Joel Embiid’s improved passing in one play: How Nick Nurse has turned 76ers star into triple-double threat

Joel Embiid did something recently that’s incredibly rare for him.

In Philadelphia’s win over Los Angeles on Nov. 29, Embiid recorded the sixth triple-double of his career. In addition to his usual 30 points and 11 rebounds, he dished out a game-high 11 assists. It’s the second-most assists he has ever posted in an NBA game.

It was a dominant performance from start to finish for Embiid, but there was a particular stretch in the third quarter that stood out for a few reasons.

You know what that means — to the film room!

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🎥 The play

✏️ Breakdown

Embiid rebounds a missed shot and brings the ball up the court himself.

On the floor with Embiid are Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Nicolas Batum and Tobias Harris, who are good-to-great 3-point shooters. The four of them space the floor up for Embiid by immediately running to the 3-point line.

Embiid is an excellent one-on-one scorer. According to, only Luka Doncic and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored more points than he did in isolation all of last season. He was incredibly efficient at it, too.

Anthony Davis is, of course, one of the best defenders in the NBA, but he’s at a size disadvantage against Embiid, giving up a couple of inches and nearly 30 pounds. He had a hard time slowing Embiid down in this particular game. According to the tracking data, Embiid scored 22 of his 30 points (on 8-for-12 shooting) when Davis was defending him.

To give Davis some help, both Taurean Prince and D’Angelo Russell park themselves at the elbows.

Joel Embiid No. 2

The problem? Maxey and Harris are still getting into position on the right side of the court, but Melton is now wide open on the left wing.

Embiid makes the simple pass and Melton, a career 37.3 percent 3-point shooter, knocks it down.

Joel Embiid No. 3

WATCH: Follow Embiid and the 76ers all season long on SLING TV

🤔 Why it matters

The 76ers did the same exact thing on the next possession. Once again, Melton’s defender helped off of him to take away space for Embiid. And once again, Embiid set him up for an open 3.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? 

The 76ers ran the same action for a third straight possession, only this time the Lakers didn’t help off Melton as aggressively. The result: Embiid had more space to attack Davis one-on-one.

It still ended with Embiid getting an assist because he caught Prince ball-watching.

The 76ers went to it one more time and it earned Embiid free throws.

There’s nothing fancy going on — it’s a simple clear-out for Embiid — but it shows some of the small changes Nick Nurse has implemented since taking over as head coach and the impact it has had on Embiid.

With James Harden no longer in Philadelphia, the 76ers have been running more of their offense through Embiid. He remains a dominant scorer, but he’s also putting together the best passing season of his career, upping his assist average from 4.2 per game last season to 6.6 per game this season.

Embiid’s assist rate — the percentage of teammate field goals a player assists while they’re on the court — is now higher than LeBron James, Gilgeous-Alexander and Harden, to name a few.

“He’s been willing to pass, but this year, he’s really buying in,” Danuel House Jr. said of Embiid.

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A couple of things are fueling that jump beyond his “buying in.”

One, Embiid has the ball more out on the perimeter. Not all the passes he’s making are as simple as the ones above, but it’s easier to read double teams in those situations than in the post. (As The Ringer’s Michael Pina detailed last season, Embiid tends to try and score, not pass, when doubled in the post. The results haven’t been great.)

Two, the 76ers are now much, much more active off-ball. According to, they’ve more than doubled the number of handoffs they run under Nurse. They’re cutting quite a bit more than they did last season as well. That combination leads to less standing around and a lot of movement, which plays to the strengths of this roster.

Making those passes requires a lot of trust, but the benefit for Embiid in the long run is clear. He’s such a dominant scorer that he consistently draws the attention of multiple defenders when he’s in control of the ball.

In the past, trying to take the ball out of Embiid’s hands by doubling or tripling him has been the lesser of two evils. The more teams have to be concerned about him making the right read, the easier it should be for him to do what he does best.

“He’s going to need guys to help him score,” said Maxey. “He’s going to need guys to help him space. And because he trusts guys, that’s going to give him more opportunities.”

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