Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers took a half-beat to assess the situation during a late-season game against the Boston Celtics. As is often the case, he sensed an advantage.
Embiid, a 7-foot, 280-pound center, cradled the ball near the top of the key as he faced up against the Celtics’ Grant Williams, a 6-6 forward who crouched into a defensive stance as he waved his left hand in Embiid’s face. It might as well have been an act of surrender.
Embiid had a lot of extraordinary feats during the regular season to position himself as a favorite to win his first N.B.A. Most Valuable Player Award. In addition to leading the league in scoring for a second consecutive season, with a career-high 33.1 points per game, he averaged 10.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.7 blocks.
But there was one thing he did more often than anything else, an underrated skill for him that destabilized opposing defenses and helped lift the 76ers to the third-best record in the N.B.A.: He took 5,526 dribbles.
During that possession against the Celtics, Embiid needed just two of them — a pair of hard dribbles to his right as his teammates cleared out to the 3-point line, dragging their defenders with them. Embiid pulled up in the paint, then created space against Williams with a double pivot before he sank a short fadeaway jumper over him.
“How are you going to stop that?” Ian Eagle, TNT’s play-by-play voice, said during the television broadcast.
The short answer for the Celtics was that they weren’t. Embiid finished with 52 points in a narrow win.
Not so long ago, N.B.A. centers made their lunch-pail livings by camping out near the hoop. A between-the-legs dribble out near the 3-point line would have probably landed them on the bench.
But the game has changed, of course, and the plodding big man is a relic. The modern N.B.A. is teeming with huge players who can launch 3-pointers, run sets from the high post and, in some cases, stretch defenses by dribbling like their Lilliputian teammates.
Enter Embiid, whose improved polish as a ballhandler — and his affection for the craft — has made him even more potent as the 76ers face the Nets in the first-round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Philadelphia leads the series, 2-0, with Game 3 on Thursday in Brooklyn.
“I think he thinks he is a guard,” 76ers shooting guard Tyrese Maxey said of Embiid.
Embiid was not always so comfortable handling the ball. As a first-year player during the 2016-17 season, he averaged just 0.78 dribbles per touch. In fact, he averaged fewer than one dribble per touch until Doc Rivers was hired as the team’s coach before the 2020-21 season.
At the time, Rivers said, he heard from fans who wanted Embiid to stop drifting to the perimeter. Their argument was that he was too big and too skilled at the basket to be messing around near the 3-point line. But Rivers said he resisted their pleas to shape Embiid into more of an old-school center.
“Everybody was saying: ‘Get him on the post! Get him on the post!’ ” Rivers recalled in an interview. “But this is a guy who can bring the ball up for us, he can run pick-and-rolls, and there are very few bigs who can do that. He’s a 7-footer who plays like a guard, so you know what? Let him do it.”
Last season, Embiid averaged 1.41 dribbles per touch, which ranked second among centers behind Bam Adebayo of the Miami Heat. This season, Embiid averaged 1.18 dribbles per touch — another robust total that again placed him among the league’s most dribble-prone big men. He averaged nearly 84 dribbles per game, according to N.B.A. Advanced Stats, a department at the league office that produces metrics based on player tracking data.
“I believe I can do anything on the basketball floor,” Embiid said. “You ask me to be a scorer, I’ll be a scorer. You ask me to be a playmaker, I’ll be a playmaker.”
He shouted across the locker room at James Harden, the team’s starting point guard.
“James,” Embiid said, “am I good at ball handling?”
Harden, who averaged 4.77 dribbles per touch this season, arched an eyebrow. (It’s all relative.)
“All big men want to be guards,” 76ers forward P.J. Tucker said. “Why? Because being a guard is cooler. Who wants to hang out in the paint and just take hook shots?”
Along those lines, Maxey acknowledged that he sometimes gets nervous when Embiid grabs a defensive rebound and insists on dribbling upcourt himself.
“But at the end of the day, he’s Joel Embiid for a reason,” Maxey said. “There’s only one of him.”
In the halfcourt, the calculus for defenders is unforgiving. Embiid is proficient enough as an outside shooter — he took three 3-pointers per game and made 33 percent of them this season — that opposing forwards and centers must respect him. But if they overextend by pressing up against him, Embiid is capable of dribbling by them.
“Bigs? They have no shot,” Tucker said. “I mean, they can’t guard him anywhere.”
And if opponents try to trap him, Embiid will find the open man.
“For him to do the stuff that he does at his size is ridiculous,” said Norm Roberts, who coached Embiid as an assistant at Kansas.
During Embiid’s lone college season, Roberts envisioned him developing into a “Tim Duncan-type guy,” an early sign of Embiid’s high ceiling. During Duncan’s Hall of Fame career with the San Antonio Spurs, he was more of a traditional center — a big man who could dribble, but one who largely thrived around the basket by sealing defenders and using a smorgasbord of post moves.
The challenge for the coaching staff at Kansas was that Embiid did not consider himself a traditional center, and perhaps that was because he was unfamiliar with the concept.
Growing up in Cameroon, Embiid played soccer and volleyball. His first real exposure to basketball came at age 16, when Luc Mbah a Moute, a Cameroonian player who was then a forward for the Milwaukee Bucks, invited him to a summer basketball camp. Embiid was raw, but he was 6-10 and agile, and he soon found himself playing high school basketball in Florida.
Some of Embiid’s earliest lessons came via YouTube. In addition to studying footage of Hakeem Olajuwon, who was one of the more dominant centers of his era, Embiid was riveted by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, slick guards who torched defenders with their quickness and their sleight of hand.
“Those are the guys I’ve always been more attracted to,” Embiid said. “They’re obviously way smaller than me, and I can’t move as well as they do. But I love watching the way they move, how fast they are, and I still do. That’s how I learn, and that’s how I try to add to my game.”
He added: “When you look at the best ballhandlers, it’s not necessarily about dribbling. It’s all about footwork. You need to have good footwork.”
At Kansas, Embiid had good footwork — the years he had spent playing soccer were a big help — along with terrific hands and great vision as a passer, Roberts said. But he was still a work in progress, and Coach Bill Self set healthy boundaries.
“He always liked to dribble it,” Roberts said, “but we weren’t going to let him dribble it.”
As the 2014 N.B.A. draft came into clearer focus, there were exceptions. Whenever scouts rolled through Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse, Self would have Embiid head to a basket with a defender so that he could handle the ball and “do the Olajuwon stuff” for five or 10 minutes.
“He’d do the Dream Shake to perfection,” Roberts said, referring to Olajuwon’s hallmark spin move.
After the 76ers drafted him third overall, Embiid missed his first two seasons as a pro with a broken foot. But those two seasons, in an accidental way, were fundamental to his growth, Roberts said. Limited in what he could do with the team, Embiid had plenty of time to sharpen his feel for the game — by dribbling.
For his part, Embiid wants to continue to improve. Two keys, he said, are keeping his dribble low and knowing when to pick it up. But he otherwise has the freedom to do what he wants.
“I don’t think I’m a guard, and I don’t think I’m a big,” he said. “I’m a complete basketball player.”
Additional work by Andy Chen.