Joel Embiid didn’t have the kind of monster game we’ve grown accustomed to seeing during last night’s win over the Jazz—his 15 points and 11 rebounds were perfectly solid—but he did provide the highlight of the game.
Late in the game, Embiid blocked Donovan Mitchell’s layup, said something rude to him, got shoved, flopped, earned Mitchell a technical, and then sent the crowd into a frenzy:
Embiid hit for the trash-talking cycle all in one play, and added to what’s already become an impressive catalogue of making opposing players Mad On The Court. Last week he spent an entire game tormenting poor Willie Reed, and he whipped Draymond Green into a frothing rage during a loss to the Warriors.
All of this ceaseless taunting has potential to be incredibly annoying, and has been when other players have tried it, but Embiid manages to avoid slipping into villainy by doing something that so many other athletes are incapable of doing: He refuses to take himself seriously. Last night provided a perfect example, when Embiid readily admitted after the game that he flopped in order to draw a technical on Mitchell:
Try to imagine Kevin Garnett giving a postgame quote about an identical interaction without barking every other word and calling his opponent’s manhood into question. Imagine Draymond Green doing it without scoffing and shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders between every surly sentence.
Embiid’s brand of disrespect is so palatable because, as he puts it in the interview above, it is first and foremost “about having fun.” This is an incredibly difficult tightrope to walk; lean too far in one direction you risk becoming a raging nut that everyone rolls their eyes at, lean the other way and you risk becoming a dreaded “fake tough guy.” Thus far Embiid has managed to become one of the rarest things in basketball: a guy who talks as much shit as anyone but is actually Not Mad. It really is funny to him! He really is laughing!
There is a hurdle that Embiid will inevitably have to overcome on his quest to become the NBA’s purest troll, and he will face it when another player finally decides he’s had enough and attempts to commit actual violence against Embiid. If Embiid suddenly goes forehead-to-forehead with the guy and starts screaming and throwing punches, his joyous mystique will wear off. But if he just points and laughs? God, that will be great.