With Ben Simmons on the sideline to start the season, the Philadelphia 76ers have needed other players to step up when it comes to generating open opportunities for their teammates, and early on Joel Embiid has done just that. Through three games, Embiid has 15 assists, which is an average of five per game -- a number that represents a significant increase for Embiid.
The big man averaged 2.8 assists per game last season, and has averaged 3.1 over the course of his career. Last season, Embiid became much more comfortable at passing out of double-teams (which are basically a nightly occurrence for Embiid) and so far this season we've seen a continuation of that.
Early on in his career, Embiid was reactive against doubles, and him being a little late to read or react to them would often result in turnovers. Now, Embiid is proactive against doubles. He reads and reacts to them much quicker, and even seeks them out or baits opponents into them knowing that he will be able to get good looks for his teammates that way. His turnovers are down as a result. He's averaged 3.4 per game over his career, but just 1.3 so far this season.
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Embiid has worked on that part of his game quite a bit over the past few years, and the behind-the-scenes work has led to increased on-court confidence when it comes to his playmaking abilities. Plays like this one that he made against Oklahoma City on Sunday night where he drove into a huddle of three defenders only to kick it out to an open Seth Curry in the corner we likely wouldn't have seen him execute a couple of seasons ago:
Later in the same corner, Embiid generated another open look from long range for Curry by forcing Curry's defender to commit to him by taking an aggressive dribble in his direction. The air space created for Curry by this move was all the sharp-shooting guard needed to knock it down.
By the end of the quarter, Embiid was seeking Curry out, and he found him again in the corner with a skip pass out of a faceup.
"If you trap Joel, he'll make you pay and that's what he did today... It was just great to watch because they kept walking over, coming over and he was just patient," Rivers said of Embiid. "He just was directing, just picking people apart. Not Aaron Rodgers, you can't use that one because he's from Green Bay, but any other good quarterback. Tom Brady-ish is what Joel was today.
"Joel knew that they were going to trap, he never forced it, took his time," Rivers added. "I thought Joel was every bit as much as the point guard tonight as anyone else on the floor. I thought he got Seth shots, he got Danny [Green] shots. When he does that, he becomes unguardable because you trap him, we get a 3, you don't trap him, he scores. That was great that he saw it and I loved that he did."
Embiid's improvement as a passer and a playmaker has been enormous for his overall development as a player. What used to be a weakness is now a weapon, and the Sixers are the beneficiaries of his growth in that area. If he can keep it up, the big man appears poised to have his best professional season from a playmaking perspective.