Who is Better: Nikola Jokić or Joel Embiid?

Henry Smith, Journalist

Nikola Jokić of the Denver Nuggets and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers are both regarded as the two best centers in the NBA, and there has always been a lot of controversy between which center is better. Both players are having their best season by far right now, and they are actually #1 and #2 in the NBA MVP race. Two centers are at the top, despite the fact that NBA big men are becoming less and less important in a league more dominated by guards than ever before.  This only shows that the role of the center position is evolving, from a traditional big man whose role is to only block shots, get rebounds, and play in the paint, to a big man who can do a little of everything, like shooting threes, etc. Now, the question is: Who is better – Nikola Jokić or Joel Embiid? In this article, I will be giving an in depth analysis of their stats and what makes their game what it is, and then we will see who is better, by using a point system for each category and contention. 

Season Stats (3 points) – Even

Nikola Jokić per game stats (as of 2/2/2021):

20/20 games played

35.8 minutes per game

26.8 points 

11.8 rebounds

8.6 assists

0.6 blocks 

1.8 steals

4.0 turnovers

57.4% field goals

38.4% three pointers

83.6% free throws

31.38 player efficiency rating

Joel Embiid per game stats (as of 2/2/2021):

16/21 games played

31.6 minutes per game

28.3 points

11.1 rebounds

2.8 assists

1.3 blocks

1.2 steals

3.1 turnovers

54.4% field goals

40.4% three pointers

84.0% free throws

31.25 player efficiency rating

As you can see, both players’ stats are pretty similar, and out of the ten stat categories listed, each player wins five. Jokić is averaging 5.8 more assists per game, while only averaging 1.5 less points per game. Jokić is averaging 0.7 less blocks per game, but is also averaging 0.6 more steals, which makes up for this. However, Embiid is putting up his stats while playing 4.2 less minutes per game, and with way less touches per game, which makes his stats look a lot better. With all of that in mind, as well as the small margin between their player efficiency ratings, their stats are about even.

Offense (2 points) – Nikola Jokić

Both players are great on the offensive end in their own unique ways. Embiid is a guy who will easily score a lot of points using his strength and agility, especially in the paint. His pure dominance and physicality makes him almost unguardable on offense at times. He will either score an easy basket or he will draw a foul and go to the free throw line. He has also developed a good 3 point shot this season. Jokić, however, is basically a Swiss Army knife on offense, and he can do just about anything he has to do: Score in the paint, score from three point distance, pass with ease and finesse, grab offensive rebounds with ease, run an offense, set up screens, score points while being heavily contested, score points in high pressure situations, fake defenders out with speed, etc. You name it, Jokić can do it. Jokić’s massive offensive arsenal gives him the edge over Embiid. 

Defense (2 points) – Joel Embiid

Embiid is equally as dominant on defense as he is on offense. His presence on the defensive end near the paint is enough to draw lots of players away from the rim, because they know that Embiid will stop them right in their tracks, either by blocking their shots into oblivion or by just making a player miss and grabbing the easy defensive rebound with his strength, height and athleticism. Embiid’s shot blocking skills are up at the top with guys like Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis. Embiid also averages 1.2 steals per game, which is exceptional for a big man. Jokić’s defense has definitely improved greatly this season. Jokić’s quick hands allow him to average 1.8 steals per game, good enough for 8th in the NBA. If Jokić notices that the guy he is guarding messes up in any way, he will take the ball from them. He is also great at grabbing defensive rebounds. Paint protection, however, still continues to be Jokić’s biggest defensive issue. If an attacker runs towards the paint to score, Jokić sometimes doesn’t really put a whole lot of effort in to contest the defender. He only averages 0.6 blocks per game, compared to Embiid’s 1.3. Also, Jokić averages a lot more fouls per game than Embiid. Taking all of this in, plus Embiid’s two all defensive team selections compared to Jokić’s zero selections, Embiid is clearly the better defender of the two, but Jokić is certainly not the defensive liability the media frequently tends to portray him as.

Reliability (1 point) –  Nikola Jokić

This is an easy one for Jokić. He hasn’t missed an NBA game due to injury since December 13th, 2017. Embiid, however, has already missed five games this season, and only played 51/72 games last season, and 64/82 games the season before that, when the Jokić vs Embiid debate originally surfaced.

Athleticism (1 point) – Joel Embiid

As I have mentioned before, Embiid’s athleticism is one of the biggest parts of his game. Most NBA big men lack athleticism and speed, but Embiid doesn’t, and is actually very athletic. He can dominate the paint with his size and strength, and can run right past defenders with his speed and agility, making him a true force to be reckoned with. Jokić’s game isn’t really as much about his athleticism and his physical ability as much as it is about his skillset and IQ, giving this category to Joel Embiid. 

