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Tyrese Maxey is working hard to improve, and it’s paying off

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

For a Philadelphia 76ers team in need of more creativity off the dribble, Tyrese Maxey was a home-run pick at No. 21 overall in last year’s NBA Draft. The speed, handle, creativity, finishing, silky floater game, pull-up flashes — Maxey had so much in his offensive arsenal that the Sixers needed more of.

Maxey showed all of those skills as his first season in Philly got underway. In just his 10th game as a pro when the Sixers had only seven available players against Denver on January 9, he put everything together for a 39-point outburst. But as Maxey has progressed through his rookie season with varied playing time, he’s learning on the fly, putting in countless hours of work to develop his game, and absorbing as much insight as possible from his older teammates and coaching staff.

Over the last couple of months, it’s started to pay off.

One of Maxey’s most important developments has been learning how to better utilize his speed. Earlier in the season, he relied more on using his in-between game. Specifically, his floater. It was his favorite shot. But as effective as Maxey’s floater is (and as useful as it can be to counter defenders dropping back), sometimes he’d settle for too many rather than taking open threes or driving all the way to the rim.

In recent weeks, there’s been a clear shift in Maxey’s mindset to attack all the way to the basket more often. He’s tapping into his full skill-set as an excellent finisher, using his burst, touch, strength through contact, both hands, and acrobatic craft to beat defenders around the rim.

“I think he’s done a nice job,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said recently when talking about Maxey’s improved use of his pace and finishing. “He’s also done a better job of getting to the basket. Early on [in the season] I thought he was just relying on his floater every single time and it almost became a crutch, and not a good one for us when you look at the percentage of it. Now he’s getting to the basket, and even if he doesn’t shoot the ball he’s drawing the defense in and he’s starting to see the floor a little bit better. That’s what we want. He’s got a step, he’s got speed. He’s the only one on our team with breakaway speed, so he’s a good guy to have.”

Maxey has also become particularly adept at changing up his speed. Rather than rushing decisions or dribbling into too many unnecessary floaters, he’s surveying the floor, finding clear driving lanes, and catching defenders off guard with hesitations.

“I’ve kind of been trying to work on changing [my] pace,” Maxey says. “Because going fast to slow is hard to guard for anybody, especially bigs, so that’s one thing I’ve really been working on, going fast to slow.”

Maxey has the shiftiness and stop-start ability to beat defenders and leave them flat footed before accelerating to the rim in a flash, and he’s using it to his advantage more often.

“I had the [hesitation], but I’ve just been working on it on these off days,” Maxey adds. “Just staying in the gym, staying ready, and just trying to add more and more to the game every day.”

His 51.4 percent shooting on drives this season ranks 2nd out of 20 rookies with at least 150 total drives. He even ranks in the 81st percentile for his scoring as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (60th when including passes), which is a highly respectable mark. Especially for a rookie.

“I call him Mad Max!” Dwight Howard says. “He’s a demon. He gets out on the court and he causes havoc. He gets downhill... I think he’s getting his touch and he’s getting a little bit better of a feel for the game of basketball.”

To begin the season, Maxey hardly made it to the free throw line. He didn’t have his first attempt until his seventh game, and only averaged 0.8 attempts in 16.2 minutes per game before the All-Star break. There’s still plenty of room for growth in this area, but Maxey has been driving through contact more often recently. His increased average of 1.8 free throw attempts in 14.7 minutes a night (4.4 per 36 minutes) over his last 18 games is an encouraging start. Upping his free throw rate is a trend Rivers wants Maxey (and the entire team) to continue.

“I want everybody to get to the free throw line,” Rivers says. “To me, you can’t get to the free throw line enough as a team. That would be the one thing that would help our transition defense, if we can get to the free throw line more. Because we can set our D every time and that would be fantastic if we could do that.”

Maxey’s improved composure and pacing has shown up in his playmaking as well. He’s keeping the ball moving with timely reads, he’s displaying more patience when handling pick-and-rolls to either find better lanes to drive or pass, and has averaged 2.6 assists to only 0.8 turnovers over his last 13 games. His ability to penetrate helps him find advantages to set up teammates with quick dump-off passes and accurate lobs, too.

“I’ve really been just trying to focus on doing whatever the coaching staff has me do,” Maxey says. “Whether it’s defensively, getting all the way to the rim, creating for others, rebounding, whatever I can do. Whatever they tell me to do, I’ve just been trying to go out there and execute it.”

The main offensive focus for Maxey moving forward will be his jump shot. He still needs to keep polishing his jumper from beyond the arc (29.5 percent for the season) so he’s more comfortable firing off the catch at a higher rate and shooting off the dribble when defenders go under ball screens against him. But he’s trending in the right direction.

While training before last year’s draft, Maxey had an extensive workout routine. He’d get up at 6am and take 750-800 jump shots, lift weights at 8am, return to the gym for another basketball workout at 10am, and sometimes he’d return for an extra workout later in the day. After being drafted, Maxey said that he wants to prove he’s a much better shooter than his numbers at Kentucky (29.2 percent from three) suggested.

As he continues to work on increasing his three-point attempts and percentage (currently 29.5 percent for the season), his teammates are encouraging him to put it to use in games.

“Joel [Embiid] has been telling me, ‘If you’re open, shoot the ball. You work so hard, why would you pass up shots?’ That comes from everybody,” Maxey says. “Every time I shoot and miss or make, Tobias [Harris] will yell, ‘Tyrese, you’re a great shooter.’ When you have those guys having confidence in you, that builds confidence within yourself.”

