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December 11, 2019

Joel Embiid reveals his biggest challenges: fourth-quarter scoring and maturity

In the dying moments of the third quarter of Tuesday's win over the Denver Nuggets, Joel Embiid pulled a rabbit out of his hat. With time on the clock about to expire and Embiid in no position to score, he did so anyway, drawing a foul in the process of sinking a blind toss at the rim.

It was one of the rare moments where we saw him truly relish his success, with Embiid waltzing out to midcourt to shimmy for the fans.

Embiid has piled up poses like these since entering the league, but they have faded out of view for the big man this season. That is no accident, Embiid says, and to let him tell it they need to come with more frequency.

"I haven't done it enough all season," Embiid told reporters after the game. "I have not been having fun like usually, just mainly because I'm still trying to figure out how to make it work and all that stuff. It goes back to with me being mature and one of the biggest parts of my game is just having fun, and having fun is talking trash, but that part has kind of been cut. 

"I just need to be myself and just do whatever I want because when I'm having fun I dominate, but this year I don't know, I can probably count on one hand how many times I've done it...I love it, [the fans] get me going, they understand me like I understand them, and I need to start doing that again because that's how I'm going to dominate."

You would be justified in questioning the reliability of the narrator on this topic. There are a lot of reasons Embiid hasn't looked at his best this season. 

The team construction feels sometimes like it could not have been worse for him if they had specifically tried to neuter his strengths, and the uneven state of the lineup makes it hard for a big man to feel at home in the post. It is a man's game on that low block, and when you add any uncertainty on top of the physical pounding you take down there, life gets even tougher.

And Embiid is honest about his own culpability in team failures. He was 1-for-5 in the final frame with the Sixers trying to play through him in the post late, and he simply couldn't solve Denver's defense. Embiid has owned up to each of his bad performances this season, and after struggling as the hub of the offense in crunch time against Denver, he gave a blunt assessment of his work.

"Not good enough. Still getting used to, I mean the whole season I have been trying to adjust, obviously it's not the same as last year," Embiid said. "The adjustment has been hard but I'm still trying, I'm going to do whatever I'm asked to every single night, even if it's being a ball screener or just rebounding the ball or take three shots, I'll do that. I'll do whatever they ask me to do."

"He's a lightning rod for double teams and deep digs, for me a lot of it is, who do you put in the slot? That first pass out of it needs to be a good shooter," Brett Brown added. "To go away from that, I'm not doing that. I think just to get him feeling comfortable, confident, [we need] deep catches, spacing around him, a willingness which he has shown to pass, that's what we're going to do...when you have a second dribbler, a pick-and-roll guy in [Josh Richardson], it's going to open up more options. But it's always on our mind, it's stuff we try to get better and better at. That's the mission of the season."

Those things are true about how teams stack coverages against Embiid. His raw numbers are down, a product of the loaded lineup and a drop in minutes, and life has never been more difficult for him in the low post. 

It's the self-inflicted errors he really needs to clean up, and that much has been true since he entered the league. On his lone turnover of the fourth quarter, there was no great help defense from the Nuggets, no great defender bothering him, just Embiid falling all over himself trying to dribble a basketball.

That isn't about fun or poor structure or coaching or anything else you could nominate as a potential cause, it is about Embiid trying to do too much. He was once the lone superhero trying to bail out a team rising from a rebuild. Now he is surrounded by an all-star cast, and no longer needs to try to force things for the sake of the team.

But there is definitely something that has changed for Embiid since his fight inside and outside the lines with Karl-Anthony Towns. The social media theatrics, the on-court shenanigans, the press conference barbs, all of them have faded from view. The man who promised before the season to cut down on the trash talk is delivering, at least in fits and starts.

"I feel like me losing that has kind of taken a toll on my game," Embiid said Tuesday. "Sometimes I might be childish and do whatever I want to, but in the game, I care about winning, everybody knows that. I do whatever it takes to win, I care about my teammates, I care about the organization, I care about being a role model. So everybody told me I need to be, from fans to everybody else, I got to be mature. I'm doing it, I don't think it's working, but I'm going to keep doing it."

If the man out there on the floor believes that is hurting his game, does it matter what anyone else thinks? Athletes across the sports world have weird routines and beliefs about what gets them going. Michael Jordan famously wore a pair of his North Carolina game shorts underneath his Bulls gear for good luck. If Embiid needs to eviscerate some poor fools with his words to get going, why should anyone hold him back?

Maturity, though, doesn't have to be mutually exclusive with expressing joy and talking trash and doing all of the other things Embiid loves to do on the floor. He can be a leader by example and still jaw with an opposing player, provided he knows not to get baited into scraps and flagrant fouls that hurt the team. And the maturity most people have asked for is away from the game, taking care of his body the right way with diet and exercise to be in tip-top shape. 

It's somewhat ironic that the defensive end is where he continues to lead, through good times and in bad, as that's the side of the court where most guys would tell you they have the least fun. Offense is joy, defense is work. But Philadelphia is entrenched in the top-five in defensive efficiency, and they continue to be at their best on that end when Embiid is on the floor. Those numbers are even better when Embiid is the lone big man on the court, and those lineups often feature an assortment of shaky defenders around him. It hasn't mattered much.

He takes the responsibility of anchoring the team seriously. The Sixers had some blown switch attempts in the third quarter, eventually gifting an open dunk to Jokic before Brown called a timeout. As they walked toward the sideline, Embiid gave Tobias Harris an earful, who snapped right back over the disagreement.

"Two previous plays before that, Jokic got an open three, it's a tough action to guard because I just can't leave the ballhandler in front of me, they're going to go straight to the rim," Embiid said. "We made mistakes and those three plays I called a switch and we didn't do it, so I kind of got pissed talk about it after the game, you talk about it during the game, you correct it. If I call it, they know they got to respect it, and the same thing goes for them."

Anyone who pays close attention understands the proper seriousness is there. There is a middle ground to be found, one where Embiid can strut with the best of them and still remain focused on the task at hand.

Barring a major trade, the team context is what it is. No amount of maturity will stop the double teams from coming, open up the team's spacing, or convince opponents to take him any less seriously as a threat. But if you're going to be saddled with the expectations of a max player on a contender, you might as well be the man you want to be, instead of who other people want you to be. 

My advice? Go out there and live your truth, big fella.

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