Is Joel Embiid worth all the fuss?

Joel Embiid is playing great, and the 76ers are finally winning games. Is he the franchise star the "process" was supposed to divine? Or are people overreacting just a bit to a small sample size? Spoiler alert, it's the second one. It's always the second one.

The Hype ... and the Reality

Joel Embiid was almost voted in as an All-Star. Some are speculating he's MVP material. Others have noted his impressive rookie season. And yet, our numbers say ... he's below average. According to the Wins Produced per 48 metric, which estimates the rate of wins a player contributes to their team (0.099 is average) Joel Embiid is ... 0.088! You may note this would qualify as below average. Admittedly, rookies tend to be below average NBA players, and finding a good rookie is hit and miss. That said, only based on his play so far this season, we're a bit skeptical of what the fuss about Embiid is about.

However, it turns out the explanation is quite simple. Embiid is good at just about everything in regards to the "good" categories in the box score. He's also horrendously bad at the bad things. Let's break it down (you can see this at the Players Compare Engine too).

Category Embiid per 48 Average big per 48
Net Points per 48 4.7 2.1
Assists per 48 3.9 3.0
Offensive Rebounds per 48 3.8 3.4
Turnovers per 48 7.1 2.5
Defensive Rebounds per 48 11.1 8.9
Steals per 48 1.5 1.4
Blocks per 48 4.6 1.6
Personal Fouls per 48 6.9 4.6

Embiid is above average in every good category. He's just also horrendous at fouls. He is currently the third largest turnoverer per minute behind James Harden and Russell Westbrook. And unlike Embiid, they're point guards who handle the ball a heck of a lot more. What's more, Embiid, despite being on a minutes restriction, wouldn't likely last a full NBA game anyway. Currently, he'd foul out if he played regular minutes. 

For what it's worth, this is why I like calling Embiid a perfect "PER" player. A common stumble I see in sports analytics is to focus on what a player does well, and ignore what they do poorly. And when we do that, it's easy for any player to be a star, or to have massive potential. Now, that said, Embiid does have potential, let's get to that.

The Winning "Streak."

Since December 30th, the 76ers are 8-2 and 8-1 in games Embiid dressed. Has Embiid stepped up and been a reason? Of course, he has! Let's break it down.

Category Embiid pre 12/30/2016 Embiid post 12/30/2016
Wins per 48 0.047 0.200
Net Points per 48 4.7 6.0
Assists per 48 3.3 5.2
Offensive Rebounds per 48 3.7 4.0
Turnovers per 48 7.2 6.8
Defensive Rebounds per 48 10.7 12
Steals per 48 1.4 1.8
Blocks per 48 4.5 4.8
Personal Fouls per 48 6.7 7.4

So, the good news, in the past nine games Embiid has indeed played "star level." (twice as good as an average big) Now that's still not close to MVP level (the best players in the NBA this season are hovering around 0.400 WP48), and I'd debate if he belongs in the All-Star game. That said, yes Embiid has played star level for about 1/3 of his games this season.

A few trouble spots. His turnovers and fouls are still horrendous. It's not he shored up his weaknesses, it's that he did everything else better. And a final point, yes Embiid's play helped contribute to the 76ers winning, but from 12/30 to now, here's how the top Wins Producers on the 76ers have looked.

Player Wins (12/30 to 1/22) WP48 (12/30 to 1/22)
Robert Covington 1.7 0.227
T.J. McConnell 1.5 0.215
Joel Embiid 1.0 0.200
Nerlens Noel 0.8 0.204

Four players on the 76ers have been playing star level recently. And while Embiid's performance is great, it ranks third behind two undrafted players! And, of course, it's only been ten games! Let's wait a little longer before calling this the norm.

The Process

Joel Embiid's recent performance should make 76ers fan optimistic. But I want to make sure that's bounded. Is Embiid playing like a "star"? Yes, but he's not MVP level. And he still has some glaring issues in his game. Does that mean he won't improve them and become an MVP-worthy player? Of course not! But it's far from a sure thing. I've got two more things to add as well.

Treating Joel Embiid as some diamond in the rough and some proof of "the process" is weird for me. Embiid was considered by many to be the top prospect in the 2014 Draft. Then he dropped a few spots amidst injury concerns. And after missing two full seasons with injury Embiid is on a minutes restriction and as of this writing, out with injury! In short, this is a case where the mainstream crowd was right. Embiid is a talented prospect with injury issues. Now, again, we support this type of gamble in the draft. But it's not as if what people thought when Embiid was drafted (talented player with injury issues) is that far off of reality.

Secondly, in the same draft as Embiid was a player named Nikola Jokic. Jokic has also been a tear recently. And, in fact, Jokic's numbers this season put him as three times as good as an average big! Jokic, unlike Embiid, was drafted in the second round. That said, if you're looking for a player putting up MVP numbers from the 2014 draft, it ain't Embiid, it's Jokic :)

If Embiid can stay healthy and fix some issues in his game, he could be a franchise player for the 76ers, But the 76ers are stil a lottery team, and Embiid isn't a consistent star player yet. So all we're saying to many on the hype train is to hold your horses, for a little bit at least.