Over his last 18 games, Maxey has averaged 2 three-point attempts in 14.7 minutes a night (including 2.6 attempts over his last nine games), compared to 1.5 in 14.9 minutes over his previous 39 contests. There’s been a noticeable difference in how confident Maxey is in taking spot-up threes. His willingness to shoot quicker off the catch and activity to relocate around the arc to find space for threes have started to improve. Plus, he’s continued to flash his pull-up potential, adding the occasional triple off the bounce when defenders go under screens against him.

Maxey’s altered shot profile (trading a few mid-range attempts for more shots at the rim, beyond the arc, and at the free throw line) has unsurprisingly given his efficiency a boost. In this 18-game stretch, Maxey has recorded a true shooting percentage of 56.1 — a significant jump from 51.3 in the previous 39 games.

Moving forward, Maxey building on this encouraging growth will be vital to him maximizing his offensive value. He’ll have another counter against defenses expecting him to prioitize drives inside, and will provide more space for the Sixers’ offense in the process.

Like any rookie, Maxey has had some struggles at the other end of the floor on defense, whether he’s trying to perfect pick-and-roll coverages, keep up with his off-ball rotations, or navigate screens. But he’s shown a lot of positives throughout this season and has looked sharp recently, building off the positive skills he showed at Kentucky. With his lateral quickness, strength, high motor, and sound instincts, Maxey has plenty of tools to be a tough guard defender.

Maxey had his second-best performance of the season (after his 39-point game) in the Sixers’ latest win against the Detroit Pistons, and played some of his finest defense yet. From applying good pressure on the ball, to fighting around screens, to being proactive with timely digs at driving ball-handlers, Maxey’s activity and instincts on and off the ball were impressive.

With so many experienced, high-end defenders on the team, Maxey has plenty of guys he can learn from as well. One of the ways he studies? Watching a lot of Matisse Thybulle’s film.

“I just learn so much in a little span of knowing [Thybulle] and just talking to him and watching that film, and just how to get better and better every single day,” Maxey says.

As he continues to learn the intricacies of playing in the NBA, the rookie is grateful to have such a strong group of veterans and coaches around him.

“We have, I say, the best vets in the league,” Maxey says. “We have a great variety. You have superstars like Ben [Simmons] and Jo, even Tobias, in my opinion. Tobias, who, earlier in his career, didn’t play much, and now he is where he is. You have Danny Green, who has the same kind of story and also has three rings. Dwight, who has been a superstar, now is a role player on a really good team; he won a championship. Then just player development guys. Tyler [Lashbrook], Spencer [Rivers], Coach [Eric] Hughes, everybody.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child, so I think that’s the little model that we can go with.”

Recently, that support system became even stronger with the arrival of George Hill, who has been incredibly impressed by Maxey and is working with him to pass on the knowledge he’s gained through his career.

“I talk to George about everything,” Maxey says. “Life, basketball, all of the above. He’s been great... I really appreciate him and he’s going to be a big addition to our team.”

Maxey’s tireless work ethic has impressed the Sixers all season, as he trains with the mindset to just “get one percent better every day.” The team’s staff has even been helping him learn how to balance how much he’s training so he doesn’t do too much.

“We have a great staff,” Maxey says when discussing his conditioning. “Medical staff, weightlifting staff, all the way around, player development. They’ve done a great job of just helping me stick with it, helping me maintain. I like to go the gym a lot. They’ve been trying to help me measure it, not always going overboard and trying to find a good in-between game, find a good routine.”

Detroit Pistons v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

As much as the Sixers’ staff helps Maxey control his level of training, though, he’s still known as the hardest worker on the team.

“He’s very coachable, he really is,” Rivers says. “He listens. There’s nobody that works more. If you saw the minutes as far as that he has on the practice floor, he’s so far ahead of everyone else, it’s unbelievable. He puts a lot of time in with my son, Spencer, and a lot of time with Sam [Cassell] as well. It’s just amazing. Even yesterday, where we had a ‘black day,’ which means no one comes in, I know that he worked out because unfortunately, he’s working out with my son... We don’t care if you go in, but he was the only one. That’s just who he is.”

“I feel like he should be playing,” Embiid said after seeing Maxey’s standout performance against Detroit. “The last couple games that he’s played, he’s been amazing to watch, and he’s been doing a great job. That’s someone that when he got here, I felt like he had a lot of potential and I felt like I needed to help him. And he’s a hard worker, and he’s showing up.”

Moving forward, one question that looms in the closing stretch of the season is whether or not Maxey will be part of the Sixers’ playoff rotation. Rivers said recently that they “won’t blink” at playing 11 guys if they need to. While Maxey has already been in and out of the rotation and may not be featured consistently (backup guards like Shake Milton and George Hill will be Doc Rivers’ more experienced, trusted options), it wouldn’t be surprising to see him play a few minutes here and there. His pace and off-the-dribble juice can give the bench a different dynamic, and Rivers believes in what Maxey can do.

“I don’t know if he’s going to be in the regular rotation or not, but I have no doubt that he’ll play in the playoffs,” Rivers says. “I’m fully confident of that and fully confident of him. We’re gonna have them all ready and when the playoffs start we’ll see who will play. But I would have no hesitation to put him in.”

Maxey’s development in all areas is even more impressive when considering the fact that he’s a rookie in such an unusual, condensed season with so few team practices. If he can contribute at all in the playoffs and gain some valuable postseason experience, he’ll be able to end his rookie year on a high. And when he can apply his work ethic to a full offseason this summer, he has serious potential to make a leap next season.