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Tyrese Maxey is proving how valuable he is to the Sixers already

Denver Nuggets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Philadelphia 76ers only had seven players left. With various injuries, several players out due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols, and Mike Scott technically active but unable to play due to a knee injury, the Sixers were forced to play the Denver Nuggets on January 9 with a seven-man rotation. For 20-year-old rookie Tyrese Maxey, the only available ball-handler on the team, it was a chance to show off everything he could do.

Doc Rivers and his coaching staff told Maxey before the game that he needed to be aggressive, and Maxey delivered. In 44 minutes, he exploded for 39 points on 18-of-33 shooting (3-of-8 from three), and added 7 rebounds, 2 steals, and took incredibly good care of the ball when considering his usage, with 6 assists to just 2 turnovers.

“Tyrese Maxey is going to get a ton of minutes tonight,” Rivers said before the game. “And he’s gonna see what it’s like carrying a team in the NBA, and what it’s like where the defense is now focusing in on you. So there’s a lot of that, that you can learn and teach tonight.”

Maxey, like any rookie, is learning. Through 12 games, he’s been confident taking on whatever role the Sixers have needed him to fill. Lately, with so many of his teammates sidelined due to injury or health and safety protocols, Maxey has had more opportunity to handle the ball and be assertive as a scorer. Now, in 25.4 minutes a night over the last eight games, Maxey has averaged 14.8 points with a True Shooting Percentage of 55 (shooting 37.5 percent from deep on 3 attempts per game), 3.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists to only 0.9 turnovers, and 0.9 steals.

For a Sixers team that still needs more perimeter creation, Maxey is stepping up to help however he can. Even when the team is healthy and he doesn’t get 33 shots or 35-40 minutes to score at such high volume, Philly needs his skillset in a lesser role. His impressive creativity, burst, touch, dynamic driving and finishing ability is what separates him from other ball-handlers on the roster. He’s consistently shown off those attributes this season, and his 39-point outburst highlighted his entire scoring arsenal. He scored using a plethora of moves — tough layups, pull-up jumpers from mid-range and beyond the arc, and his trusty, silky floaters.

Maxey has primarily operated with bench units so far rather than playing much with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. He entered the starting lineup with them against Miami on Tuesday when Embiid carried the shorthanded Sixers to a win, but the trio has still only logged 23 minutes together for the season. Favoring the spacing and off-ball play that Danny Green provides makes sense for the current starting five. Maxey can offer a blend of primary and secondary creation when it’s needed, though, and since he was drafted he’s displayed a clear understanding of how he’ll need to complement his star teammates.

“I really appreciate the circumstance that I was in at the University of Kentucky, because now I feel like I fit into the new-age NBA, with guys like Jamal Murray, CJ McCollum, even Damian Lillard, Jrue Holiday, different guys like that, who have to play on and off the ball,” Maxey said in his first call with media after joining the Sixers. “Now, it’s just another asset to my game where I can play on the ball if I have to and, when guys like Joel and Ben are in the game, I can play off the ball and find ways to help the team like that.”

We saw a few examples of how they can operate together against Miami. For instance, whether Maxey was scoring himself out of a pick-and-roll with Embiid, or hitting Simmons on the move off the ball to create a shot for someone else.

While Maxey’s ability to attack off the dribble with a few pick-and-rolls or simply against closeouts gives him value as a secondary creator, he also recognizes the importance of his jump shot.

“Catch-and-shoot off of different actions, off the dribble, you have to have all of that in today’s game,” Maxey said in November after being drafted. “I feel like if you can’t be able to knock down shots from everywhere on the court, wide-open threes, especially now playing with a guy like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid who cause a lot of attention, it’s going to be hard to be on the floor. That’s a main focus on someone like me in today’s game.”

Last year for his pre-draft training, Maxey would get up at 6am and take 750-800 jump shots, go lift weights at 8am, get back to the gym for another basketball workout at 10am, then return for an extra workout later in the day sometimes, too. He’s determined to prove he’s a better shooter than people thought he was coming out of college, and he continues to work on it every day.

Maxey only attempted 5 three-pointers over his first five games (2.6 per 36 minutes), looking far more comfortable driving inside for layups or floaters and passing up outside shots at times. Over the last seven games, he’s taken 24 (4.7 per 36 minutes), showing a slightly quicker trigger to fire when spotting up or shooting off the dribble.

“It’s kind of taking the shots that come to me, watching a lot of film,” Maxey said after the Sixers’ loss to the Nuggets when asked about getting more aggressive with his jumper. “Teams are trying to play me a little bit different. Go under [screens], try to beat me, don’t let me get to the rim, don’t let me get to my floater. So now I’m able to shoot the jump shot, and I work on it every single day, so I have the ultimate confidence that every time I shoot it, it’s gonna go in.”

You can see Maxey’s rising confidence in his jumper with shots like the first three-pointer in the video below. As he dribbles the ball down court and his defender, Will Barton, drops below Tony Bradley’s screen, Maxey shifts to his left and pulls up from deep without hesitation:

Even though he hasn’t played much with Simmons and Embiid yet, growing confidence (and accuracy) from range will be key to helping Maxey’s overall efficiency and his fit next to the two stars.

