Sixers Must Optimize Joel Embiid In The Pick And Roll

Oct 11, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the first quarter at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 11, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the first quarter at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports /

Sixers rookie Joel Embiid has garnered attention in the preseason for finally playing. The key to his success may come with screens.

Sixers‘ head coach Brett Brown has been able to put the ball in the hands of his main scorer throughout his tenure. First with Michael Carter-Williams, then Nerlens Noel, and last year with Jahlil Okafor. With a non-contending team, there’s more of an importance on the development and play of young core players.

Joel Embiid will be no different this season. For the 20-24 minutes he’s in the game, the Sixers will put the ball in his hands. We’re seeing a foreshadow of that in preseason, with the Sixers forcing the ball into the post for Embiid.

Embiid has been a wonder of sorts, moving swiftly off the ball to find the open cutting lanes, hitting outside shots, and using turnaround jumpers in the post. He’s given fans emphatic blocks, just to add to the excitement. Embiid has shot under 40% from the field however, and the rust will affect him for the first few weeks of the regular season as well.

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I’d expect Brett Brown to be more innovative in getting Embiid the ball, and the way to ensure that is through screens. Embiid’s big body and freakish strength should theoretically make him a great screen setter, something Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor struggled with last season. But what makes Embiid an attractive pick and roll option is his agility coming off the screen.

His shooting also allows him to become a deadly pick and pop option, confusing the defenses on switches with his shooting ability. The physical attributes and the skills are there for Embiid to succeed through screens, but the offense must now follow suit.

The Sixers offense in the preseason hasn’t utilized screens with Embiid as often, but there are still some examples of what the foundation of a screen and roll offense revolving Embiid could look like.

This first screen comes off the ball for Gerald Henderson. You see Embiid disengage from the screen early, and falls back into post position. More commitment to the screen would have helped free up Henderson for a shot, or forced Gortat to step up and defend the shooter, freeing up Embiid down low.

This second one, although not technically a screen, is an example of how the Sixers would like to this scheme. Embiid comes up to what should be a screen for skilled passer Sergio Rodriguez. Ian Mahinmi, however, switches off Embiid early to nullify any potential screen opening up Rodriguez. Embiid’s IQ comes into play here. He realizes Mahinmi’s move and slips from the screen position and makes a break down low, bumping Kelly Oubre Jr. and then drawing the foul on the shot.

The aspect that is often overlooked in a rookie is the awareness on the court. While Embiid still struggles with tunnel vision with the ball in the post, it’s clear to see he has an understanding of the game and knows how to get open off the ball. Spending two seasons in the system gives Embiid an edge in grasping the offense, but his on-court intelligence is what pushes him to something special.

That awareness is once again shown in this corner screen. Embiid and the Sixers offense is hurt by the lack of awareness by T.J. McConnell in this instance. Watch Embiid roll off the screen and immediately start to post up the smaller Oubre Jr.

Here, the Sixers are trying to get an open three. Covington doesn’t take Embiid’s screen so he shifts his focus on an on-ball screen. He frees up Rodriguez and immediately sprints towards the hoop. Gortat gives him a veteran bump, but Embiid put himself in a good position to either score or rebound.

Embiid’s greatness will come with more than what he can do with the ball or defending the ball. His activity off the ball might be what has been more impressive. His high motor is allowing him to see those open looks when not in the post. His awareness on screens is an intangible asset that is so difficult to find in rookie.

The Sixers and Brett Brown will try to bring that asset to the forefront in the regular season, and try to optimize what Embiid can do. With Sergio Rodriguez and Jerryd Bayless being superior to what the Sixers had guard-wise last year, the pick and roll game will become more of an important piece to this usually high-tempo offense.

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Embiid is surrounded by passing. With the passing abilities in Rodriguez, Dario Saric, and eventually Ben Simmons, it should be a dream for the active Embiid to find open lanes to the rim off of screens. It’s a no-brainer to attack opposing defenses by using your biggest matchup problem to force rotations. Embiid will be that problem.