Since day one of his second season, much has been asked of Tyrese Maxey.
He’s a trusted self-creator on a Philadelphia 76ers team within earshot of the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed. Whenever Joel Embiid is sidelined, the offense runs through him. When they’re together, the offense is reshaped and his role shifts considerably. He’s taken notable defensive assignments like Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, James Harden and Desmond Bane.
At times, all of this has overextended the current version of Maxey. In his prime, he looks equipped to handle these varying responsibilities on a nightly basis, as well as for stretches this season. But linking his wide-ranging flashes into consistency isn’t there yet.
That’s fine. He’s 21, just 15 months into his NBA career, and already a starting-caliber guard. Compared to December 2020, June 2021 and October 2021, he’s a significantly better player, especially in his scoring approach. And recently, Maxey’s playmaking seems to be following suit, too.
Over his last 10 games, he’s averaging 6.7 assists to just 1.5 turnovers. During his first 37 games, he averaged 4.3 assists and 1.1 turnovers. This isn’t just the product of increased usage either.
According to Cleaning The Glass, his assist-to-usage ratio is 1.14 (40th percentile among point guards) over this stretch, a hefty leap from 0.91 (seventh percentile) across the initial 37 games.
Here’s some more fun data: according to NBA.com, he’s generating 17.5 points per game via assists since this run began after generating 10.9 points via assists beforehand.
Further, the Sixers have a 113.5 offensive rating (13th league-wide) since Jan. 21, up from 110.6 (21st) in the 25 ensuing games once Embiid returned following his COVID absence. Even if Maxey’s surge is not the lone factor, his trajectory influences things.
Three key components are powering this growth. He’s less risk averse as a decision-maker. He’s quicker to process simple openings that arise from his scoring gravity and downhill burst. He’s manipulating the threat of his scoring and speed to draw multiple bodies before setting up someone else.
One of the most drastic evolutions in Maxey’s game as a rookie was his budding understanding of how to weaponize changes of pace to create driving lanes for himself. When he re-entered the rotation for periods in the spring, that development was evident. He and head coach Doc Rivers also acknowledged it as a discernible difference from early in the year.
Yet through roughly half of 2021-22, it wasn’t a development that seamlessly translated to his passing portfolio. He’d turn on the afterburners, fixate on a finish at the rim and miss chances to feed diving big men when the defense collapsed on him.
Establishing consistency on these reads remains a priority, but inklings are becoming more commonplace since late January. That’s encouraging for any player, especially a 21-year-old in his first year as a starter learning to balance scoring and playmaking.
The second assist of that montage stands out in particular. A pocket pass to Embiid is available after Maxey’s second dribble. But delivering it then would allow 7-foot Jakob Poeltl, an excellent defender, the chance to contest Embiid’s jumper.
Instead, Maxey takes one more dribble and confronts Poeltl as a scoring presence. That forces the smaller defender, Dejounte Murray, to switch and deal with Embiid. The result is a short midrange that the big fella comfortably drills over the top. Maxey’s floor vision and patience enabled it. I’m not sure he’s nailing a small detail like that back in, say, December.
A primary talking point among certain Sixers crowds in support of Maxey is his immaculate assist-to-turnover ratio (4:1 this season). While there is substantial merit to the praise, a lot of it stems from his risk-averse passing tendencies, where he’ll leave plays on the table and settle for contested jumpers/finishes or reset the offense altogether — though, to his credit, his zealous finishing attempts spark easy putback chances at times.
When those shots don’t go in or a possession comes up empty, Maxey’s timid style contributes to plays that can ignite transition opportunities, which is the same danger with giveaways beyond the offense not scoring. So, he may not accrue many turnovers to his name each game, yet he’s squandering or hindering more possessions than what the box score says.
Turnovers are not necessarily good, but the majority of very good passers live with them because they’re outliers from all the positives they produce. I wouldn’t say Maxey has spurned the timid label as a passer. However, he’s transitioning away from it as he emerges more willing to accurately fire reads into crowded areas, and the Sixers’ offense is benefiting.
Describing Maxey as timid or risk averse thus far isn’t intended to really be an indictment. He’s adjusting to a new role; keeping operations simple is shrewd and understandable. The optics of tangible turnovers are never ideal, even more so for younger players whose leeway to play through mistakes may not be as expansive as established veterans.
Philadelphia has needed more from him (and many others) as a passer, though. As unfair as that may be, it’s the reality of the current roster makeup and he’s addressing it nonetheless. That’s what the dude has done in his career: identify areas of improvement and accomplish them. Leaving fewer opportunities on the floor fits both of those descriptions.
Although the final portion of his upswing is probably similar to the first two, it still feels distinct. Put simply, he’s processing reads in a more timely fashion. He’s more quickly capitalizing on openings that have likely existed all (or most of the) season for him and the Sixers. They’re not decisions his role — both in Philadelphia and lower-level contexts — has previously emphasized. Now, it does, and he’s responding well.
Maxey can routinely stamp his two feet in the paint — or at least be a threat to do so. Defenses are going to respect the possibility of his two-point scoring. Passes like many of the ones below will be there. Now, with more nuance and experience, he’s picking up on them.
Beyond the two centers, this Sixers squad is not a high-level passing team, and it’s a prominent offensive issue. Maxey’s strides don’t rectify everything, not even close, but he is clearly trending upward, which conveniences everyone involved.
There’s a whole lot to like about everything he’s shown as a pro. This trend is another example of why stardom seems to be crystalizing on the horizon.