The Sixers are finishing up practice with a full-court drill. It’s not the iconic three-man weave. But, three players make their ways up the court whilst sharing one basketball. No dribbles are allowed. It’s presumably intended to simulate an efficient fastbreak play.
The player in the middle — Joel Embiid — passes the rock to Tobias Harris, who is making his way up the court to the big man’s right. Harris sends the ball back to Embiid, who swings his shoulders to his left and delivers a bounce pass to Paul Reed. The second-year big breaks right — towards the rim — to finish a dunk.
Harris loops around Embiid and sprints back to the basket from which the three teammates originated. Reed fills the spot from which Harris came, essentially flipping their respective spots in the drill.
Embiid, still the man in the middle, collects the ball after Reed’s dunk and pushes back towards the other end of the court. Reed needed an extra half of a step to match the paces of Embiid and Harris. “C’mon, P!” Embiid shouts before delivering a pass to his teammate. It’s not a shout intended to reprimand the youngster. Rather, it’s intended to motivate Reed to catch up. The DePaul product finds his balance as he skips to catch Embiid’s pass. He fires the ball back before sprinting towards the basket to switch places with Harris, who has received the rock from Embiid and is finishing at the rim. And the drill starts over again.
While lasting less than a second in time, that attempt to motivate a teammate is symbolic of the step the Sixers believe Embiid has taken as a leader this offseason. “He’s been great. Everything we talked about this summer, literally everything,” Doc Rivers remarked of the MVP runner-up after the team’s preseason victory over the Nets on Monday.
“He’s been off the charts in every aspect of the work, the leadership, the little things. He’s doing everything you can ask.”
As one grows more experienced in every-day life, you learn that ‘leadership’ is a very broad concept. There isn’t just one way to lead people. But according to Embiid, himself, it starts with his approach.
“Just being a better leader. I think in the past, the way I led, which I still do, the way I led was just on the basketball court and just going with these guys and have the mentality of ‘just hop on my back and I got you, whether it’s playing hard offensively or defensively’. And then obviously we went through a lot these past few months,” he said after the victory over the Nets.
Rather than trying to will his team to victory by being a hero, Embiid is trying to strike a balance between playing freely and keeping his teammates engaged.
“As the organization sees me, that’s my job. I have to be a leader. Whether it’s on or off the court, I have to do my best. That’s what I’ve really been trying to do, is trying to keep the team together,” Embiid said on Monday night.
“Because I still believe we have a chance. We just need to have fun. Like I said, we’ve been moving the ball, I’ve been playing freely. Whether it’s having the ball in my hands and just making plays. We have a lot of space and it’s been working out well, so we need to keep building on that.”
The numbers say that Embiid isn’t just paying lip service, either. His playmaking and trust in teammates seemingly took a leap in the minutes he played this preseason. Through five NBA seasons, Embiid’s career-best assist percentage is 18.5. While Embiid only played in two preseason games this season, that metric ballooned to 30 percent. In the same season that he achieved a career-high in assist percentage, Embiid broke an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.0 or better for the only time in his career thus far. He reached a ratio of 2.0 this preseason.
If his teammates believe that Embiid’s care for them is authentic, they may feel more empowered to perform at a high level. If his leadership can propel multiple Sixers to take jumps in their careers, this team will be the deepest of the Embiid era.