‘Film geek’ Joel Embiid playing like an MVP for erratic 76ers after healthy summer, and four other NBA storylines

The Philadelphia 76ers are in an odd place. The sunny optimism about franchise players Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons leading them to an eventual championship has been replaced by the cold reality of a 6-5 start and an offense that ranks 21st in points per possession. They visited Brooklyn on Sunday and played some of the most uninspired basketball I’ve seen this season; after the 122-97 loss, coach Brett Brown sounded like a disappointed dad when he said the performance was unacceptable. They have lost eight away games in a row, including the three they lost in Boston in the second round of last year’s playoffs.

None of this, however, should dampen the enthusiasm about Embiid’s individual improvement. The 24-year-old is playing like an MVP — only Stephen Curry is scoring more than his 28.4 points per game, and he is posting career-best averages across the board: 12.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.2 blocks with only 2.7 turnovers in 34.2 minutes. Let’s take a look at what’s gotten into him and then jump around the league.

1. The bully with the soft touch

Embiid is a “film geek,” according to skills trainer Drew Hanlen. In his first healthy summer as a professional, he studied how Kobe Bryant, Anthony Davis and other superstars handle double-teams, Hanlen told CBS Sports. He knew he had to decrease his turnovers, and he wanted to be prepared for any kind of scheme that an opposing defense might throw at him. 

Post play is not popular in today’s NBA, and part of it is because there aren’t a ton of enormous, quick-footed and highly skilled players like Embiid on this planet. Another part of it, though, is that the game isn’t set up for the old-school, throw-it-down-low strategy to work well. If Embiid had played in the big-man heyday of the 90s, he would have benefited from the illegal defense rule, which forced coaches to choose between single coverage and a hard double-team. In order to be as effective as he can in this era, he had to learn how to read the entire court, anticipate where help is coming from and be patient without being too methodical. He also had to deal with smaller defenders flopping all over the place. 

Three weeks in, his offseason work is evident. “He had a hell of a summer,” Brown said, adding that it has spilled over into his mentality and disposition. Embiid wants to dominate. With the ball in his hands, he is as aggressive as ever, but more impressive is the polish on display when making his moves. He is as likely to dunk on you as he is to use his soft touch to loft a floater over your fingertips. He is willing to pass, knows where the Sixers’ shooters are stationed and keeps getting better at finding cutters. He is being a big bully, but not recklessly ramming into people.

On the block, opponents have often had to resort to fouling Embiid — he has attempted a league-leading 9.9 free throws per game. This is a losing proposition because he has made 80.7 percent of them. On the perimeter, Embiid is much harder to handle than he used to be. Brown pointed out that he’s no longer needlessly upfaking or forcing out-of-control drives into traffic. 

When Embiid puts the ball on the floor now, he is staying low, maintaining his balance and largely avoiding the frustrating turnovers that were such an issue last season. He is a threat no matter where he is, and it’s not just because of his dribble-handoffs and shooting range. Even if you play close to perfect defense and force him to take a contested midrange shot, he can punish you.

“Nothing he does from this point is going to be surprising to me,” Philadelphia guard Landry Shamet said. “That dude’s a freak. He’s doing what he does. We just want to keep following him and hopefully all of us collectively can build and get better as a whole and as a team and make it a little easier on him as well.”

The new version of Embiid is a more mature, cerebral player who is efficient with his movement. He works with Sixers assistant coach Chris Babcock before and after practices, building on everything he did with Hanlen. “By and large he’s carried this team,” Brown said, adding that he wants Embiid to keep growing as a leader. In that department, his effort is showing, too, whether that means calling out his teammates for not sharing the ball in Brooklyn or generally bringing a level of energy that everybody else is supposed to match. 

“[Embiid] holds guys accountable,” Shamet said. “Especially me. I know I hear from him the most as far as if I mess something up or there’s something to look for or whatever. But he does that from top to bottom.”

The craziest part of all this: As extraordinary as Embiid has been, he still has a big, glaring area of growth. The other major focus of his summer was becoming a more consistent 3-point shooter, but he has only made 30.4 percent of his 3s this season. When that starts to translate, there will truly be no way to guard him.

