Nic Batum and Joel Embiid Were Made For Each Other
Few players hold a higher approval rating with their fanbase than the French forward holds in Philadelphia.
Daniel Olinger is a writer for the Rights To Ricky Sanchez, and author of “The Danny” column, even though he refuses to be called that in person. He still has to shoot 50 free throws to save his job, and can be followed on X @dan_olinger.
“The Danny” is brought to you by the Official Realtor Of The Process, Adam Ksebe.
It’s hard to comprehend just how many times the Sixers have whiffed on finding the right guy to play next to Joel Embiid.
You could interpret that as finding the oft-coveted 2nd Star to pair with the reigning MVP, but I’m thinking more granular than that. In 2014, the Sixers drafted one of the best big men in NBA history to build their franchise around. But they’ve also spent the last decade unable to find the right 4 to pair their superstar 5. They couldn’t find the Aaron Gordon to his Nikola Jokic.
Ersan Illyasova, Dario Šarić, Amir Johnson (lol), Mike Scott, Mike Muscala, Jonah Bolden (lol once again), Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Georges Niang, P.J. Tucker. No matter who the Sixers tried out as the 4 next to Joel Embiid, it didn’t quite fit, for one reason or another.
Then Nico Batum showed up.
Few players hold a higher approval rating with their fanbase than the French forward holds in Philadelphia. Some of that goodwill might fall away when he inevitably stops shooting 51.1% from three, but reducing Batum’s value down to just his jumper would be doing him a disservice.
For years, we (rightfully) lamented the Sixers’ inability to throw Joel Embiid a basic post entry pass, peaking in 2020 when Josh Richardson would miss even the most basic feeds wide left. That’s all gone with Batum, who Nick Nurse has weaponized as the primary facilitator to the league MVP on the block.
I made a video for The Ricky’s YouTube page earlier this week highlighting how the Sixers start every game the exact same way — get Batum the ball up top, and have him throw a post entry to Embiid.
In just the two games since that video was published, Nurse came up with two more creative ways to get the ball to Nico before he fired it into Embiid and the paint. Not to mention, the French forward threw perhaps his best post entry pass of the season against Charlotte on Saturday night.
— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) December 17, 2023
Now some of those names I listed above as failed Sixers’ power forwards (namely Simmons and Horford) could throw some nice passes. And obviously, the man Batum was traded for — James Harden — hit Embiid on plenty of post entry feeds.
But what separates Batum as the perfect fit next to Embiid, particularly at that 4 spot, is that he’s comfortable without the ball at all times. Horford didn’t know how to space or cut with Embiid in the paint, Harden really just wanted to pick and rolls all game, and playing Simmons off-ball was 4-on-5 offense.
Batum has none of those issues. He’s willing to shoot open threes and has a lightning quick release above his head, keeping the floor spaced. He’s active flying in for offensive rebounds, meaning his defenders can’t rest until the possession is over. He even incorporates the savvy off-ball cutting of this column’s namesake into his play.
Thought this Nic Batum off-ball cut into the corner 3 looked familiar pic.twitter.com/NPEZ1397yv
— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) December 17, 2023
None of this even touches on Batum’s defense, arguably the best part of his game. He’s a Swiss Army knife on that end, tall enough to switch onto centers, but starting games matched up on Terry Rozier and Cade Cunningham.
“He’s really good at taking that [a] player and denying them the ball,” Nurse said of Batum on Friday. “I remember that from playing against him in the past. He would take our main ball handler and limit their touches.”
He does all the little things Sixers fans want on that end. He pressures the ball for 94 feet like T.J. McConnell, and he face-guards off-ball like Danny Green. Guards who think they’re too quick for him are constantly getting stonewalled by a defender who knows how to beat them to the spot and use his size against them.
Batum fits perfectly next to Embiid because he does all of the stuff that Joel wants out of his supporting cast, and doesn’t waste time doing stuff that Joel can already do by himself.
Tobias Harris was traded for in 2019, likely with the idea in mind that he could eventually be the perfect, small-ball 4 next to Embiid. But that’s never really materialized. All Tobias can do better than Batum in 2023 is shoot post-up fadeaways, and his post-up and mid-range shots are just worse versions of the thing that Embiid already does better than anyone in the league. A team built around Joel really just doesn’t need that.
All a team built around Embiid needs is a guard who can create his own shot (Hello Maxey) and an assortment of wings who are content doing all the role player stuff 24/7.
Batum never needs a pity post-up called for him. He can just wait for the ball to find him when the defense is focused on Embiid, and if that means six straight games with 5 or fewer field goal attempts, so be it. Instead of getting his own, he’s focused on getting the ball to Embiid inside, never letting a defense off the hook if they’re not devoting enough attention to stop the reigning MVP. Even on defense, Batum’s pressure-heavy approach fits with Joel like a glove. Embiid doesn’t need another big-time shot blocker or bulkier body out there to help in the paint. No. 21 needs four active and fast guys bothering opponents out top, and funneling it all to him at the rim, where he can just clean it up like he has for eight seasons now.
I never thought I’d see Nico Batum in a Sixers uniform. Entering the season, Terance Mann was the piece the team seemed destined to end up with post-Harden trade. But after the Clippers kept refusing to include him, Daryl Morey pivoted to nabbing Batum in the deal, and it couldn’t have worked out any better.
Because no role player has ever fit better with Joel Embiid than Nico Batum.