The two men competing for the title of the NBA’s best center is clear: Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. They have carried their teams over the past couple of seasons and demonstrated a unique skillset to pair with their massive size.
They also share a lack of playoff success and uncertainties about if they can be the No.1 option on a championship team, especially because the modern game is trending toward positionless basketball and smaller lineups.
Still, they both dominate the hardwood like few in the league can. But who’s better? Let’s compare some facets of their games.
Scoring - Joel Embiid
Embiid is the better scorer of the two, mainly because Jokic is a pass-first type of player. The 76ers need Embiid to be a dominant offensive force on a nightly basis if the team is to win. The Nuggets like Jokic to dictate the offense and get everyone involved, and his nearly 20 points per game are almost secondary to his playmaking.
Jokic does, however, have a diverse offensive arsenal to work with. He’s generally a better shooter than Embiid, although both players are streaky. But Embiid is simply unguardable when he’s locked-in. Almost no other player can match his combination of strength and agility in the paint, and he keeps defenders honest with a serviceable jumper.
Embiid’s biggest advantage is his knack for drawing fouls. He gets to the line more than twice as frequently as Jokic, according to basketball-reference, and his career scoring average is higher as a result.
For their careers, Embiid has averaged 23.9 points per game to Jokic’s 17.0.
Athleticism — Joel Embiid
It’s no secret that Jokic is limited physically. He’s a wide, long and extremely coordinated center who can’t run or jump better than anyone else on the court. Jokic is stronger than he looks, but he’s also not a physically-imposing presence.
Embiid, conversely, is a good athlete for a 7-footer. He’s by no means the most athletic big man in the league, yet his size and agility make him a nightmare to guard in the post. He has strong instincts on both ends and throws down some vicious dunks when he’s healthy.
Both players have struggled with conditioning over the years, so it’s likely that fans still haven’t seen the peak physical forms of these two giants.
Defense - Joel Embiid
Although Embiid hasn’t recently looked like the dominant defensive force he was when he first entered the league, he’s still one of the biggest impact players on that end when healthy. Many of his defensive statistics have declined because opponents simply don’t challenge him knowing how much he affects shots around the rim.
Jokic has improved defensively over the years — his Defensive Box Plus/Minus and Defensive Win Shares were especially strong last season — but he still has room to improve in that department. His lack of physicality limits him as an interior presence, yet he makes up for some of that with exceptionally-quick hands and solid anticipation.
Embiid’s biggest issue defensively is discipline and giving maximum effort. On a good night, he’s one of the best defenders in the league, as evidenced by his two Second-Team All-Defensive selections. Jokic struggles with both effort and ability at times. The gap on the defensive end is fairly large between the two, but not as much as it used to be.
Clutch - Nikola Jokic
Jokic has somewhat surprisingly developed into one of the better clutch performers in the league. Because teams tend to double the big man near the end of games, it’s not often a team’s center or power forward gets many clean looks in the clutch besides going to the free-throw line. Jokic’s playmaking allows him to break that mold and still be in attack-mode down the stretch.
He even tallied the second-most clutch points in the regular season, only trailing Chris Paul, according to nba.com. Embiid does have better per-game numbers in the clutch than Jokic in the regular season, but Jokic’s ability to do it over more games indicates consistent clutch performance, which can’t be understated.
The gap between the two has been even more extreme this postseason. Jokic is ranked 10th in clutch points per game in this playoffs (4.7), while Embiid sits at No.36 (1.3). The sample size is only three games on nba.com, but if you’ve been watching both series, it’s obvious Embiid still needs experience closing playoff games. Jokic, meanwhile, has been strong down the stretch of close contests.
Leader — Even
It’s difficult to quantify leadership when comparing Embiid and Jokic. Both players are top options on their teams yet haven’t carried the franchise past the second round of the playoffs. They each haven’t entered training camps in peak shape or displayed qualities consistent in other leaders around the league on a nightly basis.
They seem like competitive, confident players whom their teammates generally like. They simply haven’t had many opportunities to prove themselves as great leaders so far. If you want to argue that Embiid’s immaturity at times should give Jokic the nod, you must also consider how Embiid’s sometimes emotional play can galvanize his teammates. Jokic plays a more even-keeled brand of basketball than Embiid, which may or may not be a sign of a good leader depending on your definition.
These two still need to prove themselves as leaders. For now, they break even in this regard.
Basketball I.Q. - Nikola Jokic
Jokic’s passing alone gives him the edge in basketball I.Q. over Embiid. Embiid has made strides in his playmaking, especially when passing out of double-teams, but he still tends to panic and turn the ball over at the end of games. Jokic is Denver’s primary playmaker and is the only center in the league who truly runs his team’s offense.
Jokic isn’t perfect and needs to eliminate poor shot selection and bad defensive habits from his game. Embiid, though, needs to learn to make quicker decisions and mentally slow the game down. Jokic appears to have already mastered that aspect of basketball, and he’s a smarter player for it.
Impact - Even
These two both heavily impact any game they play in, and in very different ways. Embiid is a force of nature on both ends who teams have to collectively contain and avoid, while Jokic is a tactician on the court who’s constantly finding holes in the opposition’s gameplan.
Embiid is the more impactful defender and Jokic is the more versatile offensive player. They’re almost the inverse of each other in style. Embiid is probably more dominant at his peak. Jokic is great more often. It comes down to which type of player you prefer.
Until both of them prove they’re more than just a regular-season star, they’ve reached a similar status as impact players.
1 on 1 - Joel Embiid
Although Jokic appears to hold his own when the two go head-to-head in a game, Embiid is the better pure 1-on-1 player. There probably isn’t a player in the league who can match Embiid’s culmination of size, strength and skill, so in a game in which there are no help defenders, it’s hard to imagine anyone single person stopping him.
Jokic’s 1-on-1 play is more crafty and reliant upon the 5-on-5 environment. Embiid struggles with so much else happening on the court while Jokic thrives in it and adjusts his decisions accordingly.
The biggest factor in Embiid’s 1-on-1 prowess is his post play. He can back you down, face-up, shoot, dunk, dribble, use power and finesse and draw fouls. He abuses smaller defenders. Jokic just isn’t a 1-on-1 player.
Career - Joel Embiid
Neither player has accomplished all that much in the league despite their stardom. Embiid is a three-time All-Star, a two-time Second-Team All-NBA selection, a two-time Second-Team All-Defensive member and was First-Team All-Rookie. Jokic is a two-time All-Star, made one First-Team All-NBA and was First-Team All-Rookie.
They’ve played in a combined 42 playoffs games and each made it as far as Game 7 of the Conference Semifinals. They both could accomplish plenty more in their careers since they’re each in a favorable situation team-wise. For now, Embiid has the advantage in career achievement because he’s been elite for one season more and earned defensive accolades. If he can’t stay healthy, however, Jokic will quickly catch him.
The category total makes comparing these two seem more favorable to Embiid than it is in reality. Jokic gets the job done in a less domineering style, but he’s almost equally as effective and is more consistent and durable. Embiid is a more entertaining personality and receives more attention than Jokic, yet the Nuggets center’s teams have been better over the past two seasons.
Time will tell which of these stars prevails as the league’s premier center. For now, the battle is close, with Embiid winning mainly because of his talent and more rapid ascension.
Joel Embiid vs. Nikola Jokic 5-2