This weekend I tweeted that Joel Embiid is the 6th best prospect of the past 20 years (behind LeBron, Duncan, Durant, A Davis, Oden), and a number of reasonable minds disagreed with me. There is an argument to be made that Yao and Dwight were superior, although the problem with prospects lacking info is that sometimes you get Darko. Other suggestions included Blake Griffin, Allen Iverson, Elton Brand, Andrew Bogut, and Michael Beasley. Many of these suggestions came from Layne Vashro (@VJL_bball on twitter) who does an excellent job statistically modeling the draft, and were echoed by others. This suggests that it is time to explore the facets of Embiid’s game that make him so much more enticing than the raw numbers would suggest.
Embiid has excellent statistics for a soon to be 20 year old freshman, but not historically great numbers. He has strong shooting percentages as he is both efficient from the floor with a 62.9% eFG and has a strong FT% for a young 7 footer at 68.5%. His rebounding and block totals are excellent, and his steal and assist totals are strong. This is all somewhat mitigated by his exorbitant turnover rate, and he also does not score with exceptionally high volume (his usage rate is 24.4 but that’s largely padded by his turnover rate). Further, while his defensive stats are excellent, he is not a pristine defensive player, as he is still mastering fundamentals such as defending the pick and roll (covered in my post on his defense vs Ok St.)
This leaves two conflicting schools of thought to assess the merit of Embiid’s performance. One is that he stuffs the stat sheet far better than expected for a player lacking experience, and he will grow at a faster rate than normal going forward as he catches up to speed with his peers. The other is that lack of experience is not necessarily an advantage, since he missed key developmental years that have caused warts not seen in the statistics (i.e. pick and roll defense).
The latter case does have merit. Based on the numbers alone he appears to be a Greg Oden level defensive prospect, but it simply cannot be taken for granted that he develops a masterful basketball IQ and eliminates a large portion of his mistakes on that end. This also can be applied to his offensive game, as it is much easier to make an impact on sheer size as a 7 footer in college than it is in the NBA. An example of this would be Hasheem Thabeet, whose stats as a college junior don’t look woefully different from those of Embiid. He shares good FG% on only slightly lower volume, as well as an excellent block and rebound rate. Embiid does have a much better assist rate, but Thabeet’s turnover rate is lower as well. All of Thabeet’s stats came after two years of college experience to merely become comparable to Embiid, but that’s not particularly re-assuring when he has completely flopped as a pro.
So before lack of experience can be construed as a positive, it is worth addressing what makes Embiid more than a slightly more advanced Thabeet. First, Thabeet was almost exclusively a finisher. Before the 2009 draft, DraftExpress had an excellent writeup about Thabeet’s lack of offensive creation based on situational stats. Further, he grew leaps and bounds from his freshman season where he had a 14.9% usage rate and 96.1 O-Rtg to a 19.5% usage rate and 118.0 O-Rtg. For reference, Embiid has a 24.4% usage and 112.2 O-Rtg thus far this year. Even the average giant needs a bit of time before discovering how to dominate a bunch of comparative midgets, which is why limited production was expected from Embiid this year as he started the season as a bench player. If he were to stay in school for 3 years and progress at Thabeet’s rate, he would likely post mindblowing statistics that insist that he is a historically elite prospect.
The fact of the matter is that Embiid is an outlier by virtue of going from inexperienced player to college star instantaneously. The only other player to be this good this early is Hakeem Olajuwon. As a freshman, Hakeem was 10 months younger, but he had the advantage of practicing with the team in his prior redshirt season. Also Hakeem played fewer minutes per game. (18.2 vs 23.1). These stats are pace adjusted per 40, as Hakeem’s Phi Slamma Jamma Cougars played at a faster pace than Kansas (~75 possessions/game vs 68).
Embiid stacks up fairly well, and this is with Kansas playing the toughest schedule in the nation (according to cbb-ref, Kansas’s average opponent is 11.9 pts above average, Houston’s was 7.5). Hakeem’s steal advantage is for all intents and purposes negligible, given the SOS difference, the fact that steals are down this year due to handcheck rules, and the fact that Bill Self preaches an anti-gambling style defensively. Hakeem does also have a small advantage in blocks, but Embiid has been better on the boards. Also for those concerned about Embiid’s foul rate, it is identical to that of Hakeem. I have no idea how Hakeem’s defensive fundamentals were as a freshman, but if nothing else the numbers portray the two as extremely close on that end.
Offensively is where the two begin to differ. Embiid gets more points and assists with better shooting percentages, but also turns it over much more. This seems to suggest that Hakeem was used as more of a finisher whereas Kansas frequently runs their offense through Embiid. Embiid scores the vast majority of his points in the half-court (he is just 9/12 on transition FG’s), where he is double teamed nearly every time he touches the ball. Unlike Julius Randle, he rarely turns it over attacking double teams, as he is quick to dribble away and kick it back out to the perimeter. Other times he waits for the double to go away before attacking. Suffice it to say that defenses invest quite a bit of effort in preventing Embiid from getting in a position to finish easily, which explains why his shooting volume isn’t higher. But in spite of being often used in difficult circumstances, he is surprisingly effective as he uses he elite skill level to create and finish. He has excellent coordination, footwork, touch around the rim, and instincts that cumulatively creates a highly intriguing upside.
