Embiid

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IAugust 8, 2020

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid reacts after being charged with a foul during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)
Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

Very few big men in the NBA can completely dominate on both ends like Joel Embiid...when he feels like it. There are games in which he is the best player on the court regardless of who the Philadelphia 76ers are playing. 

Then there are nights when it seems like Embiid is going through the motions. He’ll spend more time launching threes than posting up. 

Even with the NBA drifting away from posting up big men, Embiid is one of the few that can dominate from the block. He leads the NBA in points per possession off post-ups with 1.12 on an average 8.4 post-ups per game. His post-ups get him to the free-throw line 28.4 percent of the time. 

But there are still times when Embiid does not come out with the mindset to dominate. In the Sixers’ wins, he averages 10.8 post touches. In their losses, just 8.7. He shoots 4.8 threes in defeats, which is nearly two more than in victories. And his free-throw attempts drop from 9.3 attempts in wins to 8.1 in losses. 

Early in the season, he received criticism on Inside the NBA from Charles Barkley and Shaqullie O’Neal after a loss to the Denver Nuggets. Barkley said, "He’s the toughest player in the league to match up with, but we don’t talk about him the way we talk about Luka [Doncic], Giannis [Antetokounmpo], Anthony Davis, James [Harden]—we don’t ever say that about him."

Then O’Neal added: "We’re telling you, ‘You can be great. You ain’t playing hard enough.’ Twenty-two ain’t enough to get you to the next level. Do you want to be great, or do you want to be good? If you want to be good, keep doing 22 points. You want to be great, give me 28, give me 30." 

During the first three games of the NBA restart, Embiid was great. He averaged 32.3 points and 13.7 rebounds, despite the Sixers’ uneven start. But the disengaged Embiid showed himself in the first half of Friday’s game against the Orlando Magic

Early in the game, Embiid goes to post up Nikola Vucevic after setting a screen. Look at how far he is posting up from. He settles for a face-up jumper without putting any stress on the defense. 

Late in the second quarter, off a pick-and-roll Embiid tries to back down Vucevic from nearly the three-point line. And as the double-team comes, he settles for a difficult baseline fadeaway with nine seconds left on the shot clock.

Embiid had six points on 3-of-8 shooting, seven rebounds and one free-throw attempt in the first half, and the Sixers were down two.

Inside the NBA had Golden State Warriors big man Draymond Green as a guest, and this is what he had to say about Embiid’s play at the half. "There is no one in the NBA that can stop Joel from getting the position he wants. Joel pretty much needs to think about the game like this: Anytime he shoots a jump shot, he is bailing his defender out. He’s giving his defender a pass every time he shoots a jump shot, and as someone who's guarding him, go ahead and go out there. I love when he shoots jump shots."

Something clicked at halftime because it was a different Embiid that came to play in the third quarter. In that quarter alone he had 12 points on 3-of-6 shooting and got to the line eight times, making six of them. He went into aggressive mode, and it immediately showed. 

Early in the third quarter, Embiid establishes his post position, works his way to the middle and shows off his feathery touch with a baby jump hook over Vucevic. 

Then late in the fourth quarter, Embiid gets a catch almost in the same spot as the earlier clip, but this time he does not settle for a jumper. He faces up and then immediately rips the ball through to go baseline and finishes with a reverse dunk. 

Embiid finished the game with 23 points, 13 rebounds and 13 free-throw attempts. The second-half performance is the three-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA player the Sixers expect to see the entire game. 

In between the third and fourth quarters, TNT’s Jared Greenberg asked coach Brett Brown about Embiid’s third quarter. "I mean, it’s a mentality. The disposition he had coming out to start that half, it wasn’t about play calls or whatever. I loved his physical approach, and the team feeds off that and it bleeds into the defense. But to your point, it was very different from the first half." 

The Sixers are going to need Embiid to play not just like an All-Star but like a superstar in the bubble with Ben Simmons out indefinitely with a knee injury. He has the skills to be the most dominant big man in the NBA and a game-changer whenever he wants to be. 

To steal a line from the Big Aristotle (Shaq), who stole it from the real Aristotle: "Excellence is not a singular act; it's a habit. You are what you repeatedly do." Joel Embiid has all the tools, but he has to change his mindset to reach his full potential. 

    

Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.