Besides his diverse scoring output, Maxey has taken good care of the ball, averaging 2.7 assists to 0.8 turnovers per game for the season. And while he may not be a full-time lead guard or playmaker yet, he’s flashed some quality passing flare, accuracy, and awareness. From some excellent live-dribble skip passes to find weak-side shooters, to setting up bigs under the basket after getting into the lane, his playmaking is off to a very solid start.

Doc Rivers has been looking for positives while the Sixers have carried on without so many players. One of which is the opportunity it gives the team’s young guys.

“I love coaching, and I love teaching,” Rivers said after the Nuggets game. “So for me, you want to win number 1, and obviously, you didn’t get that. But just watching and seeing from the first quarter to the fourth quarter the light bulb going off for some of these guys, you always take something out of the game, and that’s what I took out of it.”

As Maxey looks to benefit from extra minutes moving forward, he’ll need to keep up his willingness to fire from three and ideally increase his free throw rate. So far, in 252 total minutes with 126 field goal attempts under his belt, he’s only taken 5 free throws. Given his athleticism, talent as a driver and physicality, it’s surprising he hasn’t attempted more.

There clearly isn’t an issue with Maxey’s ability to generate shots inside, either. Having a stellar floater game also gives him another reliable option in the paint, which is particularly useful when defenders sit back to try and cut off his drives, or he’s attacking bigs in drop coverage. But as valuable as his floater is, generating more free throws would really boost his efficiency. He’ll need to look for more opportunities where he can get to the rim and embrace contact, rather than opting for too many longer floaters or pull-up jumpers. That said, this is something that should come in time for Maxey. He’s a fairly physical player and it’s not like he hasn’t shown the skill and willingness to drive and score through contact. His solid free throw rate of .342 at Kentucky is also a good indicator of his upside in this area.

Another way Maxey can continue to develop as he gets settled in the NBA is with his defense. Like all rookies, he’s understandably had some struggles at that end of the floor. The learning curve has been made even more difficult for him by having such a rushed offseason. There was no Summer League for him to get extra reps in, and he missed some of training camp after testing positive for COVID-19 — for the first week or so, he was limited to watching the team’s practices on Zoom and having virtual sessions with coaches to break down film.

Guarding the point of attack in pick-and-rolls, beating screens, and controlling his aggressiveness are a few of the areas where he’s had difficulty at times. He had some rough defensive possessions against Miami on Tuesday as well, and ended up fouling out after 36 minutes of playing time.

“I think he’s finding out that there’s a lot of good guards in the NBA, is what I would say,” Rivers said with a laugh when asked about how Maxey’s defense has carried over into the NBA so far. “He struggles in pick-and-roll right now. He doesn’t struggle with individual defense, so for a rookie I would say that’s a good thing. You know, he can stay in front of the ball, but he’s got to learn how to navigate screens right now, and he’ll do that because he’s a quick learner.”

Like Rivers has said, Maxey’s one-on-one defense has been a positive. In fact, there have been plenty of bright moments for the rookie. He’s been active in disrupting some plays in passing lanes and making digs at the ball, while showing frequent flashes of how competitive he can be on ball, using his physicality and agility to cover opposing guards, and even bother forwards at times with his tenacity and strength.

Plays like this should only become more common as time goes by. Maxey already displayed a lot of defensive qualities — from those mentioned above, to his high motor and off-ball instincts — that stood out in college.

After the Sixers played the Hawks on Monday, Maxey explained that Rivers and assistant coach Dan Burke feel like he’ll be able to pick up opposing ball-handlers much closer to half court because of how active he can be. The team putting their trust in Maxey, combined with some of the tough assignments he’s taken on recently (like guarding Jamal Murray and Trae Young), will only help him learn. It’ll just take him some time to adapt to the competition and speed of the NBA, and he has some helpful veterans to guide him along the way as well.

“I’m trying,” Maxey said when talking about his defense. “It’s difficult, just because short training camp, no Summer League, so I’ve gotta learn a lot on the fly. But guys like Dwight [Howard], Tobias [Harris], Joel, they all help me. They’re talking to me and, for the most part, I try to fight over every single screen or do whatever the coverage is that they ask me to do. You know, defense wins games, wins championships, and that’s what I take pride in and I like to win, so I gotta play defense.”

Maxey has the right approach. He’s always positive, with a strong work ethic and eagerness to learn that have impressed the team since training camp.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Maxey said when reflecting on his two high-minute games against Denver and Atlanta. “How to fight over a lot of picks, just be aggressive defensively, and then just ways to find my teammates on the offensive end and do whatever coach needs me to do.”

“He’s gonna be a terrific player,” Rivers said. “He’s gonna keep getting better, he’s gonna keep getting smarter just playing with all these vets.”

The start of Maxey’s rookie season has been nothing but impressive. He’s continued to prove his value, making it clear that he deserves plenty of minutes already while reinforcing how high his potential is long term.

Moving forward, as he continues to work hard and polish his game, Maxey should only get better.