The power of atypical possession.
That phrase kept ping-ponging from my right to left brain while re-watching Joel Embiid’s historical performance versus the Utah Jazz. The power of atypical possession: when injury, trades, blowouts, or situational matchups suddenly dictate that a team’s offense will flow from a player at an atypical high-Usage position.
More to the point: when a three, four or five unexpectedly cosplays a one. (Yes, the pun was intentional. Apologies.)
Shooting guards and combo guards don’t know this particular power. A two forced into duty at the one is always fun to watch. In my opinion, it’s even more rewarding to watch a classic one play the two, just to watch a distributor have to think, “score first.” But guards are more accustomed to shifting roles… so the differentiation isn’t as dramatic.
But when you suddenly hand the keys for an entire game — or a slate of games — to a small forward, power forward or center? That’s when the power of atypical possessions reveals itself. In the rare cases where, for an entire game. the ball is brought across halfcourt, then placed in a big’s hands at the top of the key? There is an electricity to it.
Even through a TV screen, I can feel said big’s adrenaline spike.
I watched a miniaturized version of this spike late last week, when America’s Team, your Washington Wizards, handed Kyle Kuzma the keys and watched him lead an upset of the Mavericks. In that contest, Kuzma’s usage spiked from 25.4 to 33.3. Kuzma rewarded ye/we Wizarding faithfully with 36 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and five 3-pointers. (PS: Mr. Leonsis, this is the walk year of Kuzma’s contract. Please budget accordingly.)
Kuzma’s night is a good actionable example of the power of atypical possession. Because some may cosign Embiid’s outburst to the time-honored “let the big man eat” ethos. That is a different dynamic. That is merely passing the ball to said big, while illuminating the green light to shoot.
There is a correlation; rewarding a big for their dirty work with shot attempts indeed delivers a holistic benefit of elevated play on both sides of the court. Watch Rudy Gobert this season, and you see this dynamic in action. There’s electricity there, too; just at a lower wattage.
(If you’ve ever been a glue guy, glue girl, or glue them/they on a team, you may know this lower wattage. I took pride in being a glue guy on a winning team, versus a starter on a mediocre team . And the rare instances where I was suddenly tasked with shifting from tackle to running back or shifting floor-diving PF to having plays run for me? I still remember those surges, three decades on.)
But when the keys are handed to truly mind-bending talent like Embiid? The historic enters the realm of possibility. And when said talent is really feeling it? Like, say, the joys of putting 15 pounds less weight on a bad wheel, thanks to a case of the stomach flu, you might have a shot at witnessing the sublime.
I have my own tell for when Embiid is really feeling it: he rubberizes the relationship between time and space. Dropping those 15 pounds activates Embiid’s time-stretching superpower.
Rewatch that game. You’ll see Embiid stretched time around 15-20 times. It’s easiest to see when Embiid unleashes his mid-range jumper, a few feet from one of the low-post blocks. When Embiid is on, there’s this extra hitch in his jumper. It happens right before his descent, right after he kicks his legs as if to provide another quarter-second of air time. Generational players, regardless of position, have this time-bending capability.
(You Sixers fans may know the NBA’s most legendary time-shift example: Dr. J’s reverse layup/scoop shot in the 1980 finals. The time-shift happens when Erving extends his flight time and drifts under the backboard, reappearing to shoot at the other side of the rim. Still jaw-dropping, 40 years on.)
“Sublime” is one of those words I see misapplied with alarming frequency in the TikTok era. Well, Gen Z, here’s a good definition: 59 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, seven blocks, one 3-pointer, one steal, 24 free throw attempts, 76.5% true shooting percentage and a 53.3 usage rate.
(And keep in mind this was the second game of a back-to-back, whereby in the first game Embiid delivered 42 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals, two blocks, a 65.5 TS% and a 41.5 usage rate. That, young people… is sublime in the aggregate.)
Joel Embiid is a perennial MVP contender. A big with a once-a-decade skill set. I’ve always appreciated his wit. His willingness to occasionally air his passion and vulnerability (see: Embiid’s reaction to Kawhi Leonard’s circus closeout buzzer beater in 2019.) He’s used to logging high usage. But going from 37.8 usage on the season to 53.3? Even Russell Westbrook would blush.
Embiid’s Sunday evening box score was an instant all-timer. One of the top 10 single-game box scores in NBA history. I knew it was, because after rewatching the game, I immediately made my way from NBA Season Pass to Basketball Reference, to check the top-10 single-game scores in NBA history. And there it was/is, at seventh overall: Joel Embiid, 54.40 game score, 11/13/2022.
One active NBA player has a score higher on the list: James Harden’s 56.60 for the Rockets in 2018 sits fourth overall. First overall: Michael Jordan’s 64.60, posted 03/28/1990. Jordan’s record high is only a single game score point ahead of a performance I was fortunate enough to witness in person: Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game on 01/22/2006.
I maintain I lost 10 percent of the hearing in my left ear due to the crowd noise. I also maintain it was worth it. I still remember the slow, magical recognition that a sleepy matchup against the Raptors was elevating into something I’d tell my grandkids about.
But that game was Bryant turning up from 11 to 23; he wasn’t altering his role or approach. Bryant was really, really feeling it. Maximizing and super-duper-sizing his everyday alpha role on a mediocre squad. Still historic, sublime and out-of-body… but not out-of-position like Embiid’s performance.
Starting next season, we’ll probably have more chances to see the atypically historic/sublime power of possession… depending on Victor Wembanyama’s ultimate destination city.
Until then, on occasion, file away an extra mental note of appreciation for players like Embiid, and a league like the NBA.
For this writer? When players activate the power of atypical possession, and elevate into sublime –like Embiid vs. Utah — the NBA still rings as fannnntastic; the one pastime still capable of erasing the havoc presented by an average middle-aged day.