For two years, Joel Embiid has been basketball's great white buffalo. He's the one that got away, the next "what if," a player who exists only in 30-second snippets posted to Twitter and Instagram. Battling a myriad of injuries since he was drafted third overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, the 7-foot-2 Embiid, once a college basketball phenom, hasn't seen a single minute of regular season basketball. Some began to wonder if he ever would.
Finally, that's changed. The world will have to wait another year to see him team up with 2016 No. 1 draft pick Ben Simmons to form one of the most exciting young cores in the league, but the Embiid domination train is ready to leave the station. He'll have to play hard to live up to the hype, especially after his three-week stint working out with trainer Drew Hanlen, who also trains Andrew Wiggins, Embiid's former teammate at Kansas.
"[Embiid] reached out, connected with me and said, 'Hey I want to get in work with you, when can we start?'" Hanlen said. "I said, 'Anytime.' He said, 'Perfect, I'll see you in L.A. tomorrow.'"
Hanlen likes to watch as much film as he can of a player he will train to get a full picture of the player's tendencies and capabilities. But that was difficult with Embiid, who played just 28 games during his time at Kansas. So after speaking with Kansas head coach Bill Self, Hanlen asked Embiid a simple question: What kind of player do you see yourself becoming?
After the two sat together and scoured hours of film, they came to a consensus: Embiid wanted to be a behemoth in the post.
"He has every physical tool you could possibly want," Hanlen said. "At 7-foot-2, he's even a lot bigger than Dwight Howard. Not many people are a lot bigger than Dwight. So we started in the low post and made sure he had good touch on both of his hook shots. From there, we added a bunch of footwork [drills] so he could have different reads; and the final step was adding different pace so that he understood what pace to use for each move and what situation to use each move."
From there, Hanlen moved Embiid out to the mid-post, where the big man's shooting prowess could make him absolutely lethal. Because Embiid consistently knocks down mid-range jumpers, defenses will be forced to respect his shot and not sag off him, thereby giving Embiid the option to blow by his defender and get directly to the hoop.
"We worked on a lot of mid-post reads that were one or two dribbles," Hanlen said. "Using his power and strength and quickness and footwork instead of over-dribbling and overcomplicating things. We gave him a simple package that had a lot of reads and counter reads, and then we worked on ball screen stuff and playing off the ball screen."
One of those mid-post reads is the cross-step, where Embiid takes one dribble to his left or right, then crosses over the opposite way and explodes to the rim. Embiid also worked on what Hanlen calls "bump-offs," where he backs down his defender in the post, then uses the defender's body to propel himself back for a fadeaway jumper.
For 90 minutes a day, Embiid worked hard, Hanlen says. But what impressed the trainer most about Embiid was his commitment to watching film and his photographic memory.
"He's a huge film geek. Any time I would do a move, he'd say, 'Aw man, Hakeem [Olajuwan] used to do that. I remember he did that in the playoffs,'" Hanlen said. "He just knew every move and who it was, because he's been able to lock in over the last two years and observe everything."
Hanlen said they took moves from a handful of players, but his most compelling comparison for what Embiid can become if he stays healthy and develops is the Orlando Magic-era Shaquille O'Neal.
"If you look at young Shaq, when he was utilizing spins and quick rips and stuff like that," Hanlen said. "[Embiid] is 7-foot-2 with good strength, really good feet and good touch with both hands. There's not many guys in the history of basketball that you can say that about."
Develop Skills Like Joel Embiid
You don't have to be over seven feet tall to emulate Embiid's game, or go through his workout. If most of your game takes place in the mid and low post, Hanlen provides three things to master to become the best big man you can be.
1. Be able to hit a hook shot with either hand
Hanlen says: "If you can develop hooks with both hands you're going to be able to score around the basket and turn over either shoulder."
Try It: Begin with your back to the basket in the middle of the paint. In one motion, turn slightly to your left so that your shoulders are perpendicular to the hoop. Jump and hook the ball over your left shoulder with your shooting hand into the basket. Repeat until your make ten, then switch to your opposite hand and make ten more.
2. Learn how to rip the ball (quickly moving the ball from one side of your body to the other) off of either pivot foot
Hanlen says: "If you can rip, then you can attack."
Try It: Stand at the mid post in the triple threat position holding the ball opposite your dominant side. If you're a righty, hold the ball at your left hip, and vice versa. Then "rip" the ball from one side to the other as quickly as you can, and explode to the hoop. Finish with a layup. Do this 10 times, using a teammate or coach as a defender
3. Develop counter moves, like the half-spin or the spin back
Hanlen says: "If you have those three things, you'll be a really good big man."
Half-Spin: Begin with your back to the basket in the mid-post. Take two dribbles, and begin to spin to your right by swinging your right leg over to the left side of your body. When your shoulders are facing the hoop, take another dribble, step back with your right foot and go directly into your shooting motion. Repeat 10 times, then try 10 more half-spinning to your left.
Spin-Back: Follow the directions for the half-spin, but instead of taking a step back and shooting a jumper when your shoulders are facing the basket, spin back to your original post position and drive to the hoop for a layup. Repeat 10 times, then try 10 more to your left side.
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