Joel Embiid

Embiid's open-floor passing audacity has stood out lately, on top of all the scoring

Nick Nurse has encouraged Embiid to start fast breaks and set up teammates.

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Joel Embiid’s been scoring and generally overwhelming opponents in ways comparable to Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan these days.

He’s also seemed to get a kick out of trying to channel Magic Johnson’s open-floor playmaking lately.

In the Sixers’ last two blowout wins over cellar-dwelling teams, Embiid has looked eager to lead fast breaks and even toss some flashy passes. The results haven’t been nearly as dependable as Embiid squaring up a defender in the half court.

The successes are highlight-worthy. 

And the miscues are audacious, if nothing else.

Overall, Sixers head coach Nick Nurse is in favor of his 7-foot superstar starting transition possessions and attacking the defense. He had a wry smile in discussing the behind-the-back attempts. 

“I think that when he brings it up the floor, we’ve got a chance to get a catch-and-shoot three often in transition,” Nurse said Thursday afternoon following the Sixers’ practice. “So we are encouraging it. I’m not sure I encouraged those behind-the-back passes the other night, but I’m sure he’ll get those straightened out and into his game with a few more reps. 

“But I think he’s got a chance to grab the ball off the glass, get it up the floor quickly in transition, take it into the paint, and a lot of times spray it out from there.”

De’Anthony Melton profited off of a more straightforward early-offense pass Embiid threw last week vs. the Hawks. Just the sight of Embiid bringing the ball down the middle of the floor usually compels defenders to pinch in and fixate on the reigning MVP. 

“We love it, we love it,” Melton said Thursday with a laugh. “He’s becoming a better passer. The behind-the-backs, we were 0 for 3 on ‘em. But I think next time, we’re going to start converting them. He knows it, we know it, and we’re going to get to it.”

Along with his NBA-best 33.8 points per game, Embiid has averaged 6.4 assists. 

He has a 0.86 assist-to-usage ratio, according to Cleaning the Glass. Embiid’s career-high assist-to-usage ratio over a full season is last year’s 0.65. His turnover percentage of 12.5 is essentially identical to last season’s mark, too. 

There’s almost 60 games left before the playoffs, where Embiid knows he'll face heaps of valid external skepticism and scrutiny as he aims to finally lead the Sixers beyond Round 2. Still, it's incredibly impressive that Embiid's had no discernible drop-off from his MVP level — and apparently become a bit more well-rounded — early in his first season with Nurse.

The Sixers are 16-4 thus far when he’s played and 0-3 when he hasn’t. They’ve got the NBA’s top net rating and second-best offensive rating.

“You can tell Joel is more locked in this year,” Melton said. “Even after coming off the MVP season, he wants more for himself and he wants more for this team. That type of stuff you’ve just got to love and you’ve got to embrace.”

The Sixers have won four straight games since Embiid’s return from an illness, and they’re again set to have a full-strength team for Friday night’s matchup vs. Detroit. The 2-22 Pistons will remain without Jalen Duren, Marvin Bagley III and Monte Morris. 

A tricky Embiid pass or two appears more likely than a home loss to Detroit.

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