With Ben Simmons first requesting a trade and then declaring himself not mentally ready to play, the Philadelphia 76ers had a hole to fill in their starting lineup entering this season. Following a promising rookie year and an outstanding abbreviated stint in Las Vegas Summer League, second-year guard Tyrese Maxey was seen by many as the obvious option. Head coach Doc Rivers eventually agreed with that assessment (after playing coy in training camp and possibly helped by Shake Milton’s ankle injury), yet through five games, Maxey’s play has been up-and-down.
Maxey recorded a still-season-high 20 points in the season opener against New Orleans, but then later shot a combined 7-of-22 (31.8 percent) from the field across two games against Oklahoma City and New York. He bounced back Thursday night against Detroit, though, tallying 16 points and a season-high six assists, shooting 6-of-8 from the field, including a perfect 2-of-2 from behind the arc.
Now, inconsistency should come as no surprise for a player who is still just 20 years old and only logged 15.3 minutes per game as a rookie. As high a ceiling as Maxey appears to have, it still wasn’t entirely fair to expect him to hit the ground running in his first taste as a full-time starter, particularly in a slightly different role playing more off-ball as a fourth option on the offensive end. It’s why despite the notion of Shake Milton starting over Maxey making many fans’ blood boil, there was a certain logic to the idea: Shake would operate better as a floor-spacer when Joel Embiid or Tobias Harris had the ball, while Maxey could be left to cook with the ball in his hands on the second unit.
Following the win over the Pistons, Maxey acknowledged he was still finding his way a bit:
“At the end of the day, it’s a work in progress. Like you said, it’s the fifth game. Stuff is slowing down; kind of figuring out where guys want the ball … trying to find advantages that work for us. So it’s getting a lot easier. Like I’ve said, the coaching staff and my teammates, they’ve been great. They’ve been helping me, they’ve been critiquing me and they’ve been hard on me to help me, so I really appreciate them.”
It’s a fine line to walk. On the one hand, the ball should often be in the hands of your top scorers, whether it’s MVP runner-up Joel Embiid, one of the most accurate shooters of all-time in Seth Curry, or Tobias Harris, who has averaged at least 18 points per game each of the past four seasons. Still, you want Maxey to be aggressive as probably the most dangerous off-the-dribble creator on the roster. Doc Rivers spoke to Maxey about not deferring as much and Tyrese had this to say:
“You’re 100 percent right. And Coach Doc got on me again today about a couple passes, basically saying I was deferring. He said, ‘You’ve got to be more demanding. It is what it is. I’ve got your back, so go out there and let your teammates trust you.’ I’m just trying to get better every single day and trying to help my team win. That’s really it.”
Of course, one of the most important developments for the Sixers is the blossoming on-court relationship between Maxey and Embiid. Maxey’s potential as a pick-and-roll ball-handler provides a dynamic the star big man has not been able to benefit from much during his career. We’ve seen instances of Tyrese’s threat as a driver putting Joel in the unusual position of being left open:
On the flip side, if the defender is overly (and rightfully) concerned about Embiid, any degree of hesitation can allow Maxey to utilize his top-level speed and finishing ability around the basket:
I don’t know that we appreciate how difficult finishes like this are from Tyrese Maxey. Wrong-footed, barely breaks stride or leaves the ground. He makes it look easy. pic.twitter.com/hZdEewlcIV— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) October 29, 2021
Sometimes Joel can even return the favor, and it’s paramount that Maxey knocks down these open looks which playing alongside Embiid will afford him:
Joel Embiid is quite the player pic.twitter.com/vvuXxMQrSM— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) October 29, 2021
Asked if he had ever seen that behind-the-back pass from Joel before, Maxey said, “No. I’ve never seen that before. I’m so glad I made it because if not, oof.”
Any relationship requires adjustments from both sides, of course, and Joel Embiid spoke following the Detroit game about his perspective playing with Maxey:
“I’m also figuring it out myself. Tyrese is more of a scorer. He can be way better as a point guard, so someone has to take that responsibility, whether it’s calling plays and getting into the offense, and I feel like until Tyrese becomes that guy, that’s something I have to do. That’s why I’ve been focusing on the playmaking aspect. But it’s hurt a little bit of me being aggressive. I’m still figuring out when to mix it up.”
I’m confident that between Tyrese Maxey’s raw talent and Joel Embiid’s status as a basketball savant, these two will figure it out sooner rather than later. Barring a fair-value trade return for Ben Simmons, Maxey’s potential growth represents the most straightforward path for the Sixers to break through the offensive glass ceiling they’ve found themselves under ever since Jimmy Butler headed to South Beach. It’s early, and bumps along the road are to be expected, but the Sixers are right to let Maxey work through these growing pains. Try to accelerate his development as much as possible, and maybe Maxey can be the driving force behind a Sixers resurgence.