Last season, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid finished second in MVP voting behind Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. There’s an argument to be made that Embiid might have won the award if not for the number of games that he missed, but either way, it was objectively the best season of Embiid’s career. Given the way that he performed last season, the expectations facing Embiid entering the current campaign were enormous. However, he started the season off somewhat slow — for him.
In six games in October, Embiid averaged 21 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game, while shooting just 43 percent from the floor — numbers that were well below the superior stats that he posted last season. Several factors could have contributed to the slow start, including a shortened offseason, a rule change that impacted the way that players were able to draw fouls, and a new ball that Embiid admittedly struggled to get used to. Given such changes, the center was far from the only star player that seemed to struggle early on.
Embiid also had to spend a large chunk of the offseason resting his right knee after suffering a torn meniscus last postseason. So, it’s possible that he wasn’t quite in the shape that he would’ve been had he been healthy all offseason. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the big man wasn’t playing his best ball in October.
Then in November, Embiid missed three weeks of action due to COVID-19, and the extended absence prevented him from finding his rhythm. He played just five total games in November, and averaged 25 points, 12.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists per performance, while his field goal percentage again hovered around 43. Again, not his best ball.
It took him a couple of games upon his return to action after his bout with COVID, but once the calendar flipped to December, Embiid started to resemble his MVP self from last season much more. In 13 games, Embiid posted averages of 29.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists, and most importantly, his field goal percentage shot up to 49 percent. The increase in shooting percentage was the direct result of Embiid playing himself into shape, and consistently getting better looks on the offensive end as a result.
After spending maybe a little too much time around the perimeter early on in the season, Embiid re-established himself as the league’s premier post presence in December. He was named the NBA‘s Eastern Conference Player of the Month for the third time in his career as a result. The Sixers summed up his December dominance nicely in a press release:
Embiid was the lone player during the month to post totals of at least 350 points, 140 rebounds and 50 assists. These totals led to Embiid posting eight double-doubles, which ranked second in the East and tied for fifth in the NBA… Embiid scored in double figures in all 13 appearances in the month, including two 40-plus point performances. On Dec. 6, in a win at Charlotte, Embiid scored a season-high 43 points (15-20 FG, 1-2 3FG, 14-15 FT), while adding 15 rebounds and seven assists. He is one of two players to have a game of at least 40-15-5 this season.
Over the month of December, Embiid posted a league-leading four games of at least 35 points and 10 rebounds. These outings helped contribute to the three-time All-NBA selection scoring his 7,000th career point on Dec. 26 in a win against the Wizards. In doing so, he tied Iverson for the fewest career games (282) to score his 7,000th point in franchise history.
It’s still early, but Embiid’s play has been equally as outstanding in January. In three games, he has tallied 93 total points, 32 rebounds, and 21 assists for the Sixers, who sit fifth in the East with a 22-16 record. The Sixers are currently in the midst of a six-game winning streak, and Embiid has scored 30-plus points in all six games, becoming the third Sixers player — along with Allen Iverson and Wilt Chamberlain — to score 30-plus in six straight games in the process.
Given the way he’s been playing, it’s not surprising that Embiid is again starting to generate some MVP buzz. Two weeks ago, he was nowhere to be found on NBA.com’s weekly MVP ladder. Last week, he was ninth. This week, he has climbed all the way up to fourth, behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and Jokic. If he continues to play the way he has for the past month and change, he will continue to climb.
An impressive thing about Embiid’s current campaign is that he has actually managed to improve in a couple of key areas compared to last season. After finishing well outside of the top ten in clutch scoring last season, Embiid has catapulted all the way up to the top of that list this season, and it isn’t particularly close. Embiid has scored over 25 more clutch points than the second-place player, Chicago Bulls guard DeMar DeRozan. His improvement in this area can be chalked up to sheer determination on his part, combined with improving conditioning.
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Additionally, Embiid is having his best season as a passer. Last season, he averaged just 2.8 assists per game. That number has climbed to a career-high 4.2 this year. He’s orchestrating offense for Philadelphia and setting his teammates up in ways that he hasn’t done before. Here are a couple of excellent examples of Embiid’s development as a passer from Philadelphia’s 119-100 victory over the Spurs on Friday night.
In the first play, Embiid reads the defense perfectly and delivers a dime to a cutting Tobias Harris. In the second play, Embiid reacted to San Antonio’s baseline double team swiftly and decisively, and Matisse Thybulle got an open dunk as a result. The big man has been making plays like this all season. Embiid’s increased confidence in his own playmaking has also resulted in some seriously memorable highlights, like the over-the-head dime he delivered to Thybulle in the second quarter of their game against the Spurs:
Embiid has recently stated that he’s still not quite at 100 percent, which is a scary thought for the rest of the league. His stellar play is far from a guarantee that he will win his first MVP, though, as there’s a plethora of players — including Antetokounmpo, Durant, Jokic, Curry, James and Morant, to name a few — that have a legitimate case to take home the award. Nonetheless, Embiid is back where he belongs — right in the thick of the conversation, because when the big man is operating at the peak of his powers, he’s as impactful as any player in the league.