Joel Embiid believes he's already the NBA's best defensive player

Until an opposing player hands Joel Embiid his lunch, it'll be difficult to make a case against him. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Until an opposing player hands Joel Embiid his lunch, it’ll be difficult to make a case against him. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Joel Embiid’s evolution as an offensive weapon has been a pleasure to witness. It’s his equally devastating defensive instincts, though, that made him so unique as a prospect.

Before his offensive game was refined, Embiid was stifling Big 12 offenses at Kansas. Six weeks into his second pro season, the Philadelphia 76ers center is already making a(nother) audacious statement, announcing his candidacy for one of the NBA’s most prestigious awards. After Wednesday’s win over the Portland Trail Blazers, Embiid crowed about how he perceived his place in the hierarchy of modern defenders, via NBC Sports Philadelphia (with a hat-tip to Uproxx):

“Not to be cocky but I think I think I’m the best defensive player in the league right now,” Embiid said. “I just want to keep on going. I’m still getting better. My blocks are a little bit down but I’m a better rebounder this year … I do a lot of things to help the team win and the guys around me do a lot of things to help me too. I just want to keep on going and be the best defensive player in the league and hopefully this year I can win Defensive Player of the Year.”

Embiid has a habit of endlessly bloviating, but he actually has a robust application for Defensive Player of the Year credentials saved in the drafts.

As Embiid noted, his blocks (1.9 swats in 29.3 minutes per game) are slightly down from last season (2.5 in 25.4 minutes a night). He remains one of the pre-eminent erasers at the center position, though, making up ground quicker than slashers anticipate, which enables him to eviscerate unsuspecting scorers’ shots out of nowhere:

The effort he exhibited in making up ground in an instant to spike Damian Lillard’s lay-in attempt during the third quarter of Philly’s blowout win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday was emblematic of his omnipotence in the paint:

Embiid should try keeping his blocks inbounds rather than lusting for the highlight kill, but he is developing a reputation as a big who defends the rim with ferocity. He ranks second to New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis in defensive field goal percentage, just ahead of current league blocks leader Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks and Al Horford, captain of the Boston Celtics’ NBA-best defense.

Embiid also ranks eighth in the NBA in block percentage among players who’ve logged at least 250 minutes, and tied for fourth in the league in field goal percentage allowed at the rim. Even among the who’s who of formidable paint defenders, Embiid is a standout.

Surprisingly, the lean, towering Porzingis is emerging as a viable contender for up-and-coming one-man rim defense system. Embiid’s bulkier build allows him to bang with the DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol’s of the NBA down low.

Karl Anthony-Towns was supposed to make his case for that claim, but Towns has failed to remedy the faulty defensive fundamentals that he displayed as a prospect. Opposing players are shooting 10 percent higher in Towns’ presence (49 percent) than they are against Embiid.

Within six feet of the rim, Embiid ranks third behind Porzingis and Miami Heat shot-swatter Hassan Whiteside. The difference between a shooter’s percentage and the percentage when they’re guarded by Embiid is negative-12, third-best difference in the league among centers.

Thon Maker, Marc Gasol, Anthony Davis and Steven Adams are the only pivots who are defending outside the paint better than Embiid. And with “The Process” on the floor, the 76ers boast an elite defensive rating, giving up 96.6 points per 100 possessions; when he’s off the floor, that balloons to 107.6 allowed per-100. It’s worth noting that the only players with a better personal defensive rating are Trail Blazers forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner, in addition to a quartet of Celtics teammates. The impact is real; the case has merit.

Of course, the caveat is “right now.”

Two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner and 2017 runner-up and San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard is considered by many the shadow DPOY, even as Golden State Warriors stopper Draymond Green currently holds the honor. Green may have outpaced Leonard and Utah Jazz offense-wrecker Rudy Gobert in DPOY voting last season, but the award is merely a social construct.

Green is an unparalleled chameleon who can switch onto all five positions without missing a beat and nukes offenses as a fun-sized defensive center. Leonard alters the gravity of the floor for opposing offenses in a way that compares to how Stephen Curry stretches defensive coverages. Of course, while Embiid has finally gotten healthy enough to ditch his minutes restriction, Leonard has not touched the floor this season, and may not for the foreseeable future.

Usually young players secure a spot on the All-Defensive First Team before they start making claims for the crown. However, Embiid is a throwback with contemporary size who may be able to shift the paradigm for defensive excellence back toward more a traditional big man dominating that end of the floor, even as the action seems to be shifting further away from them.