If you’re an NBA player big on how you’re perceived by your peers, the worst thing that can possibly happen is listening to Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal getting on your case about being all soft and stuff.
That’s what Joel Embiid was hearing early this week. The NBA legends were using their national television forum to criticize the 76ers center for not being aggressive enough.
They wanted Embiid to strive for greatness and opposed to just wanting to be good. They are both Hall of Famers. They know the difference.
Now, there are some players who might just let the criticism slowly float away without much of a response. Some might get angry about it and bark back. But that wasn’t Embiid’s reaction. He took the reproach to heart, figuring Barkley and O’Neal meant it in a good way, to spur him to take stock of himself and make improvements before he developed some bad habits.
If you were curious to see what Embiid’s reaction might be, you got an eye full on Thursday when the guy single-handedly took down the Celtics with 38 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and one devastating blocked shot.
After the game, 76ers coach Brett Brown offered Barkley and O’Neal jobs.
“I’d like to hire them as motivational coaches,” Brown told ESPN.
Embiid’s willingness to please was on full display.
“For them to say that I have the potential to be the best player in the world, and I haven’t shown that, and I should let it be shown, that says a lot,” Embiid said afterward. “They’ve been there, they’ve done it, they’re Hall of Famers, so it just shows me I have to play harder and like I can.”
This was a perfect time for Embiid to turn the corner. His team was without Al Horford and it was clear the Celtics might have some mismatch problems dealing with the 76ers smaller lineup.
If Philadelphia could make perimeter shots and coax double-teams from the Celtics defense away from the post, that might serve to open a corridor for the big man to roam. And that’s how it turned out.
“I haven’t been the closer that these guys needed me to be the whole season, and I just had that opportunity and they kept feeding me,” Embiid said. “I put that a lot on my teammates, because the whole game, they made a lot of shots, so it kind of put Boston where they had to choose between quickly double-teaming me, because I was going to kick it out and they all know I’m a willing passer, and we made them make shots, so that made it easier for me.”
To make matters even better, once the game was over, TNT put Embiid on the air to talk to Barkley and O’Neal, who were in Atlanta.
“I actually called Shaq yesterday,” Embiid said. “He thought I was mad at him. I was like, ‘No, I understand what he was saying.’ “I just wanted to talk to him. I’ve been kind of frustrated. … He was just telling me, ‘Be aggressive. You’re the guy. So just go out there and dominate.’ ”
“I’ve had a bad year so far. I’ve been kinda frustrated, just because you’re not seeing the teamwork and you try to fit in with your new teammates. …Whatever they said, I think it was good for me.”
Brown said he was proud of Embiid for taking the criticism the right way. The coach could see it on the floor. Eight of his baskets came from the shadow of the rim, the place Barkley and Shaq want him to dominate.
“I think all the stuff that he has been through recently. … To me, the way he handled it personally, I’m proud of him,” Brown said. “He handled it like an adult.
“He handled it with a humility and owned some of it. And then came out and responded in a very dramatic way. The numbers speak, pretty much, for themselves. But there was other stuff internally going on with leadership and instruction to his teammates and stuff being said at halftime that flipped him over the top to, for me, one of his better games since he’s been a Philadelphia 76er.”