The Cavaliers selected Andrew Wiggins. The Bucks selected Jabari Parker. The Sixers had to “settle” for Joel Embiid. Little did we know, the Sixers received a gift from the basketball gods when Joel Embiid was left for them. Wiggins was traded weeks later and has not come close to living up to expectations. Jabari Parker left the Bucks for a tanking Bulls squad and is out of the rotation. Joel Embiid? The indisputable best center in the league.
Joel is massive in height, dominant in body strength, and gifted in skill. However, none of those attributes are why Embiid is on track to be a Hall of Famer. So how is Joel Embiid this good? It’s a combination of basketball IQ and footwork that make him a match-up nightmare for every team in the NBA. Today, I am going to show you how Joel utilizes his remarkable footwork and in-game intelligence to dominate the offensive side of the floor.
The first thing to notice in this clip is that Embiid sets a screen with his body squared up to the basket. The attention garnered by JJ Redick allows Embiid to slip towards the rim. Redick times the pass well, delivering it as soon as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is behind Embiid.
The most important component of this play is space. When Embiid initially takes control of the ball, Brook Lopez is three full steps away. This gives Joel more space than necessary to execute the euro step perfectly. Embiid senses that Lopez is closing out recklessly. The textbook method for closing out is taking choppy steps. Lopez runs at Embiid with flat feet. When Brook is within an arm’s reach of Embiid, Joel pulls the trigger.
The first key to a great euro step is a pronounced step with the foot opposite of the hand you will finish with. Embiid plants his right foot deep to Lopez’s left. From this point, the ability to sell the shoulder fake is what makes or breaks the euro step. Embiid utilizes a brilliant right shoulder fake low, and then brings the ball to the left, all while simultaneously taking a long step to the left. At this point, Embiid has established strong positioning in the lane and just has to finish.
This is a new move that Joel added to his arsenal while working with Drew Hanlen this summer. Obviously, this play begins with the shot fake. Joel uses the shot fake very frequently, and that’s why this move works. Cody Zeller, having watched film on Joel Embiid to prepare for the matchup, knows Embiid favors attacking left after the fake, so he automatically slides to his right (Embiid’s left) to try to cut Joel off. But, he’s already fallen into Joel’s trap. Sensing Zeller’s overplay to counter his attack, Joel quickly executes a behind-the-back crossover to change directions whilst protecting the ball from Zeller’s active hands. Joel now has Zeller in a position of disadvantage and can operate with space. Most important, he can now shoot moving to his right, which, for a right-handed shooter, is much easier than doing so while moving to his left.
Joel Embiid has been using these next few moves to create space for jumpers since his official rookie season. The first thing I will point out is ball security. Embiid brings the ball down near his left knee while he takes jab steps with his right and establishes the face-up positioning he wants before he makes his move. In doing this, he makes it impossible for Jared Sullinger to get his hands on the rock without fouling Joel. Joel then uses a slight up-fake to the left and hits Sullinger with one final righty jab step to get Sullinger off balance. Embiid then attacks to the left using one dribble and a quick step-back with his right foot. The righty jab step, dribble, and step-back all create enough space for Joel to execute his prey with a filthy baseline jumper. Quite the calamity for a player like Jared Sullinger.
It’s pretty obvious that Jo has been watching Dirk highlights, because this is right from the book of Nowitzki. Joel backs Rudy Gobert, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, down on the block for two reasons. One, he wants to get himself as close to the basket as possible before attempting this highly-difficult jumper. Two, he is creating room for himself because it is going to take Gobert a fraction more time and space to recover from defending a back-down post move to a jumper. Embiid gets himself to a position of comfort and then pivots onto his left foot. He then swings his right knee upwards so as to fend off Gobert’s reach. The upwards momentum, high release point, and arc on Embiid’s shot makes for a beautiful move by Cameroon’s finest.
One thing I will point out is that, although Embiid is right-handed and I stated earlier that it is easier to shoot going to the right than it is the left, this shot is much different than the one previously mentioned. Joel is attempting to create momentum with his dominant side by swinging the right knee up, and the momentum carries through to the shot and makes it easier to get off a comfortable look. It would actually be a much more difficult if Embiid pivoted to his right foot and then attempted to shoot because his right side would be carrying momentum downwards.
Reverse Pivot Baseline Fade-Away
In terms of jump-shots, this is Embiid’s masterpiece. It is perhaps the most unguardable shot in his repertoire. Here, he pivots off of his right foot and utilizes a semi-spin to fool Vucevic into committing to Joel’s left. Embiid then stops on a dime and reverses the pivot move to come back to a face-up position. At this point, Vucevic has no chance. Embiid has created more-than-adequate space to get off his shot. All he has to do is focus on finishing the move. For such a beautiful and complex move, this break-down is not too extensive. But don’t be fooled, this move requires agility, mastery of footwork, and the strength to make a fading mid-range jumper after a reverse pivot. Joel Embiid is the only center in the league that I have seen do this.
Dream Shake Up-and-Under
And finally, we have come to the most difficult move in Joel Embiid’s book. He got this from the great Hakeem Olajuwon, and Joel keeps it up his sleeve and only brings it out for special occasions. The first thing Embiid does is establish back-down positioning in the paint. He recognizes that he has a perfect match-up against a small but bulky big in Julius Randle. Seeing as Randle is playing out of position (power forward being used as a center), Embiid goes to work on a filthy highlight reel dance move.
He uses his left foot as the pivot foot and quickly fakes an attack to his right. He then picks up his dribble and comes back to his left. Notice how he is able to legally re-establish his pivot foot, this time the right foot, because he took a dribble. He then swings back left to get himself into a face-up position. This is where he executes Randle. All in one motion, after pivoting his way into a face-up, Embiid fakes high as if he’s going to turn around and attempt to step past Randle with a lefty layup. Randle takes a big bite on the fake, and Embiid is gone. Joel pivots under Randle and steps through with his left (non-pivot foot) and creates an easy right-handed layup for himself, and is able to focus on finishing off the play while getting hit by Julius Randle to draw the and-1.
These moves show how Joel Embiid has risen to the top when it comes to centers in the NBA. While size and skill are important attributes, Embiid’s basketball IQ and mastery of the art of footwork are why he is one of the most dominating players in the league today.