“I Only Do it Because of the Spacing that We Have” – On Joel Embiid and Three-Point Shooting

Photo Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Does Joel Embiid enjoy shooting three-pointers?

Or would he rather be in the post?

It seems like the answer changes depending on when you ask him, but it’s a hot topic considering Joel’s recent comments about his deployment on the Sixers’ perimeter and his fit in the offensive scheme.

For what it’s worth, Embiid shot four threes in the Boston loss, but in the two games prior he didn’t try a single attempt from deep, instead going a combined 20 for 37 from the floor and 11 of 13 from the foul line for 51 points in wins against the Knicks and Raptors.

After the Toronto game, Joel was asked about his decision to work closer to the rim and avoid the arc:

“I don’t like shooting threes. I only do it because of the spacing that we have and sometimes I have to take them. I have to be on the perimeter just getting guys open because of all the attention that sometimes it seems is presented to me. I don’t like shooting threes. I only do it because I got to make it work, but the last couple games, mainly the last two games, my mindset has been, if I’m on the perimeter it doesn’t mean that I have to shoot threes. Even if I’m wide open I think I had a couple of opportunities (against the Raptors) and game against the Knicks where I could’ve shot it, but I took one dribble and I took a midway shot. That’s what I’m comfortable with and it’s working. I feel like my efficiency is getting back to where it should be. Part of the problem that I see with myself is, I should never shoot under fifty percent and I do it a lot, so it’s all about getting my efficiency back and I feel like shooting threes had a lot to do with me shooting under fifty percent.”

Interesting answer, and probably what most people would like to hear from a dominant seven-foot center. That mid-range stuff is less efficient than shooting from three, but if Embiid is hitting at a higher clip inside the arc, then it makes more sense for him to work that part of the floor.

Still, that quote seems like a change in outlook for a guy who has, in the past, seemingly relished shooting from distance, a guy who has twice attempted seven threes this season and once said that he sees himself as a complete player who can do anything on the court. 

That was the theme of a follow-up question Saturday night from former NBCSP reporter Dei Lynam, after the jump:

Lynam: Is that new for you that you don’t like shooting them? Because your first year you shot at 37% and you seem like you enjoyed it.

Embiid: I wouldn’t say I don’t totally like it. I mean it’s cool to know that, but when you see how dominant you can be, (the question is) why even attempt a three? It doesn’t matter; I can score in so many ways, and it’s also about just feeling comfortable. Right now I’m not feeling comfortable being in that situation. I’m sure I’m going to take some. In some games I’m going to take ten, in some games I’m gonna take 15, so we’re gonna see.

That’s kind of a quirky answer. That sounds to me like a guy who is trying to navigate the system and find his best spots on the floor. I think Joel knows he’s a dominant post player and needs to constantly remind himself that he’s better down low versus floating around on the perimeter. Maybe there’s a bit of an internal thing going on here. Maybe Joel is just trying to step back and redefine himself, to try to hammer down on the best traits of his wide-ranging and effective game. It’s a good problem to have.

This, of course, all stems from the comments he made three weeks ago about his fit in the Sixers’ system. That was in the Keith Pompey Inquirer article, where Embiid said the following:

“I haven’t been myself lately,” said Embiid, who was held out of Friday’s game against the Pistons by coach Brett Brown. “I think it’s mainly because of the way I’ve been used, which is I’m being used as a spacer, I guess, a stretch five, which I’m only shooting [29] percent” from three-point range.

“But it seems like the past couple games, like with the way I play, our setup, [Brown] always has me starting on the perimeter … and it just really frustrates me. My body feels great, and it’s just I haven’t been playing well.”

That non-beef was squashed and the Sixers are 4-4 since Joel was held out of the Friday night game in Detroit back on December 7th.

In that time, he’s shot just 24 three pointers in eight games, hitting six of them for a 25% mark. He’s shooting 20% from three in the month of December but he’s also taken just 3 three pointers per game, which is the lowest monthly total he’s attempted since November of last season.

Check it out:

That black line there signifies his benching for rest purposes, which is when he gave those original quotes to Pompey.

