Nylon Calculus: Joel Embiid vs. greatest rookie center seasons of last quarter century

UNIONDALE, NY - OCTOBER 11: Joel Embiid /

Joel Embiid agreed to a contract extension last Monday worth almost $150 million despite only having scored 627 total points in his NBA career. On Wednesday night, Embiid got his first preseason action of the year, and his first on-court action of any kind since Jan. 27. And in his 14 minutes of preseason action, Embiid tried to break the internet:

All told, Embiid scored 22 points (on only nine field goal attempts) with seven boards, three assists and a blocked shot in those 14 minutes of preseason action. He knocked down 14 of his 18 free throws, and missed his two 3-point attempts (but made two after the whistle).

This performance, understandably, has people ultra-excited about what Embiid could develop into if he is ever able to stay healthy — an unfortunately big “if” for the man known as The Process. But there is much more than just a preseason to suggest that Embiid has the talent to be one of the greatest players to ever lace them up. Even though his rookie season was much shortened by injury (and was actually two years after he was drafted, for the same reason), what Embiid accomplished in those 31 games was remarkable.

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Let’s take a look at how Embiid’s performance in his rookie season last year compared to some of the greatest big men in NBA history as both a scorer and a defensive player.


In this era of small ball, there was a sense for awhile that the dominant scoring NBA center could be phased out. Instead, in recent years, we’ve seen centers evolve their scoring approaches to include jump shots, face-up ball-handling and 3-point range — skills more traditionally associated with wings and guards. Embiid’s skillset epitomizes the best of these new-age big man scorers, utilizing his ability to get to the rim and draw fouls in addition to his consistent 3-point range to score extremely efficiently at excellent volume from all over the court.

This figure plots the points per 100 possessions vs. the scoring efficiency of 15 of the greatest rookie centers of the past 25 years, including 1984 Ralph Sampson, 1985 Hakeem Olajuwon, 1986 Patrick Ewing, 1990 David Robinson, 1992 Dikembe Mutombo, 1993 Shaquille O’Neal, 1993 Alonzo Mourning, 1998 Tim Duncan, 2003 Yao Ming, 2005 Dwight Howard, 2005 Emeka Okafor, 2011 DeMarcus Cousins, 2013 Anthony Davis, 2016 Karl-Anthony Towns and 2017 Joel Embiid:

As you can see, Embiid was scoring at an unheard of per possessions pace, while maintaining among the best scoring efficiencies on the list. The caveat has to always be that Embiid was playing limited minutes (25.4 minutes per game) and only made it through 31 games, but from observation there was no indication that his pace would be any different if he were healthy enough to play longer. That is a big part of what makes his offensive potential so amazing.

But what about on defense?


While scoring from the big man position is wonderful, especially if it can be done in such a way that it maximizes the team offense — the way that it appears that Embiid’s does — often the true hallmark of a Hall of Fame big man is what he’s able to accomplish on defense. And Embiid’s defensive potential is tantalizing, as well.

Let’s go back to our list of all-time great rookie season centers of the last quarter century, and compare how Embiid’s defense stacked up. In this figure, we compare their Defensive Box Plus-Minus against their blocked shots per 100 possessions:

Once again, Embiid measures out among the absolute elite of the rookie seasons of the absolute elite. His defensive BPM trails only rookie Robinson and Duncan, and his blocks per 100 possessions trailed only Robinson and Mourning. Meaning that, in this particular combination of stats, rookie Embiid trailed only rookie David Robinson as exhibiting some of the highest defensive potential for a big over the last 25 years.

Next: 2017-18 NBA Season Preview

Joel Embiid, playing his rookie year in the third season after he was drafted, managed to play only 25 minutes a night for 31 games. However, in that stretch he flashed offensive and defensive upside as a center in a combination that may just be unprecedented in the post-merger NBA. He flashed that potential again, in just 14 minutes of preseason action on Wednesday. If Embiid is able to stay healthy for the majority of his sophomore season, we could all be witnesses to something incredible.