Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid was on the receiving end of some pretty harsh criticism from NBA on TNT analysts Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley earlier this week, as the two Hall of Famers expressed their disappointment in Embiid's play so far this season.
"He's the toughest player in the league to match up with," Barkley said of Embiid on Inside the NBA after the 76ers' win over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. "But we don't talk about him the way we talk about Luka [Doncic], Giannis [Antetokounmpo], Anthony Davis, James [Harden]. We don't ever say that about him."
"We're telling you, 'You can be great. You ain't playing hard enough.' Twenty-two [points] ain't enough to get you to the next level." O'Neal added. "Do you want to be great, or do you want to be good? If you want to be good, keep doing 22 points. You want to be great, give me 28, give me 30. You want to be great, watch Giannis; he wants to be great."
The criticism was fair, if somewhat shortsighted. Yes, Embiid's stats are down this season, but that's not a coincidence, as his minutes are also down in an intentional effort by both the Sixers and Embiid to keep the big man as healthy as possible come the postseason. Embiid is playing three fewer minutes a game this season than he did the past season. Plus, he's still getting accustomed to playing alongside veteran forward Al Horford and seeing consistent double teams from opponents. Not to mention the fact that Embiid has been a dominant All-Star for each of the past two seasons.
Nonetheless, Embiid can certainly be better than he has been through the first third of the current season, and he admitted as much prior to the Sixers' showdown with the Celtics in Boston on Thursday night. Instead of shrugging it off, or dismissing the criticism as commentary from bitter former players, Embiid looked inward and acknowledged that he hasn't been as consistently dominant as he could be.
"Maybe they're right. Maybe. I do think they're right," Embiid said. "I think I need to be more aggressive and just look to impose myself and look to dominate ... I think the whole season I haven't done that, and you can see the way it has affected my efficiency and my stats, so I guess I need to go back to having fun and just dominating. But I get what they are saying, and I think they are right, man. I have to make a change."
Embiid's off-court approach to the criticism was mature, as was his on-court response. Clearly fueled by the comments from the two basketball luminaries, Embiid turned in arguably his best performance of the season on Thursday night. He tallied a season-high 38 points (he made 12-of-14 free throws), 13 rebounds and six assists as the 76ers handed the Celtics their first loss at home this season.
The stat line was impressive, as was how Embiid went about his business. In what could be viewed as a direct response to Barkley and Shaq saying that he spends too much time floating around the perimeter as opposed to establishing himself in the post, Embiid made sure to make his presence felt in the painted area throughout the contest by fighting for deep post position, like this:
Or by attacking the offensive glass, like this:
Unlike O'Neal, who had to rely on brute strength for the majority of his point production over the course of his career, Embiid also has a feathery touch from long distance, and that was also on display, as Embiid is at his most effective when he's doing work inside while also occasionally stepping out to stretch the floor.
Embiid was at his best when it mattered most on Thursday night, as he scored 16 points in the fourth quarter and hit five free throws in the final half minute of the contest to ice the victory for the Sixers. Afterwards, he admitted that he viewed the words of Barkley and O'Neal as a call to action.
"I like being criticized," Embiid said, via USA Today. "For them to say I have the potential to be the best player in the world and I haven't shown that. They've been there, they've done it, they're Hall of Famers so it just shows me that I've got to play harder and I've got to be dominant like I can ... I actually called Shaq [on Wednesday]. He thought I was mad at him, but I understand what he was saying. I've had a down year so far. I just wanted to talk to him. He was just telling me to be aggressive. Just to go out there and dominate. I think it was great for me."
Great players use criticism as motivation, and that's exactly what Embiid did on Thursday night to the benefit of his team. When Embiid plays like he did against the Celtics, the Sixers are very tough to topple. He's one of the most physically overwhelming players in the NBA when he puts his mind to it, and it seems like O'Neal and Barkley's harsh critique of his game served to remind him just how downright dominant he can be. Now he just needs to keep it up.