The Evolution of Joel Embiid's Mid-Range Game

Embiid has been dominant this season and his ascending mid-range attack is a major reason why.
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

Joel Embiid’s leap from imposing All-Star to unstoppable MVP candidate can be spelled out in several different ways, from his rectified physical condition to an evolved support system, courtesy of a fresh front office and coaching staff.

In partial thanks to being surrounded by reputable outside shooters who weren’t around last season, Embiid’s post-ups have become an even more turbulent nightmare, he’s less prone to bail opponents out with an early three and no center since a few years before Embiid was born has spent more time at the free-throw line than he currently does.

All these forms of progress are critical, but what really captures Embiid’s newfound degree of dominance is his ascending mid-range shot, which explains his bump as well as anything else. Jumpers that used to grant battered defenders a moment to exhale are now a devastating gut punch, with Embiid blowing past his previous career-bests in volume and accuracy. Only Bradley Beal averages more shots from the mid-range than Embiid, who’s one of just eight players to make over 50% of at least 100 attempts this season.

To those with the unfortunate task of having to slow him down, nothing in their professional lives breeds more dread than a wave of dead-eye elbow jumpers from a Shaquille O’Neal scion who’s already able to wreak havoc in myriad forms against a vast array of defensive coverages.

Heading down the stretch and into the postseason, Embiid’s mid-range attack can fortify the most irrepressible iteration of an already great player. Think about Anthony Davis, who after making 33% of his long twos during the 2019-20 regular season saw his accuracy skyrocket to 49%—at a notably higher frequency—inside the bubble. It was a big man who took what the defense gave and still demolished everyone in his path. That’s been Embiid all season.

The mid-range can also be a fickle partner, though. Success (or struggle) in the regular season is one thing, but with four years of evidence before Embiid leveled up—when he was decent but far from elite—it’s worth wondering if his moonlighting as prime LaMarcus Aldridge is the new normal or unsustainable prosperity that could fall back to what it once was during Philly’s upcoming playoff run.

It’s also understandable to look at Embiid’s shifting shot selection and believe he’s leaving food on the table. Overall, he’s never been more proficient from the floor, but theoretically he could be even better if inclined to follow the same trends mapped out by the NBA’s most effective offenses (an endlessly ironic statement made about the best player on a team built by Daryl Morey).

Instead, among players who’ve logged at least 500 minutes only three (DeMar DeRozan, Chris Paul and Bam Adebayo) have a lower rim/three-point frequency than Embiid’s 42.5%. And out of all centers who’ve taken at least 100 shots in the restricted area, Embiid and Nikola Vucevic are the only two with more attempts from the mid-range.

An obvious counter to this criticism is baked into the results, which are canorous and absurd. From 16-24 feet Embiid converts 60.5% of his shots, a truly wild mark he’s never sniffed before and that only Kyrie Irving tops now. Scratch garbage time and include tries that are taken roughly two feet closer to the hoop and Embiid makes 51% of them (in the 91st percentile at his position) after shooting just 38% the previous two seasons.

The mid-range not only allows Embiid to protect and preserve his body, but when he’s this accurate with an unguardable shot there’s no sacrifice made to his individual efficiency, either. It’s been a beneficial migration: This is the first season of Embiid’s career where a higher percentage of his shots come from 10-16 feet than within three feet of the basket, per Basketball-Reference. (Two years ago, 47.5% of his points were scored in the paint. It’s 34.9% today.)

Most aren’t spot-up looks, either. Over a quarter of all Embiid’s shots are pull-up twos and he makes 46.5% of them—a career-high in accuracy and frequency. On these shots, Steph Curry connects on 45.9% and Khris Middleton is at 45.5%. And when “open” on two-pointers hoisted at least 10 feet from the basket, he’s comparable to Chris Paul and DeMar DeRozan.

Embiid’s heightened mid-range threat forces defenders to press up on him as aggressively as they ever have, accentuating his ability to draw fouls. It’s also an antidote against increasingly prevalent double teams. In other words, his command is not interrupted by the most statistically antagonistic shot in basketball. Instead, it’s a necessary complement to everything else that already makes him great.

Towards the end of close playoff games, when defenses plug the paint with everything they’ve got, fronting Embiid on post touches and doubling him as soon as he puts it on the deck, he’ll need to be dangerous from an area of the floor that’s so hard for any opponent to control—be it off a short pick-and-pop or faced up to isolate on the wing.

Throughout a typical game, Embiid sees the percentage of his points from the paint slide out to the perimeter. In the first half, 15% are scored on long twos and 41% are paint points. In the second half, that first number goes up to 25% and the second drops to 28%. If Embiid can sustain what he’s already done and remain lava from the key to the three-point line against defenses that have no choice but to surrender those looks, it’s unclear how Philadelphia can be stopped when he’s on the floor, crunchtime or not.

This brings us to a moment that recently broke my brain: an acrobatic step back against the Celtics that, without hyperbole and regardless of whether or not he traveled, made Embiid look like the most athletic human being in the history of sports.

Astrophysicists who see this footage will feel the need to study how a body that large could ever glide backwards so swiftly with a giant brace wrapped around its left knee. Embiid could create space earlier in his career, but not like this (here’s another example):

Before Youtube allowed those two clips to be uploaded it asked whether “Yes, it’s made for kids” or “No, it’s not made for kids.” I wasn’t sure how to answer. This is how similar attempts looked three years ago.

In the playoffs, when help defenders are racing to squeeze the ball from his hands with the clock as his enemy, Embiid has a move he trusts that can get him out of a tough situation—even when whoever’s guarding him isn’t a plodding big:

There’s risk relying too much on a long two, and Embiid still settles from time to time. There’s also always the chance he slides into a slump at the worst possible time, taking shots that ostensibly let his opponent off the hook.

But in the playoffs, Embiid should still live at the free-throw line, post-up with brute force and hit the occasional open three at a pretty high clip. The mid-range is less his Plan A than an area of growth that epitomizes why slowing Embiid down has become one of this season’s most impossible schematic challenges. Over the next few months, it may be the most significant variable on which the Sixers’ title odds rest.

DUNK OF THE YEAR NEEDS TO BE A THING

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Thank you, Anthony Edwards (twice). Thank you, Jaxson Hayes. Thank you, Miles Bridges. Thank You, Paul George, Lonnie Walker, Dorian Finney-Smith and too many others to count for—speaking anecdotally and with a pinch of recency bias—resurrecting the unkind, marvelous essence behind what it means to put another person on a poster. And with all these epic efforts, I think it’s time for the NBA to bring back Dunk of the Year.

The short-lived idea (it only lasted two years) was initially introduced at the 2017 NBA Awards, where fans could vote for Assist of the Year, Performance of the Year, Block of the Year and a few other appetizers that were served before the actual season-ending entrees were doled out. Many of those fan awards were scrapped for good reason, but Dunk of the Year deserves to come back in a more legitimate form, with no official nominees, decided the same way most other awards are.

For historical perspective alone, it’d be a fun add to every other annual trophy bestowed by the league. Coach of the Year and Most Improved Player are nice and say more about what actually happened during any given season, but Bridges over Capela and Edwards over Watanabe deserve a chance to be immortalized in an official form of remembrance. They’re important time capsules as much as they’d spark never-ending debate.

No matter how many threes are launched per game, nothing will ever replace the dunk. It’s sin and sanctity balled up tight in one powerful blip of fury. There’s no time like the present to honor them right. (For the record, Bridges should win.)

MORE MORNING SHOOTAROUND

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Beck: Rick Welts is ready to step away

Nadkarni: Nets are pushing the regular season to its limits

Pina: Chicago's future is brighter than it appears