Will Joel Embiid live in the paint? How Brett Brown wants to help his ‘unicorn' build a legacy


Two days before the Sixers’ regular-season opener vs. the Boston Celtics, Brett Brown was thinking big.

The Sixers' head coach reflected after practice Monday afternoon on his “huge” team, his All-Star big man, Joel Embiid, and the big picture of Embiid’s career.

I think he’s going to have a year that puts us in a position to win a championship. … I feel a tremendous responsibility to help him define his legacy. And legacies start with championships. And I didn’t take an ‘s’ off that word on purpose — it’s championships.

“I feel a role and a responsibility to help him. Him owning the paint is as good a place to start as any. It’s where my mind has been centered all summer. It’s the messaging that we’ve discussed as a team and with him. We’ve admitted we’re huge; what does that look like? What can we do to exploit our team? And with Joel especially, I think he’s going to have a fantastic season. … I’m really excited to help him improve and grow.

Brown has spoken on both Embiid’s legacy and the desire for him to “live in the paint” more this season multiple times over the past few weeks. He’s determined to get more out of Embiid beyond the fundamental tenets of conditioning and health

Embiid was second in the NBA with 8.1 post ups per game last season, per NBA.com/Stats, and it sounds like Brown wants that number to increase. 

For his part, Embiid has said he wants to be the “greatest to ever do it.” And he was clear during training camp that his preference is to be stationed more down low and less outside of the three-point line. 

“Like I’ve always said before, I don’t like shooting threes,” Embiid said on Oct. 4. “But this year since we’re going to have Ben [Simmons] willing to take those threes, maybe it’s going to put my game more inside. I’m hoping that he will shoot them, so I do my job, what I do inside.”

Brown had no doubt Monday when asked if Embiid will be more of a low-post force this season.

I don’t think it, I know it. When you look at him, he is a unicorn. When we say who is Joel Embiid like, or who is like Joel Embiid — Joel can score in a variety of ways. Is he [Shaquille O’Neal]? He’s got a little bit of that in him. Is he Arvydas Sabonis? That was a pretty multi-dimensional player. Is he Hakeem [Olajuwon]? [Tim] Duncan was a good low-post player and could step out at the elbow or foul line and make a jump shot. 

“When you start trying to put him in a box and say, ‘This is all you are,’ it’s a huge, naïve mistake. It’s a really naïve mistake. Where is he at his best? We get where it is, and we have to center our gravity more in that area of where it is. I think it’s going to equal free throws and kick outs and all of that. But to think that’s the only floor spot where he lives is really recklessly naïve. You go Shaq, Shaq, Shaq — it’s deeper than that. It’s on me as his coach, and on him, to better understand how do I best impact the game, help this team win championships, take off like I want to take off at the start of the year.

Sabonis, Olajuwon and O’Neal are all enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Duncan, who Brown knows well from his time as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, will surely be inducted in 2020. Brown told NBC Sports Philadelphia last March that the Sixers’ post offense around Embiid “replicates what we did with Duncan for 12 years in San Antonio.” 

While assistant coach Kevin Young said at Brown’s coaches clinic on Sept. 23 that the Sixers plan to run more “Explosion” this season, the free-flowing, improvisational movement off a player in the post that often enabled Simmons to find cutters in 2018-19, the emphasis with Embiid has generally been on having players set at specific starting spots, surrounding the 25-year-old with outlets. 

Embiid said at media day that decision-making out of double teams was one of his focuses during the offseason. He did improve in that area last year, turning the ball over on 13.1 percent of his post-up possessions, the lowest rate of his career. 

Brown and Embiid’s larger ambitions of championships, legacies and the like might sound outlandish to some in isolation. In context, though, there are tangible steps they can take toward those goals.

Both Brown and his big man hope many take place in the paint.

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