As rallying cries go, it’s not exactly “Remember the Alamo!” But “Trust the Process” has become the new mantra for 76ers fans, and the center and the centerpiece of that process is rookie Joel Embiid, who appears headed toward stardom and maybe even greatness.
But if Embiid is to reach that lofty potential, he’s going to need help – and not just from his teammates. For all of his talent, there are things he needs to do in order to thrive and even survive in the NBA. For that he needs direction from the right person, and it doesn’t appear that the Sixers have that person in place right now. None of their current coaches – head coach Brett Brown and assistants Jim O’Brien, Lloyd Pierce, Billy Lange and Kevin Young – was a center in their playing days, and none of them even played in the NBA.
For one thing, Embiid needs a mentor who can teach him to tone things down a bit. Everyone loves Embiid’s boyish and crowd pleasing enthusiasm, but he needs to cool his cheerleader act and focus more on fundamentals.
Case in point: In a game not too long ago, Embiid blocked a shot and sent it sailing about 10 rows into the bleachers. The crowd, of course, went nuts and Embiid encouraged that response by waving his arms and doing everything to play up to the fans except blow kisses in their direction. But lost in all of that excitement was the fact that the Sixers had two other players standing right there, and any old-school center knows that Embiid should have simply tapped the blocked shot to one of them. Instead, he swatted it out of bounds and the other team retained possession – and promptly scored a basket.
That’s one instance when Embiid would have benefitted greatly from having somebody put an arm around his shoulder and quietly explain why he doesn’t have to make those kinds of showboat plays. Somebody needs to show him film of great defensive centers of the past like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Walton and Moses Malone, all of whom mastered the art of blocking shots to their teammates and not somebody sitting in the 10th row.
And there’s another, much more important reason why Embiid needs a coach who truly understands the center position. Embiid missed the last couple of games because he hyper-extended a knee while driving to the basket, and the way he plays the game almost guarantees that he’s going to get hurt. Embiid plays like he’s a much smaller man in the way he drives to the hoop with arms and legs flying everywhere and in how high he jumps for one of his rim-rattling dunks. But that style of basketball doesn’t suit somebody who weighs almost 260 pounds, and let’s not forget that Embiid already missed two years because of foot problems.
A big man’s knees and feet simply aren’t built to handle the stress and pounding of an NBA season, at least the way Embiid plays the game. No matter who many weights Embiid lifts, he can only strengthen ligaments and cartilage so much, and there are 26 bones and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments in the human foot – and, of course, you have to multiply that by two.
Compare his style of play to that of Moses Malone or even the center to whom Embiid has been compared the most, Akeem Olajuwon. Malone and Olajuwon were great athletes, too, but they still kept most of their movements tight and compact and put as little stress and strain on their legs and feet as possible. That doesn’t guarantee that a player won’t get injured, but it cuts the odds drastically.
That’s why the Sixers need somebody who can teach Embiid to play smart and to play for a long time. The way Embiid plays now is awe-inspiring, but it also guarantees that he’s going to get hurt. And one of these times, the injury is going to be a serious one, perhaps even a career-ending one. The Sixers have too much invested in Embiid to let that happen.
So, the 76ers need to hire an assistant coach who really understands the center position and can teach what Embiid what he needs to know. The future of the franchise depends on it.