Swingin' Through: Joel Embiid and the Guaranteed Foul Call
Death, taxes, and Joel Embiid getting a swing-through foul call.
These are life’s certainties.
If you’ve watched at least one Sixers game this season, you’ve probably seen the 7’2″ center frustrate defenders with a high-IQ low block play, one where he anticipates contact and motions upward through it, drawing a whistle.
It happened twice last night in the 118-113 Hack-a-Simmons victory against the Wizards. The first foul was committed by Tim Frazier:
The Sixers frequently run that backside baseline screen to free up low post entry. Frazier switches off of Jerryd Bayless while Marcin Gortat continues through the play. Embiid recognizes the double team, then goes into his shooting motion as soon as Frazier’s arms move horizontally into his space.
It happened again in the fourth quarter. Same thing, this time with Chris McCullough defending Joel 1v1:
It doesn’t look like much, does it?
When you watch it again, look at McCullough’s right hand. Again, Embiid feels a bit of contact on his arms and goes up with the ball. He’s not even necessarily leaning, but it’s a twitch move predicated on defenders getting “handsy” with him.
Oftentimes the fouler is flummoxed by the call. In this case, all five Wizards were visibly frustrated:
I think part of the annoyance is that they feel like Embiid is the one initiating the contact, which is true, but he’s usually moving vertically with the ball in response to defenders lowering their arms. He’s not necessarily getting a guy off his feet then diving underneath. He usually holds his ground on these types of sequences.
Joel went for 25 and 14 last night to piggyback off Monday’s 30 and 11 performance. He got Kevin Love with the same move in the loss to the Cavs:
There’s very little there. A bit of hand checking, maybe Love gets him on the elbow. But the concept isn’t any different; Embiid feels the contact, goes up with the ball, and gets the whistle.
If I had to guess, I’d say Embiid gets that whistle 9 out of 10 times. When he doesn’t, it’s usually because he puts a little more effort into selling the contact, or he lunges a bit while doing it.
On this play, I think it’s a foul, but maybe the first shoulder into the body, followed by a mid-air turn, makes the official think twice:
You see Brett Brown jump off the bench and throw his hands in the air. Bismack Biyombo finishes the play with his right hand straight up, but he’s impeding Joel when the shot attempt actually takes place.
Embiid leads the Sixers with 7.6 free throw attempts per game. He’s making 5.8 of those for a 75.9% free-throw percentage, which is pretty damn good for big center. Embiid is actually shooting free-throws at a better clip than the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo (75.8%), John Wall (75%), and Marcus Smart (72.9%). Joel is tied for 8th in the NBA with 137 foul shot attempts this season, a category that is, not surprisingly, lead by the master of contact amplification, James Harden. Joel has a little bit of the Rockets guard in him. Watch the way each one draws fouls and you’ll see that they’re incredibly shrewd at making a little bit of contact look like a lot of contact.
Part of the problem is – and I know fans groan about this sometimes – but Joel’s range and starting points make him frustrating to guard. You ideally want him closer to the rim, yea? No duh.
But the game is officiated differently at 12 feet than it is at 6 feet. DeAndre Jordan isn’t knocking down baseline fadeaways, so defenders expect to bang with him in the paint and get a longer leash from the refs. Joel is a different matchup entirely. Shit that flies under the rim doesn’t fly outside the paint. And even if opponents learn to keep their arms vertical and don’t give him that contact to trigger off of, he’ll put the ball on the floor and physically move you closer to the basket. So do you engage him physically away from the rim at the risk of getting a cheap foul, or do you concede the space? It’s somewhat of a catch-22.
I think teams will become better at defending him with experience. There’s more tape to look at now and more in-game experience matching up with him. One of Joel’s weaknesses in those areas is his carelessness with the ball, and teams will probably learn how to maximize that with early pressure and active hands. Embiid is turning it over 4.1 times per game.
For now, expect to see more swingin’ through and whistle blowing.