Stephen A. Smith Gives High Praise to Joel Embiid: Is He a Better Big Man Than Nikola Jokic?

The Philadelphia 76ers have made a major investment in Joel Embiid by signing him to a four-year, $196 million supermax extension. The deal will keep him under contract through the 2026-27 NBA season for a total of $261 million. That is a massive contract, but ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith believes Embiid is worthy of the price tag.

He suffered multiple injuries early in his career, but the past few seasons have been better for the 7-footer. He played 51 games during the 2020-21 season, averaging 28.5 points and 10.6 rebounds. Embiid finished second in MVP voting and was named second-team All-NBA. 

Stephen A. Smith gave high praise to the four-time All-Star and had an interesting take about where Embiid ranks among the NBA’s elite big men.

Stephen A. Smith believes Joel Embiid is the best NBA big man when healthy

On ESPN’s First Take, Stephen A. Smith argued that “if it weren’t for durability issues, we’d be calling him the best big man in basketball instead of Jokic.” 

Smith was referring to Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, who was named the Most Valuable Player for 2020. The manner in which he mentioned Jokic’s name suggests his thoughts on the Serbian big man being considered the best center in the league.

A handful of names have been used interchangeably with that title in mind, but Embiid and Jokic have begun to put themselves in a different tier. Solid cases can be made for both players, and it’s certainly a debate worth having.

How does Embiid fare in comparison to Jokic?

Stephen A Smith commenting on a NBA game; Joel Embiid facing off against Nikola Jokic
Stephen A Smith commenting on a NBA game; Joel Embiid facing off against Nikola Jokic | Justin Casterline/Getty Images; Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Jokic was dominant in 2020-21, averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists for the regular season. Just 26 years old, he is already one of the most skilled offensive centers the game has ever seen. He is a gifted passer and ball-handler given his size. This unique skill set has set him apart from other big men in the NBA.

As good as Jokic is, Embiid does bring some skills to the table that Jokic doesn’t possess. The former Jayhawk is the best two-way center in the league. He is a two-time All-Defensive Second Team selection. He excels as a rim protector, and when he’s locked in, he is absolutely dominant in the paint. 

He’s not as skilled as a passer, but he is more than capable of putting up similar offensive numbers as Jokic. Both players can stretch the floor and knock down shots from deep, which is key in today’s game. The Joker doesn’t come close to impacting the game on the defensive end of the court as much as Embiid, however. 

Smith has a point. So, is Embiid the best big man in the NBA? That depends on how you view Giannis Antetokounmpo and the also oft-injured Anthony Davis. 

Regardless, if injuries are not a problem moving forward, the sky’s the limit for the 76ers superstar.

Does Embiid’s injury history limit his potential?

Since the 76ers selected him out of the University of Kansas with the No. 3 overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, the 27-year-old has suffered his fair share of injuries. The early years of his career were marred by surgeries due to multiple foot and knee injuries. 

As a result, Embiid has been labeled injury-prone. That label may not be the most accurate assessment, but his injury history is noteworthy. When making a substantial financial investment in a player, the front office is banking on the player being available. That’s the first step. 

A bone bruise in his left knee caused him to miss 10 games during the 2020-21 season, which could have been a deciding factor in him losing the MVP race to Jokic. He also missed a game during the first round of the playoffs duue to a partially torn meniscus in his right knee. Embiid was able to play through the injury for the remainder of the postseason. 

He was an integral part of the Sixers’ “Trust the Process” rebuilding era. The team showed promise, but it has only translated into Philadelphia getting bounced from the postseason earlier than expected. Injuries, chemistry, and Ben Simmons’ offensive woes have held this team back consistently. 

If Embiid can stay healthy, he does have the potential to be one of the best basketball players in the world and carry the 76ers over the hump. 

All stats courtesy of ESPN and Basketball Reference

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