Embiid’s turnovers are a bit worrisome, but many of them can be easily cut down. 3 of his 68 turnovers have come from technical fouls, and a healthy portion have come from offensive fouls. Some of these are not especially concerning since it is only a matter of time before he learns how to establish position in the paint without fouling, for instance. He also turns it over on his passing attempts, as sometimes when he is doubled he makes risky cross court passes to the perimeter that go awry. Other times he may throw away simple entry passes from the top of the key. Without having charted anything, he seems to turn it over on bad passes more often than he does in trying to create his own shot.
While the turnover gap between Embiid and Hakeem may appear to be slightly unsettling, I do not believe it necessarily means that Embiid was worse offensively as a freshman. The fast pace of Houston implies that Hakeem likely had more easy buckets in transition than Embiid, and he would likely have quite a few more turnovers if he was used as a passer/creator more. While Hakeem was the more explosive athlete, it is a reasonable hypothesis that Embiid had a higher skill level as a freshman, as crazy as that sounds. At least he has played a slightly more demanding role in Kansas’s offense than Hakeem did for Houston.
Does this mean that Embiid is as good of a prospect as Hakeem? Absolutely not. Hakeem improved quite a bit over the next 2 years and then continued to develop exceptionally well as a pro. But when the only frame of reference to start playing at a young age and post similar numbers as a freshman became an all time great player, it is a strong check mark in favor of lack of experience being a positive for Joel Embiid specifically. On a scale of Hasheem to Hakeem, Embiid’s start closely aligns with the latter while the former is completely left in the dust. Perhaps on average starting late is not advantageous for future growth rate of 7 footers, but Embiid is clearly not an average prospect. I do not believe that prospects such as Hasheem Thabeet or Fab Melo are valid frames of reference when they have nowhere near the skill level of Embiid, and could never come close to doing this:
The problem for unskilled bigs is that when they face competition that can physically match up, they lose a ton of their production. When Embiid moves on to facing NBA bigs, he will maintain the advantage of his unique skill level which bodes well for his ability to translate. And not only do we need to bear in mind that he is starting at a much higher skill level than the average African giant, but if he is able to figure out how to perform so well so early it is worth wondering whether he is also a uniquely fast learner. While there is plenty of easy improvements to his game in cutting turnover fat and mastering defensive fundamentals, it cannot be taken for granted that he will do so as well as one would hope. But when he has smashed expectations as a freshman, there is reason for at least slight optimism regarding his future growth ability. This is especially true when he has also displayed a basic competence in learning on the court.
Overall my intuition is that Joel Embiid’s freshman stats comfortably underrate his NBA upside when taken in a vacuum. They are all accrued in the half-court receiving a ton of defensive attention, when he was expected to be nowhere near ready to perform at this level. Further, a well built NBA team will be able to offer him better spacing. If he can master defense enough to become a solid rim protector and develop into a more reliable passer, he can be an overwhelmingly powerful piece to build around. Surround him with four shooters and teams are forced to either double him and likely cede an open 3, or single cover him and let him cause damage in the post. This is why he stands out over other past #1/2 picks. Andrew Bogut had solid offensive numbers in college, but didn’t have the skill level to project as a great scorer in the pros. Blake Griffin projected to be a poor defensive PF with a somewhat limited half-court offensive repertoire. Allen Iverson is a 5’11 guard that neither excels as a shooter nor distributor. Michael Beasley was able to get some steals and blocks in college, but was never anywhere close to competent defensively. None of these players ever had much of a prayer of becoming top 10 players of all time. Embiid certainly has a long way to go and is a clear longshot to get there, but there is also nothing obviously holding him back. Questions about his defense linger, but if Hakeem was able to become an all-time great defensive player then why is it impossible for Embiid to do likewise? Embiid is less of an explosive athlete, but he has good tools overall, and his ability to master the mental aspect of defense is what will make or break him on that end.
The draft is sort of like video poker, in that a huge portion of upside value lies in the upside tail. In video poker a large percentage of expected value comes from the outside shot of binking a straight flush, and NBA prospects are not all that different. If we assign Embiid just a 2% shot of becoming the next Hakeem or better, that carries massive value as a player of that magnitude completely changes the value of a franchise. And the good news is that he can peak well short of Hakeem and still provide an excellent return on a #1 overall pick. So if we are willing to buy that he has an inkling of hidden super upside that the average #1 pick such as Blake Griffin, Allen Iverson, or Andrew Bogut lacks, it is worth enough value to set him apart from the pack.
Some may be inclined to devalue Embiid for his proneness to minor injuries, as he already had to sit out a game vs TCU with some minor knee and back issues. And in a recent game against Oklahoma State he appeared to aggravate his back injury, which bears monitoring going forward. It is reasonable to devalue his draft stock slightly, but even if we price in a 10%-20% chance that his career gets completely derailed by injuries (I would say the latter is an aggressive projection given such minor injuries), that is significantly less impactful than the aforementioned 2% super upside. Simply put, Embiid is a unique prospect with no obvious cap on his upside, and even treating the experience factor as neutral he has a higher floor than most. He is a rare prospect that is drawing live for the metaphorical royal flush, and GM’s are justified in losing on purpose for a shot of playing his hand.