Joel Embiid reached the pinnacle of understatement Wednesday after tying his career high with 50 points on 17-for-23 shooting in a Sixers win over the Magic at Wells Fargo Center.
“I was OK tonight,” Embiid said.
Those words ended an answer which had been less modest but undoubtedly more accurate. Tyrese Maxey sparked the discussion.
“I was messing with him before the game about who was he going to be tonight — Shaq? Dirk? — because he can do everything,” Maxey said. “And he was like, ‘I’m going to be Joel.’ I was like, ‘OK. You go be Joel then.’ And that’s what he did.”
Embiid, who’s studied Dirk Nowitzki and was once described by former Sixers head coach Brett Brown as “Shaquille O’Neal with soccer feet,” confirmed his 21-year-old point guard's recollection of the pregame exchange.
“I said me because at times whenever I want, I’m able to be Shaq,” he said. “Whenever I want, I’m also able to be Dirk or Kobe (Bryant) or (Michael Jordan) — or any guards, really … shooting off the dribble, pull-ups or ball handling. Just a combination of everything offensively.”
It’s tempting to compare Embiid to Hall of Fame players. He’s on track to become one himself, and his game is a delightful, menacing blend of many all-time greats’ best skills.
When Embiid was learning the sport as a teenager, he pored over Hakeem Olajuwon tapes. As far as similar players, that’s a good place to start.
“I was with David Robinson as a player, Patrick Ewing as a player,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said. “And I coached Kevin Garnett. I always say he’s a little bit of Olajuwon and a little bit of Garnett. It’s a hell of a combination if you can get it. But the difference is Joel can go out to the three-point line, which sets him apart. He’s Joel Embiid. He’s not any of those guys. He’s his own guy.”
Following a knee-to-knee collision with Jonas Valanciunas during the Sixers’ season opener against the Pelicans, Embiid dealt with right knee soreness and corresponding jump shooting issues. At the time, he also said he didn’t “totally feel comfortable” with the NBA’s switch from a Spalding to Wilson basketball.
Since Dec. 3, he’s played at his highest level yet. After a 3-for-17 night against the Celtics in his third game back from a serious case of COVID-19, Embiid has scored 130.9 points per 100 shot attempts and posted a 0.66 assist-to-usage ratio and 11.1 turnover percentage, per Cleaning the Glass, statistics that would be career bests. In that 21-game stretch, Embiid has averaged 31.5 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals.
“Obviously the COVID break helped that a lot — a blessing in disguise, looking back at it, to be able to rest the knee and take as much time as I could,” he said. “And obviously I came back still dealing with COVID, and every day’s been better, but as far as the knee and the body, it’s been great.”
Because of COVID-related restrictions, there were no fans present the first time Embiid scored 50. He was glad to have fans there Wednesday but also indicated he’s the same player these days regardless of the environment off the floor.
“It was great,” Embiid said. “Like I always say, lots of love. Obviously this time around there were a lot of fans. My focus was the same, like it’s been lately — all about business, especially on the court. Worry about what I can control.”
Embiid has approached his work like a player determined not to waste colossal potential since the Sixers were swept out of the playoffs by the Celtics in the NBA’s Disney World bubble. He’s been motivated by his young son Arthur, who was born in September of 2019.
“The bubble was not a great experience,” Embiid said. “I didn’t have a good season. I was extremely disrespected, especially when it came to All-NBA and the other stuff. I just felt like behind Drew (Hanlen), my trainer, and (my) nutritionist, we needed to find a way to make sure I felt great about my body and also about my game.
“And I also saw it as an opportunity to actually make use of the talent that I have. And obviously becoming a father is probably the biggest part of it, because I want my son … I want to set the bar high for him.”
On a night highlighted by Embiid’s extreme understatement, it’s likely not hyperbolic to think Arthur Embiid’s generation might talk about Joel Embiid in Nowitzki or O’Neal-esque terms.