Is there a correlation between three point attempts and winning and losing? Maybe. You look at the San Antonio game, the second night of a road back-to-back, and you’ve got a tired team on the road trying to play catchup. I’m not surprised he shot six three pointers that night.

Then you come back home on Wednesday and Saturday against a bad team and a depleted team, and he shoots zero three-pointers in lopsided wins. He’s down low working against Enes Kanter and Pascal Siakam instead of heaving it up from 24 feet.

The fact that he took four threes in the Boston loss doesn’t surprise me, and it actually mirrors what Joel did against the Celtics in the playoffs last year, when he averaged 4.2 threes a game in that series. He only hit at 23.8% in those five games, which was well below his 30.8% season mark.

These are the looks Joel took from deep on Christmas Day:

  1. straight-away open look off an offensive rebound (make)
  2. open on perimeter with Ben Simmons passing out of a double team (miss)
  3. catch and shoot as a trailing big (make)
  4. corner heave as shot clock winds down (miss)

That fourth attempt is a wash since Joel was up against the shot clock, and he only threw it up because he had to, so let me show you the video clip of number three:

This is just the Sixers running their base offense.

It’s Simmons to Embiid in “A to B” motion, then Joel usually plays dribble hand-off with Redick on the wing, and that’s how he enters the post about 95% of the time. In this instance, he sees some room and just steps into a three-pointer instead.

Any issue with that?

Here’s the clip of number two:

Simmons is sealed off as he attacks the rim and finds an open Embiid on the perimeter for the miss.

Any issue with that?

I think those shots are okay if they’re limited to only 2 to 3 per game. That seems to be the magic number, that 2 or 3 or sometimes even four range for Joel, which is where the late shot clock heave brought him in the Boston game.

His shooting numbers simply don’t justify more three point looks. Right now Joel is hitting at a measly 28.2% from three, which is a career low and an eight percent drop off from what he did as a rookie. He is, however, shooting a career high 53.7% on 14.4 two-point attempts per game. That’s where he’s been commanding this season.

Taking that into account, if it feels like Embiid shoots too many three-pointers, it’s probably true. But for all of the talk about Joel’s usage and whether or not he likes shooting from deep, the difference between this year and last year is negligible:

  • 2016-17: 3.2 three point attempts on 13.8 field goal attempts = 24.6% of his output
  • 2017-18: 3.4 three point attempts on 16.8 field goal attempts = 20.2% of his output
  • 2018-19: 3.9 three point attempts on 18.3 field goal attempts = 21.3% of his output

Does is feel like he’s shooting one-fifth of his attempts per game from deep? It doesn’t feel like that to me, but that’s what the numbers say. Over the last eight games, Joel put up 24 three-point tries on 138 field goal attempts, bringing the number down to 17.4%.

I like that a lot better, and I feel like Joel is going to be at his best if his three-point attempts per game are in the 15 to 18% range, which would be something like three three-pointers per 18 field goal attempts.

It’s interesting to watch all of this unfold, and Joel seems like a guy who is trying to find his way as a dominant big man in a space and pace motion offense that uses a lot of dribble hand-off and very little pick and roll and isolation. Most of his post entries come from elbow sets, and he simply finds himself with the ball on the perimeter as the trailing big man who is the last guy to make it up the court. As his post game evolves, he’ll have to learn how to consistently handle double teams and protect the ball. We’ve previously seen the flashes of brilliance in a somewhat inconsistent area of his game.

Brett Brown can certainly help Joel find a better balance, but the Boston game was just about as good of a performance as you’re going to get from Embiid in year number three. 34 points on 10-17 shooting, 2-4 from three, 12-12 from the foul line, and a pair of blocks? Cut down on the turnover numbers and he’s a top-three MVP candidate, no question.

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3 Responses

  1. Great article and analysis. Kind of confirms my thinking on this but I didn’t have any data to back it up. I don’t mind him putting up a couple, if he rotates to the top of the key off the ball and gets an open look, it’s not a terrible shot for him. But I do sometimes dread seeing him make one of those early in a game because it does seem like he falls in love with the shot.

  2. The reality is that Joel has to take those shots because Ben refuses to take any outside shots. It is a ripple effect.

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