Former NBA big man on lessons Wizards can use to better defend Joel Embiid

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Former NBA big man on lessons Wizards can put to use vs. Embiid originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

NBC Sports Washington analyst Tony Massenburg played in an era of the NBA where big men reigned supreme. The emphasis there is on 'big.' He was listed at 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, yet back in the 1990s some players -- think Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming -- towered over him. 

"They were giants, literally giants. They towered over everybody," Massenburg recalled. "It was the only time, those two guys in particular, that my friends would call me after and say ‘that’s the only time I’ve ever seen you look like a kid next to somebody, you looked like a five-year-old.’"

Embiid isn't nearly as big as O'Neal or Ming, but he's still huge, especially by modern NBA standards where power forwards and centers are generally smaller but much faster and more versatile than they were in the past. Embiid is 7-feet, 275 pounds and that presents a matchup problem for most opposing frontcourt players.

Massenburg knows what it's like to defend someone significantly larger on the block. It isn't easy at all.

"The best thing you can do when you’re giving up that many pounds and inches is to try to keep the guys as far away from the basket as you can," Massenburg said.

"I would try to do my work early, meaning I would try to give a little resistance at the three-point line. I thought maybe I could get them off their spots and disrupt the timing of the offense, if I could. The thing that makes it so hard with Embiid is that in the era I played, the big guys typically did the bulk of their scoring on the block. But when you look at the way Embiid plays, and most big men don’t do it as well as he does, Embiid is a three-level scorer as a 7-foot, 275-pound guy."

That is indeed what makes Embiid so special. He can score in the midrange and from three in addition to being a force in the paint. Embiid shot 37.7% from three this season on 3.0 attempts per game. 

Though Embiid scored 30 points in Game 1 against the Wizards, he went 0-for-3 from deep. Still, the threat is there.

"The only thing you can do is try to deny him the basketball as best you can, try to figure out where it is that he wants to go. If he wants to stop at the three-point line, then you have to play him at the three-point line," Massenburg said.

Another difference between Embiid and some of the centers of old is his free throw shooting. He led the NBA this season in attempts, with 10.7 per game, while shooting 85.9%. That's far and away better than O'Neal, who even at his peak in the early 2000s could be neutralized a bit by sending him to the line.

Embiid went 27-of-28 from the line against the Wizards in the regular season and 12-of-13 in Game 1.

"I think you foul him on a wide-open dunk if you have a foul to give. You can’t apply the hack-a-Shaq because that’s only going to cost you," Massenburg said.

So, we know what the Wizards can't do against Embiid. But what about what they can do against him?

Massenburg points to Game 1 of the series between the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers on Monday, which the Blazers won to take a 1-0 series lead. What they did, Massenburg says, is force everyone on Denver but superstar Nikola Jokic to beat them. Like the Nuggets, the Sixers like to run a lot of their offense through their center.

Jokic scored 34 points in Game 1, but only had one assist.

"My thing would be somebody be forced into a position to beat you other than Joel Embiid. That’s the part that I take from the Portland-Denver series," Massenburg said.

"They limited the other guys’ touches and when they did get touches, they had some tough looks to make baskets and ultimately it disrupted the timing for those guys. They weren’t able to get into a rhythm because they were so used to getting passes from Jokic flinging it out of double-teams. When that didn’t happen, it was almost like something they didn’t prepare for because they weren’t accustomed to seeing it."

The Wizards may be able to employ that strategy in particular when guys like Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle are on the floor, as they shoot low percentages from the outside. Defenders can give them more space.

It is not a simple task guarding Embiid, just as it wasn't for defending O'Neal and the other great centers of Massenburg's time. But the Wizards have to find a way if they want to win this series.