How might Nick Nurse’s experience with Marc Gasol help in coaching Joel Embiid?

new balance

How might Nurse’s experience with Gasol help in coaching Embiid? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

During the final answer of his first press conference as Sixers head coach on Thursday, Nick Nurse brought up an outstanding center not named Joel Embiid.

“We’re just trying to maximize what the roster looks like,” Nurse said. “We really had to generate turnovers (with the Raptors) and get out and score in transition, and all those things. But 2018-19 was a different roster. We did have (Marc) Gasol and we played a different style and a different defense. Again, it’s going to be whatever’s best for this team to try to get ‘em to be the best they can be.”

Though a touch past his prime when Toronto acquired him at the trade deadline, Gasol played a giant part in the team’s championship run.

Ironically, Gasol’s defense on Embiid was very valuable in the Raptors’ second-round playoff series win over the Sixers. For Embiid, that devastating defeat pushed him to expand his game so he had more options against physical defenses and constant double teams.

While the second round has remained problematic, he’s now a back-to-back scoring champion and the reigning MVP.

“Joel has a lot of attributes,” Nurse said. “First of all, defensively — very, very good. And then offensively, he’s very, very skilled. And again, it’s a little bit early, but I think that once it starts unfolding and we start learning each other … we’re just going to try to max it out. I can’t sit here and tell you tactically what that means today, but we’re going to certainly try to put him in situations where he’s going to be super dominant.”

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Without diving into specific schemes, Nurse did say he’d like to see Embiid facilitate for teammates more.

“The short answer to that is yes,” he said. “I think he’s got the ability to do that. I think it’s part of what I historically like to do as well. I also think that there’s a lot of changing defenses now — a lot more than you’ve probably seen six or seven years ago — so you’ve got to combat and be ready for all of those. There’s a lot more switching and all those things going on. We’ve just got to be ready for all of it.”

In terms of the regular season, Embiid has made steady passing progress. The six-time All-Star’s 0.65 assist-to-usage ratio in the 2022-23 season was the best of his career, according to Cleaning the Glass. His 12.6 turnover percentage ranked in the 66th percentile for centers. He focused on simple plays, trusted his teammates, and more consistently struck a nice balance between anticipating help defense and allowing openings to present themselves.

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However, Embiid’s passing did not shine in the Sixers’ two biggest games of the season. Missed jumpers from the Sixers’ supporting cast played a role, but the bottom line is that across Games 6 and 7 against the Celtics, Embiid totaled two assists and eight turnovers.

Is there anything from Gasol’s Raptors tenure that could be helpful? We think so. Embiid generally won’t have as much freedom to survey the floor as Gasol, but he’s become excellent in many of the same spots where the Spanish big man dished out assists.

Nurse may very well encourage more movement around Embiid in the Sixers’ Delay actions. We imagine basic Chicago action (down screen into dribble handoff) with various alternative options — curling short instead of coming up for the handoff, the screener slipping backdoor, etc. — could be useful. Simply spacing the floor and allowing Embiid to see everything from the top of the key is good, but incorporating a bit of that off-ball movement would make sense and perhaps create a few more Embiid assists.

Embiid is dangerous at the elbow, too. When he’s there, it wouldn’t be surprising if Nurse tells instinctive, athletic players like De’Anthony Melton and Jalen McDaniels (if the Sixers re-sign him) to cut with greater purpose and intensity. Instead of cycling through the paint merely for team spacing, might as well cut hard and look for a pass.

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We also expect Nurse will want Embiid to more frequently find open teammates right after short rolls and pops. Embiid is not accustomed to making tremendous, spontaneous passing reads like Gasol, but we figure Nurse might like the idea of capitalizing on all the eyeballs Embiid draws by adding the occasional high-low or flex cut immediately following a pick-and-pop.

Defensively, Nurse recognized Gasol’s strengths as a traditional, rim-protecting center. He still didn’t hesitate to use the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year in a variety of pick-and-roll coverages.

Embiid is more nimble, but that doesn’t mean dramatically increasing the amount he switches and blitzes ball screens will be advisable. We assume how effective the Sixers’ perimeter players are in their efforts to exert heightened ball pressure will have an impact here. If Melton, Tyrese Maxey and company manage to expertly fight through and over screens, Nurse might feel emboldened to mix things up often with Embiid. If the Sixers’ guards struggle on the ball early in the season, perhaps Nurse will prefer for Embiid to mainly play drop coverage and stay around the paint to clean up mistakes.

As Nurse acknowledged Thursday, he’ll need to learn about his new team through experience. It’s absolutely fair enough if Gasol pops into his mind here and there, though.

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