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Joel Embiid Is Heating Up

Joel Embiid Is Heating Up

The superstar, who often takes some time throughout the season to fine-tune his conditioning, might just be getting started.

There might be something to the idea of Joel Embiid getting sick before going into Sicko Mode.

In case you somehow missed it over the weekend, Embiid was perhaps better than we’ve ever seen him, logging 101 points over a 24-hour span in victories over a pair of winning clubs—the 9–5 Hawks and the 10–5 Jazz—without having his team’s second-best player available.

Embiid’s performance against Utah, in particular, was dazzling, video-game-type stuff: a career-high 59 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and a career-high-tying seven blocks. A whopping five of those rejections came in the fourth quarter of a tight game the Sixers would go on to win by seven points against one of the NBA’s hottest clubs.

“I’ve seen a guy score a lot of points. I haven’t seen a guy score a lot of points, rebound, then block the shots. That was impressive. He was getting everything,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. “No, is the answer. I’ve never seen a more dominating performance when you combine offense and defense.”

It could very well end up being the most dominant game ever played by an athlete, who, if healthy, will go down as one of the best to ever play the sport’s most dominant position.

From where I sit, the timing of the strong showings might not be coincidental.

Just a week and a half earlier, Embiid was out with the flu, which caused him to miss three games. Before that, in his first six games of action, Embiid had been very good offensively still, but far from great overall. His defensive effort—like that of his team—left much to be desired, and clubs were getting what they wanted with him on the floor. Through his first six contests, opponents were shooting 14.5 percentage points better than their averages from six feet and closer when Embiid was the one defending the rim. (For context, that number is terrible by Embiid’s, or anyone’s, standards, and had us wondering whether it was actually an Embiid impostor playing defense. Last season players shot 6.6 percentage points worse with Embiid at the rim. In 2020–21, that number was 5.3 percentage points worse with Embiid at the basket.)

Things shifted quickly, though. Embiid, who had nine blocks through his first eight games of the season, has since collected nine more over the last two games combined. It’s MVP-level stuff, and it suggests that the big man, who often takes some time throughout the season to fine-tune his conditioning, might just be getting started.

Interestingly enough, you might remember that last season was a bit similar for Embiid. The Sixers jumped out to a hot start at 8–2, but Embiid was uneven at times, shooting 43.5% through his first nine contests while averaging a relatively pedestrian 21.4 points per night.

Then Embiid got COVID-19, which prompted him to miss two and a half weeks, between the infection and his recovery. “That jawn hit me hard,” Embiid said of the virus, in true Philly slang. “I really thought I wasn’t going to make it. It was that bad, so I’m just thankful to be sitting here.”

Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Things were briefly uneven again—a dazzling 42-point, 14-board performance in his first game back, but then followed by with 4-of-16 and 3-of-17 shooting nights—before he hit a stride that’d lift him to another second-place finish in MVP voting. Embiid had seven 40 and 10 games over the next two months and change—a span in which he averaged 32.4 points, 11.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists on 52.2% shooting and 36% from three before the Sixers dealt an inactive Ben Simmons for James Harden.

The concept of an illness potentially helping someone like Embiid might seem strange, even for a guy who has off-beat tendencies as a star player. (For instance, a couple of years back, I wrote a feature story on how often Embiid tumbles to the floor during games, and how he intentionally does that—much like martial artists do—as a way to prevent putting stress on his knees and joints when he lands.) But in a way, if you boil it down to the more general idea of conditioning, and getting into better playing shape over the course of the season, Embiid finds himself in the company of a number of perennial MVP candidates. Luka Dončić did it last year and was much more efficient and productive after an early stretch. Nikola Jokić was known for his somewhat doughy appearance for years, but then won MVP for the first time in 2020–21 after coming into the season in visibly better shape. And Harden, Embiid’s teammate, has been known to shed weight during the season some years.

For Embiid, maybe illnesses are the equivalent of an automobile warming up in the winter before running at peak performance. What we do know is this: If he’s about to play at an MVP level nightly, particularly with Harden out at least another three weeks or so, the 7–7 Sixers will gladly take it, no matter what the boost in play stems from.

Meat and potatoes: Good reads from SI and elsewhere this past week

Chuck Stoody/AP

He also cooked up a handful of potential Anthony Davis trades he thinks would make sense, including one involving the defending-champion Warriors and a blockbuster one with the consistently controversial Nets. (Rohan and John Gonzalez debated potential AD landing spots and trade partners on our Open Floor podcast yesterday, too.)

Duncan wrote the piece several days before the news that emerged Monday night: that Wiseman is going to spend an extended period of time with the Warriors’ G League team. (You might recall: Beck recently wrote a Daily Cover piece on Wiseman and his hopes that this year would be a turning point for the 2020 No. 2 pick.)

  • TNT’s Chris Haynes reported something pretty surprising: That Memphis’s Jaren Jackson Jr., who many thought might be out until closer to Christmas or the turn of the new year after a foot surgery, will make his season debut Tuesday night.

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