2. Mentor, shmentor?

During the Sixers’ 109-99 win against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday, NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters reported that Shamet had been sitting next to JJ Redick on the team plane and trying to learn as much as possible from one of the best shooters in NBA history. Post-game, Brown said the team was using Shamet “as a mini-JJ,” via USA Today‘s Jeff Zillgitt. 

Unlike when he played point guard for Wichita State, Shamet’s job on offense is to space the floor, run around screens and knock down 3-pointers on the move. You do not have to be much of a scout to see how Redick could help the rookie:

Before Philadelphia’s game at Barclays Center on Sunday, Shamet said it was tough at first to figure out how to be effective in Brown’s system. It is still a learning process, he said, and part of it is simply watching how Redick does it. They also have conversations on the plane and work together after practice. This is all beyond what Shamet hoped for when he told people he wanted to be attached at the hip to Redick.

“It wasn’t like I was expecting to have this treatment from him,” Shamet said. “I’d be lying if I said I was. I came in and that was who I wanted to learn from. I’ve just been lucky to kind of befriend him: even off-the-court stuff, just be able to kind of form a relationship with another guy.”

Shamet said Redick teaches him something new every day and gets extremely specific when giving him pointers.

“I don’t think for me right now there’s a better person I could be learning from,” Shamet said.

Redick said the main thing he has tried to impart is the importance of having a base every night. Every time he checks into a game, he needs to know how he wants to play and where his strengths lie. Redick also made it clear that he appreciates that Shamet is genuinely listening.

“He’s the easiest mentee,” Redick said. “He’s just got a good head on his shoulders. He works hard. He has a great motor. He’s willing to learn. He’s willing to ask questions. You know, those are the guys you want on your team. Those are the guys you’re willing to place some bets on. He’s going to have a great career.”

A day after talking to them, I tried to find out how Chicago Bulls center Robin Lopez is helping 19-year-old big man Wendell Carter. After all, there has already been more than one story written about their relationship. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg called Lopez a “great influence” on Carter. 

“You can see him in timeouts, going over and talking — he’s the first guy a lot of times to greet [Carter and center Cristiano Felicio when they come out of games,” Hoiberg said. “He’s talking about coverages. He’s been awesome.”

Carter had only positive things to say about Lopez, a universally respected role player. He called the veteran “a phenomenal player” who knows what it takes to be successful. 

“I just feel lucky enough just for him to be around for advice and for him to look out for me,” Carter said. 

He was light on details, however, and that might be because they are not conducting private film sessions on the subtle art of team defense. Lopez said there isn’t much for him to do because Carter is such a smart and skilled player already. 

“That’s not my job so much,” Lopez said. “He’s kind of got a handle of things on the court. He’s a really great kid. I try to lead by example. It’s a long season. There are ups and downs. I’m going to help him where I can.”

While it can’t hurt to have Lopez in the locker room, the 30-year-old isn’t responsible for his success. Carter said he has been mature for his age “ever since I was little,” crediting his parents for his ability to keep his head clear and helping him become the kind of guy that, as Hoiberg put it, “plays way beyond his years.” That story is good enough. 

3. The bench is better in Indiana

I’ve been saving this take for about a year now: Domantas Sabonis could be a star hiding in plain sight. He plays with a nasty streak, and he is as unselfish a player as you’ll find. He is always looking to make his teammates better, setting solid screens when he doesn’t have the ball and facilitating the Indiana Pacers’ offense when he does. If you watch the Pacers carefully, it is staggering how many good looks he directly or indirectly creates when he’s on the court. And, this season, he has been one of the most productive and efficient players in basketball.

Through 10 games, Sabonis has averaged 21.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.9 blocks per 36 minutes. He has shot 68.4 percent, with a 72.9 percent true shooting percentage. He has a 27.6 PER, which ranks fifth in the league. When he scored 30 points in 21 minutes on 12-for-12 shooting at Madison Square Garden, it was a statistical anomaly, but he didn’t do anything out of the ordinary in terms of the way he got his buckets. If coach Nate McMillan found a way to give him 30-plus minutes every night, his start would be a bigger story.

