The final days of the NBA’s regular season are winding down and with that, each MVP candidate’s last gasp efforts in convincing voters why they are most deserving of the hardware. For most of the season, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid has been at or near the top of a packed list of contenders for the award, but one NBA legend thinks that Sixers fans can expect the big man to remain an MVP favorite for years to come too.
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During a discussion with NBA.com writer Shaun Powell this week about Embiid and Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic – both centers – being the top MVP candidates, Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon had some interesting thoughts on the 27-year-old Cameroonian.
“He didn’t capitalize (in the post) as much in the previous years, even though he has all the post moves. And he’s still not maximizing it, and yet he’s already in the MVP race,” Olajuwon said. “Can you imagine how great he’ll be when he starts to maximize it all the time? He can be MVP for the next 3-4 years.”
Powell wrote that a goal for head coach Doc Rivers in his first year at the helm of Philadelphia has been to have Embiid focus his offensive attention more on playing near the rim, rather than take deep jumpers. According to the numbers, Embiid has been listening.
Embiid Shooting Fewest, Most Effective 3-Pointers of Career
Entering Wednesday’s action, Embiid is averaging a career-low 3.1 three-point attempts per game. Through his first four seasons, his average number of attempts from outside went from 3.2 to 3.4, then 4.1 to 3.4.
The fewest shots from deep this season have also resulted in a career-best 36.8 three-point field goal percentage. From the 2016-2017 campaign through 2019-2020, Embiid’s percentages were 36.7, 30.8, 30.0 and 33.1.
“This is indeed a throwbackalicious moment for a league that long celebrated the tallest of men, only to see them recently demoted to being pick-setters and, ahem, stretch-fives,” Powell wrote. “Embiid has become an inside force for the Sixers who uses his heft for bully-ball and is an elite defender with a furious knack for shot-blocking.”
Perhaps in correlation to Embiid’s fewest, most efficient three-point shot attempts, he is also succeeding on a career-best 50.9% of his field goals and his effective field goal percentage is a career-high 54.1%. Other statistics that Embiid is setting personal-highs in are free throw percentage at 85.4%, steals per game at 1.0 and points per game with 29.0.
Though his average distance in feet of his field goal attempts this season aren’t career-lows, the 11.9 feet is 0.5 less than last season’s career-high of 12.4. One can’t help but think that the numbers this season were a bit skewered too, thanks to his one “heave” attempt.
Olajuwon’s Career Threes Are Fewer Than Embiid’s Season Total
Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon is widely regarded as one of the greatest players in NBA history, and certainly one of the best big men. From his “Phi Slama Jama” days at the University of Houston all the way through his 18-year, Hall of Fame career, the 58-year-old was known for his tremendous skills down low on offense and his ferocious tenacity on defense.
Like Embiid, Olajuwon hails from Africa, having grown up in Nigeria – one of Cameroon’s neighboring countries – and similar to the Sixers star, “The Dream” didn’t begin playing basketball until he was 15 years old. In fact, Olajuwon’s nearly two-decade professional career was the primary model that Embiid looked to when he starting playing the game.
“Olajuwon is particularly invested in Embiid, who learned the game as a teenager in Cameroon by watching old VHS tapes of Olajuwon…” Powell wrote.
One stark difference in Embiid’s and Olajuwon’s game though has been the outside shot, which may just be a product of the way the game has changed. Over his first 150 NBA games in two seasons, Olajuwon didn’t take a single three-point attempt.
He only took 124 attempts and made 25 of them – good for 20.2% – in 1,238 career games, which averages out to 0.1 attempts per contest. Embiid meanwhile, despite shooting the three less this season, has still chucked up 144 from distance this year.
Overall, he’s gone 291 for 891 – 32.7% – in 255 regular season contests.
“A lot of big men now have been playing outside,” Olajuwon said. “So they don’t really develop as a post player. The post is still there. It hasn’t gone away. The opportunities that were there for them before are still there now. They just don’t capitalize on them. Why?”