The first time I saw Joel Embiid play basketball was just about 5 years ago. Early in the Kansas Jayhawks season, I began watching games looking at Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins was, by all accounts, the consensus preseason lock to be drafted #1 in the 2014 NBA draft. But someone else flashed in that first game, Joel Embiid.
My first impression was awe, to be perfectly honest. After so many years watching basketball, you rarely get a glimpse of potential greatness so early. The early comparisons were Hakeem Olajuwon. And honestly, it’s hard to shake early comparisons once they form. But as Joel’s body and game has developed, is Hakeem still the best comparison? Let’s take a look.
Basic Stats at Age 24
Let’s be super unfair and compare Joel’s stats to some historically all time greats. For this comparison I will use Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Hakeem Olajuwon at age 24.
I think my biggest surprise here is raw scoring output. I think we perhaps fail to recognize just how dominant Joel is as a scorer. The focus on his turnovers is perhaps a bit overblown, as all of his peers on this list were within a half a turnover per game of Embiid, albeit in more minutes played.
The striking advantage here is Joel’s free throw percentage which is elite among big men but especially so in this group. Duncan and Olajuwon are routinely cited among the most skilled big men in history, and yet at age 24, neither shot above 70% from the free throw line.
Joel recently discussed not liking shooting threes because of his efficiency.
“When you look at yourself and you see how dominant you can be inside you ask yourself, why even attempt a three?” – Joel Embiid 12-22-18
But let’s look a little deeper. What does this mean for efficiency?
Embiid leads this group in scoring per 36 minutes and in rebounding rate. These are not surprising given the counting stats and minutes played. What is interesting, however, is that despite shooting the worst raw FG% of the group, his True Shooting percentage leads the group fairly significantly. This is likely due to his effectiveness at getting to and scoring from the line.
In addition, the assist percentage may surprise some. Joel actually ranks #1 just in front of O’Neal as a passer. This is an area that fans and media are clamoring for him to improve, but the numbers show significant reason for optimism.
Joel is thought of as an elite rim protector, so his Block % is somewhat surprising, but this may be due to the changes in the modern NBA.
Historically, these other players peaked at age 27/28. Except for Olajuwon, who never became a great passer, the turnover percentages improved over time until age 28.
Embiid’s rate of progress is hard to determine because of the trajectory of his early career. He has still played so few games and faced so many fewer double teams that it is hard to judge how close to his prime he really is.
Physically, each of his peers we’ve reviewed got stronger and made quicker decisions over time. Joel has some real advantages, but his body maturity may have happened faster than his peers. If his body remains more like Hakeem and less like Shaq, we could see a much longer peak era as his awareness and intellect develop.
If his physical progression is more like O’Neal, he could become less mobile and rely more on his shooting which may decrease his free throw rate.
Joel has played the fewest games of anyone on this comparison list. His career is still shockingly new. The intellect and rate of progression that he has shown thus far makes it easy for us to see the little flaws and wonder why he doesn’t make every play.
But the numbers show that his actual play ranks among the greatest big men to ever play the game. If Joel embraces the power game of O’Neal, the finesse and elusiveness of Hakeem, and the face up game of Tim Duncan, we could be seeing the beginning of an all time historic career in Philadelphia.