Clutch (1 point) – Nikola Jokić

Nikola Jokić is not just one of the most clutch centers in the NBA, he is probably one of the most clutch players in the entire league. Usually, it is the guards who take over in the clutch, not the big men, but Jokić is an exception to say the least. Last season, Jokić was second in the NBA in clutch points, only behind Chris Paul. In close games and sticky situations, when most NBA players, including Embiid usually fold, Jokić absolutely takes over the game, and completely bullies his defenders. Jokić has also drained plenty of game winning or game tying shots over the past couple of seasons. On top of that, Jokić isn’t only dominant when a single game is close, he also takes over when his team is on the brink of playoff elimination. Last season largely reflected that, since the Nuggets came back from two 3-1 deficits. In elimination games, Jokić is 7-2, while Embiid is 2-3. 

Leader (1 point) – Nikola Jokić

Both players are great leaders, but Jokić gets the edge over Embiid, because of how much he positively affects his teammates’ game, as well as just how selfless he usually is. Jokić doesn’t put his own stats over his teammates’ success, and an example of this is, just recently, last Sunday, in a game against the Utah Jazz, where Jokić had just tied his career high of 47 points. His teammate Jamal Murray saw Jokić at the three point line, and pointed at him. Murray knew that if he scored there, he would break his career high, but instead, Jokić did what would be best for his team, and sat out for the rest of the game since there was no point in him playing in a blowout. He didn’t care at all that he almost broke his career high, which just shows how selfless he is, and now he doesn’t give into pressure and hype. Both players are great leaders, who are competitive and confident, and will step up to any given challenge. Both players are heavily respected by their teammates, but what gives Jokić the edge is just how little he lets his own stats and his emotions get the better of him, unlike Embiid, who can get emotional at times, and sometimes doesn’t play with as much effort as he should, which can negatively impact his game and his team. 

Basketball IQ (1 point) -Nikola Jokić

Jokić’s basketball IQ is off the charts, especially for a center. This is by far the biggest part of his game. He is able to read defenses like a book, and he knows when his opportunity is and when it isn’t every time. He is basically a point guard in a center’s body, which is shown through his passing and his ability to run an offense. Embiid, however, doesn’t have a great basketball IQ. Even though Embiid doesn’t really need to have that high of a basketball IQ with Ben Simmons being the guy who runs the Sixers offense, it still affects Joel Embiid a lot, especially in late game situations, where he sometimes doesn’t play with much effort and lazily turns the ball over. 

Success (1 point) – Nikola Jokić

Jokić led teams have had more success than Embiid led teams in the past couple of seasons. Even though Jokić missed the playoffs in the 2017-2018 season, his team still finished with a 46-36 record, only six less wins than the Sixers finished with. In the 2018-2019 NBA season, the Nuggets were 2nd in the Western Conference, going 54-28, and the 76ers were 3rd in the east, going 51-31. Both teams lost in the second round of the playoffs. In the 2019-2020 season, the Nuggets were 46-27, good for 3rd in the Western Conference, and the 76ers were 43-30, 6th place in the Eastern Conference. The 76ers got swept in the first round, largely due to the Sixers not having Ben Simmons, and the Nuggets made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, beating the Utah Jazz and the LA Clippers.

Career (1 point) – Even

Even though Jokić has had higher team success than Embiid, both players have had about the same level of success in their personal careers.. Embiid has had three all star selections while Jokić has had two. Jokić has an All-NBA first team selection and an All-NBA second team selection. Embiid has two All-NBA second team selections. Both players were on the All-rookie first team. Embiid has been selected to the All-defensive second team twice, while Jokić hasn’t made an all-defensive team. However, Jokić’s playoff success and his All-NBA First team selection make up for this. Both players are at the top of the MVP race this season, and it will be interesting to see who wins it. 

Final Score: Jokić 11 – 7 Embiid

Conclusion

In conclusion, I’d say Jokić is probably the best center out of the two, but it is definitely very close, and there are many valid arguments you could make for both centers. They both have completely different play styles: Embiid is more of a traditional center but with muscle, speed, strength, and can shoot from long distance, and Jokić is more of a point-center, who has a high basketball IQ, can also shoot from long distance, and can take over in clutch situations. Jokić’s playoff success and durability are two huge things that put him over Embiid, but if Embiid can stay healthy this season, that could put him over Jokić. Right now, Jokić is on top but only time will tell who the best center will be after this season.