For two years, Joel Embiid has been basketball’s great white buffalo. He’s the one that got away, the next “what if,” a player who exists only in 30-second snippets posted to Twitter and Instagram. Battling a myriad of injuries since he was drafted third overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, the 7-foot-2 Embiid, once a college basketball phenom, hasn’t seen a single minute of regular season basketball. Some began to wonder if he ever would, or if he would forever be remembered as the posterchild for former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie’s failed plan for the franchise.
Finally, in just a few short weeks, that’s all about to change.
Barring something unforeseen, Embiid will make his NBA debut when the 2016-2017 season kicks off in November, donning a 76ers uni next to 2016 No. 1 draft pick Ben Simmons to form one of the more exciting young cores in the league. The Embiid hype train, which has been waiting to get moving ever since Embiid was drafted, arrived full steam in the station when several videos of Embiid putting in work in the gym this off-season began popping up on social media.
Those images come from Embiid’s three-week stint working out with trainer Drew Hanlen, who also trains Andrew Wiggins, Embiid’s former teammate at Kansas.
“[Embiid] reached out, connected with me and said, ‘Hey I want to get in work with you, when can we start?’” Hanlen said. “I said, ‘Anytime.’ He said ‘Perfect, I’ll see you in L.A. tomorrow.'”
Hanlen likes to watch as much film as he can on a player he’s going to train to get a full picture of a player’s tendencies and capabilities, but with Embiid having just 28 games under his belt at Kansas, that proved difficult. So Hanlen got in touch with Kansas head coach Bill Self for additional information on Embiid’s game, then asked Embiid a simple question: What kind of player do you see yourself becoming?
After two seasons away from the game, Embiid gave a complex answer. He and Hanlen sat together and scoured through hours of film, some from Embiid’s time at Kansas, some of other players, to figure out what moves and court reads they thought best fit his game. Then Hanlen put Embiid on the court and ran him through a series of drills to observe his movement patterns and see what moves he was able to master. Finally, they came to a consensus on the way they wanted to shape Embiid’s game: to make him a low and mid-post behemoth.
“He’s really smart, he has a high basketball IQ, his work ethic is off the charts and he has every physical tool you could possibly want,” Hanlen said. “At 7-foot-2, he’s even a lot bigger than Dwight Howard. Not many people are a lot bigger than Dwight. So we started in the low post and made sure he had good touch on both of his hook shots. From there, we added a bunch of footwork [drills] so he could have different reads; and the final step was adding different pace so that he understood what pace to use for each move and what situation to use each move.”
From there, Hanlen moved Embiid out to the mid-post, where the big man’s shooting prowess could make him absolutely lethal. Because Embiid can consistently knock down the mid-range jumper, it will force defenses to respect his shot and not sag off him, thereby giving Embiid the option to blow by his defender and get directly to the hoop.
“We worked on a lot of mid-post reads that were one or two dribbles,” Hanlen said. “Using his power and strength and quickness and footwork instead of over-dribbling and overcomplicating things. We gave him a simple package that had a lot of reads and counter reads, and then we worked on ball screen stuff and playing off the ball screen.”
One of those mid-post reads is the cross-step, where Embiid takes one dribble to his left or right, then crosses over the opposite way and explodes to the rim. Embiid also worked on what Hanlen calls “bump-offs,” where he backs down his defender in the post, then uses the defender’s body to propel himself back for a fadeaway jumper.
For 90 minutes a day, Embiid worked hard; but what impressed Hanlen the most, aside from Embiid’s work ethic and clear physical gifts, was his commitment to watching film and his photographic memory.
“He’s a huge film geek. Any time I would do a move he’d say, ‘Aw man, Hakeem [Olajuwan] used to do that. I remember he did that in the playoffs.’ He just knew every move and who it was, because he’s been able to lock in over the last two years and observe everything,” Hanlen said. “Most people just want to get through the workout, whereas Embiid wanted to really know all the nuances.”
Hanlen said they took moves from a handful of players, but his most compelling comparison for what Embiid can become if he stays healthy and develops is the Orlando Magic-era Shaquille O’Neal.
“He’s 7-foot-2 with good strength, really good feet and good touch with both hands. There’s not many guys in the history of basketball that you can say that about,” Hanlen said. “If you look at young Shaq, when he was utilizing spins and quick rips and stuff like that, that would be a comparison of where I think Embiid can be once he does stay healthy.”
That’s a frightening proposition, but watching Embiid’s movements during his workouts with Hanlen and how effortless they are for a guy of his size makes you understand where Hanlen is coming from. If Embiid can indeed avoid the cavalcade of injuries he suffered early in his NBA career, he has a chance not just to be great, but to be one of the best big men to ever play the game.
“Joel is going to be special, man,” Hanlen. “As far as guys I’ve ever worked with, he’s got a chance to be as special as any of them.”