Joel Embiid’s rookie season was dynamite. After waiting two injury-riddled seasons to make his NBA debut, Embiid came out with per-36 minute averages of 28.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.2 steals and 3.5 blocks, shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from beyond the arc. It was thoroughly dominating.
The counterpoint to those numbers, of course, was that Embiid never actually played 36 minutes in any of the 31 games in which he appeared, none of which came after the end of January. Embiid played just 786 minutes across the entire season and, as good as he looked on the court, it was reasonable to wonder if his incredible numbers were inflated at some level by small sample size.
This second season was to be a referendum on Embiid’s ability to stay healthy playing more minutes and more games, but also to sustain the incredible numbers he put up in the limited engagement that was his rookie season.
So far, he’s passing with flying colors.
Through Friday, Mar. 23, Embiid had appeared in nearly twice as many games as last year (59) and will likely finish the year playing close to three times as many minutes as he did last season. Other than a decrease in his defensive counting stats, it’s hard to argue that Embiid has really dropped off with the larger physical load.
If we look at a measure of overall value built from box score stats, like Box Plus-Minus, we can see roughly the same picture. The graph below shows all players this season (as well as Embiid last season), marked by their total minutes played and their Box Plus-Minus.
In the the low-minute portion of the graph where Embiid fell last season, there are far more negative players than positive ones. The players on the graph with less than 800 minutes played this season and a BPM higher than Embiid’s rookie mark of 3.1 are Kawhi Leonard, Ekpe Udoh, Lucas Nogueira, Jordan Bell, JaVale McGee and Salah Mejiri. Leonard is obviously an injury fluke. The rest are big man specialists who hit the glass, finish efficiently and produce a healthy number of defensive counting stats.
Seeing Embiid move out of that group, maintaining a high-usage offensive role in a much larger number of minutes, while still maintaining a similar level of overall production is incredibly encouraging.
Of course, it hasn’t all been rosy for Embiid this season, statistically speaking. His catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage has plummeted to 31.0 percent, he’s blocking far fewer shots and more often, relative to those blocks. Of his numbers last season, those areas — shot-blocking and 3-point shooting — seemed like the biggest outliers. His rookie 3-point percentage would have been the ninth-best career mark ever for a 7-footer with at least 75 attempts. His league-leading 7.7 block percentage was a top-50 single-season mark in NBA history.
He might be able to approach those lofty heights again in the future but, for this season, he’s been able to offset those declines in other areas. Embiid has been even better as a post-up threat this season, and is shooting an astronomical 72.6 percent on shots inside of three feet of the basket, up from 64.0 last season. He’s also been even better on the defensive glass and cut down on the frequency of his fouls and turnovers.
This may be a little late to be making this point, but Embiid’s second season has clearly wiped away any concerns about his impact being exaggerated by his minute totals last season — the guy is an absolute game-changer. Now let’s just keep our fingers crossed on the health front.