Sabonis, though, is only one part of a much-improved Indiana bench. Last season, the Pacers fell apart whenever Victor Oladipo sat down, bleeding points with a net rating of minus-7.3. To alleviate some of the pressure on their star, they signed Tyreke Evans, who told me a month ago that they thought they could compete with anybody and challenge for the top spot in the East. When Evans has been on the court without Oladipo, they have had a net rating of plus-2.2. Overall they have a plus-2.1 aggregate bench net rating, per NBA.com, which ranks seventh in the league. 

Indiana is 7-4 after a rough fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets on Monday, but its one-point win against the Boston Celtics on Saturday felt like a statement. This may be the slowest team in basketball, but it plays hard and with a purpose, and it has enough firepower to keep that going for 48 minutes.  

4. The Bobanaissance

I can’t get enough of the Los Angeles Clippers, and one of the reasons is that they moved Boban Marjanovic into the starting lineup last Friday. The appeal of Marjanovic is obvious: he is the largest person in the league, and he is impossible to stop one-on-one if he catches the ball near the basket. His deficiencies are also obvious — he can’t play huge minutes, he struggles with pick-and-roll defense — but, finally, his team has decided to live with those. 

Longtime Marjanovic supporters must be thrilled by how his playing time is trending. He is only averaging 13 minutes on the season, but averaged 21 in the three games the Clippers have played in the last week. Los Angeles has a plus-9.4 net rating with Marjanovic on the court, and his per-36 numbers are even more ridiculous than Sabonis’ — 25.2 points, 16.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 2.8 blocks — while shooting 65.3 percent. 

Due to his size and finishing ability, Marjanovic is tough to deal with when rolling to the basket:

My favorite part of his game, though, is his hook shot. He doesn’t have to be right next to the rim to make it, and it cannot be blocked:

Marjanovic has always been an intriguing player, a fan favorite and an advanced stats darling. This, however, marks the first time he has been unleashed as a regular part of a rotation. That he did this on a team as deep as the Clippers is kind of stunning, and now it’s on Doc Rivers’ coaching staff to make sure the team continues to make the most of his minutes.

5. The Lowry-Ibaka connection

Serge Ibaka’s career night against the Los Angeles Lakers was just a continuation of what he’s done all season. As a center under new Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, Ibaka is playing in lineups with pristine spacing on offense and top-notch versatility on defense. He is doing more damage in the paint on both ends, and he is averaging a career-high 18 points on a career-high 59.3 percent shooting. 

So much is going right for the Raptors, though, that it can be tricky to identify the most important forces behind their success. Ibaka’s hot start should not be separated from the magnificence of Kyle Lowry, who, as my colleague Reid Forgrave pointed out, is putting up the same sort of numbers Steve Nash did when he won back-to-back MVPs. Ibaka has made 72 assisted shots, and more than half of those (37) have been from Lowry. In the 226 minutes they have played together, they have outscored opponents by 19.2 points per 100 possessions. 

Lowry has made every Raptor’s life easier, but perhaps no one more than Ibaka. Time and time again, the point guard has set him up for floaters, shots at the rim and his beloved jumpers off short rolls:

Personally, though, I’d like to see more of this type of thing:

Ibaka has shot 24 percent from 3-point range this season, and he’s taking only 2.3 per game, a drastic decrease. When he drifts to the midrange, he is obviously a threat to score, but it would open up more room for his teammates if he popped all the way to the 3-point line. Thus concludes my nitpicking of a player having a remarkable resurgence on a 10-1 team.  

10 more stray thoughts: Two players who are shooting the lights out: Joe Harris and Buddy Hield … Can’t wait for the Tyson Chandler to write a book, if only for the section on his three-and-a-bit years in Phoenix … Jeff Bzdelik deserves a huge ovation when he returns to the Rockets … Draymond Green was averaging 8.5 assists before Monday’s foot injury … The Raptors don’t even totally know one another’s tendencies yet … The Bucks have a net rating of plus-9.0 with Giannis Antetokounmpo on the bench …  The Pelicans might appear to be falling apart, but Elfrid Payton has been missed and their starting five has a plus-36.1 net rating in 60 minutes … I would very much like for Dirk Nowitzki to get healthy … Keep an eye on Gary Clark … Jamal Murray has always had moxie.   

All statistics accurate as of games played on Nov. 5.

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