Health still No. 1, but what else should Embiid focus on this summer?


There’s no contractual suspense this summer with Joel Embiid, who signed a supermax extension last August that will begin in the 2023-24 season.

He’ll be 29 years old when that campaign starts.

Following back-to-back MVP runner-up seasons for Embiid, the Sixers still think he has room to rise.

“He’s still young and he’s still growing up right in front of our eyes,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said after Embiid’s Round 2, Game 3 return against the Heat from a concussion and right orbital fracture. “It’s pretty cool to see.” 

Youth is subjective, but Embiid is certainly less experienced than the average 28-year-old superstar. As he tells it, he’d only been playing basketball for three months when he moved from Cameroon to the United States at 16. And he’s been tremendous at acquiring and incorporating new skills since. Without Ben Simmons, he flashed improvements as a passer, transition ball handler, and go-to guy in all situations. 

After more injury-colored playoff disappointment, what’s next? 

“Every single season, I feel like I’ve gotten better,” Embiid said following the Sixers’ Game 6 loss to Miami, “and there’s still another level I can reach. … Every postseason, I’ve seen adjustments that have made me want to make changes in what I work on during the summer. You look at in the second round, the way they played me … they denied me the ball and every time I had the ball, there were two or three guys on me. I couldn’t drive to the basket because everything was just crowded. 

“So I guess the goal this summer is to be better and to figure it out, just like I did when I lost to Boston. I felt like I was a post player, so I came back with more perimeter game to open up everything. I just saw something that helped me a lot during this postseason, so I’ve got to get better.”

Any analysis of Embiid’s playoffs merits a massive asterisk. In addition to the orbital fracture and concussion, he suffered a torn ligament in his right thumb that will require offseason surgery. Against physical defenders and persistent double teams, he sure would’ve preferred to be unencumbered as a passer and jump shooter. 

In 10 playoff games, Embiid posted 23.6 points and 10.7 rebounds per contest on 48.4 percent shooting from the floor, 21.2 percent from three-point range.

After concluding the regular season with career bests in assist-to-usage ratio and turnover percentage, per Cleaning the Glass, Embiid’s passing numbers and efficiency went downhill. While much of that can be chalked up to his serious injuries and no respite from good, aggressive defenses, are there specific skills Embiid should pinpoint? 

As Embiid said, Miami was often determined to prevent him from even touching the ball. The Sixers weren’t oblivious on how to reply when opponents fronted Embiid. They tried to play the angles game, searching for high-low passes and swinging the ball around to nullify looming help defenders. But, when Embiid couldn’t get a legitimate post catch early in the shot clock, the team tended to be in a tough spot, reliant on James Harden or Tyrese Maxey to make something happen without much time to spare.

Looking ahead, the Sixers would benefit from sharper and smarter entry passes. Trying to toss the ball into a tiny window for Embiid isn’t usually worth the risk, but working hard to ensure he’s part of most important possessions is generally a solid idea. And Embiid is also responsible for continuing to value his conditioning so that carving out early, deep position is still doable a few times per night even in grueling playoff games. 

Though Harden’s contract situation is clearly less certain than Embiid’s, that duo still figures to feature for the Sixers next season. Honing pick-and-roll chemistry is tricky without game reps, but perhaps Embiid can make individual growth by drilling ways to attack smaller defenders with his trainer, Drew Hanlen. Embiid against a guard inevitably favors the 7-footer. But, given defenses frequently switched the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll, it wouldn’t be surprising if the five-time All-Star aims to arrive at training camp with greater comfort and decisiveness against shorter players.

Embiid avoided extended absences this year after being sidelined in November with COVID-19, playing a career-high 68 games. But injuries were still the big story of his postseason, if not the only takeaway.

“It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, he needs to be invincible and not get injured.’ I think if he’s not hurt, he’s a different player, he’s a different person,” Danny Green said last week. “Besides the injuries … it’s the same things I said about our group. And it’s tough to be an All-Star or an MVP-caliber type of player every night, night in and night out. And he was that for us all season. Obviously this past series was a struggle for him due to the injuries. But even with those injuries … it’s tough to ask him to do that, but we needed him to do that. 

“I think he’s gotten a lot more mature over the years. I still think some more maturity can happen — staying locked in, staying focused and being that leader. And just communication is I think the biggest thing for him — learning James and communicating with him what he needs, what he wants, and vice versa. James needs to let him know what he needs and wants between the stars.

“A lot of his energy trickles down to us. A lot of things that he did or didn’t do kind of set the tone for how we were going to play that night. And I think every night he has to come in ready to set the tone from the jump so that everybody else is locked in, too.”

Relentless energy and active leadership from Embiid obviously sound excellent, as does restored health and a few more tools in response to this postseason.

Of course, Embiid also has a life outside of basketball and summer is a great time to savor it. His son Arthur will be two years old when next season tips off. 

“I got home two days ago and I got the best award I could get, and it was Most Valuable Father,” Embiid said with a smile. “So that’s what I’m focused on this summer, enjoying my family — my son, my fiancé. Just enjoying my family — my parents, my sister, my people just being there, some positive energy. And mix in some good work, and try to get better.”

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