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What’s next in Tyrese Maxey’s rise to stardom?

Year 2 was splendid. How does he ensure Year 3 follows a similar route?

Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Three Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Intentional, conscious or otherwise, immense pressure rested on the shoulders of 21-year-old Tyrese Maxey entering his second season. An All-Star-sized hole at point guard confronted he and the Philadelphia 76ers. Despite Maxey’s rotation spot fluctuating throughout his first year, he would be the one tasked with replacing Ben Simmons, hoping to lessen the impact of his absence.

Whatever test that responsibility classified as, Maxey aced it for seven consecutive months. During the 4.5 months prior to James Harden’s arrival, he shared lead perimeter creation duties with Tobias Harris and Seth Curry, notching 16.9 points per game on 56.7 percent true shooting. His jetpack-powered speed, improved outside jumper and silky interior touch constantly provided Philadelphia a lift.

Harden’s acquisition allowed Maxey to truly hone in on scoring and puncture the advantages the former MVP enacted for him. In 24 post-All-Star break games, he acclimated himself well as a secondary perimeter option, averaging 18.7 points on 65.5 percent true shooting. On the whole, across 75 regular-season contests, he averaged 17.5 points, 4.3 assists and 3.2 rebounds on 59.4 percent true shooting (.485/.427/.866 split).

His long ball, both off the catch and the dribble, made massive strides. The scope of shots he was comfortable with off the bounce greatly expanded. Emerging as one of the NBA’s most lethal transition scorers, his burst, balance and finishing craft shined. While youth often carries an understood aura of inconsistency, Maxey was a reliable scoring presence, posting single-digit points just nine times in 87 tries. He played 2,650 minutes, exceeded by only eight other players around the league. If the dude was ever sucking wind, he masked it superbly.

The playoffs were even better, when he averaged 20.8 points, 3.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds on 61 percent true shooting (.484/.377/.940 split). In 12 games, he twice scored 34 or more points, a feat he accomplished just once during his first 148 career outings.

Maxey’s Year 2 was a sensational campaign that spun Year 1’s glimmers of promise into tangible excellence and morphed the fingers-crossed possibility of stardom into a when, not if existence of the future. Now comes the luxury of expectations as an established starter on a playoff contender shepherded by an MVP-caliber center and All-Star guard.

So, how does Maxey complete his rise to stardom? Long-range shooting sat atop his offseason checklist last year and he accomplished that quite promptly. What’s next to refine the edges of his game and jump from quality starter to bona fide star?

Although Maxey certainly became a much better defender in 2021-22, a couple persistent setbacks continue to hamstring him. Namely, he’s prone to biting on false moves, whether it’s dribbling trickery, hesitations or shot/body fakes. That trend compromised sound positioning from him, where he’d contain an assignment or stay attached at the hip, only to be undone by a lack of discipline.

Another youth-inspired area of of improvement is his tendency to stick out his hands as the initial response to movement. Many young players are plagued by both of these problems (hello, Paul Reed). Maxey is no different.

Rather than rely on his sturdy center of gravity and jittery lateral mobility, his first instinct is often to put one or two hands on someone as they advanced toward the hoop. This is an especially subtle habit, but one officials will spot and penalize. Cleaning up both traits could greatly help him moving forward.

To Maxey’s credit, he trimmed down these mistakes in his second season. As a rookie, he averaged 4.1 fouls per 100 possessions. Last season, he averaged 2.9 and certainly authored more stops by simply keeping his man in front with mitts at his waist and remaining ground-bound. Regardless, falling for fewer fakes and relying on his chest as the first point of contact rather than his hands would expand his defensive value.

Maxey may have asserted himself as a consistent offensive option, but his defense is still susceptible to ebbs and flows. Among the specific components of his defense that oscillate is his screen navigation. Sometimes, he’ll prep well for them, shimmy around the pick and neutralize an offensive action. Other times, he’s late sensing the screen or finds himself trapped like a fly in a web and fails to positively impact the possession.

From my vantage point, Maxey was exposed less regularly by screens at season’s end. Swerving through picks and operating with active hands to deter or alter shots, he really thrived in an off-ball chaser role against Max Strus in Round 2. That’s an important archetype and one the Sixers have somewhat lacked in recent years. Discerning his optimal defensive role is in flux. This could be the one for him, as Philadelphia bestowed it upon him and he flourished, in part because he reliably wiggled around those pesky human hurdles.

But maneuvering around screens is still an aspect of his defense that shouldn’t be waved away as solved. Despite his 6-foot-1 stature, there’s genuine potential as a point-of-attack fiend and actualizing it is tied to achieving consistently effective screen navigation. It’s certainly attainable, though there’s nonetheless a dichotomy in how he deals with them.

Maxey is already a magnificent complementary scorer. 18 points per game on 59 percent true shooting in the regular season and 21 points per game on 61 percent true shooting in the postseason underline that. Knifing through and against tilted defenses jarred by Harden and Joel Embiid is a fruitful environment for him and Philadelphia.

There’s absolutely the potential for more on-ball opportunities, though. Per Synergy, this guy was in the 85th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, 89th percentile on isolations and 83rd percentile off the dribble. He’ll need to improve his midrange pull-up (40.1 percent on pull-up twos), but he’s a genuine threat from all three levels with the ball in his clutches.

Given the fact he looked like a superior scorer to Harden post-trade and Harden is a vastly superior facilitator, constructing the ideal balance for their initiating shares is vital to maximizing this team’s offensive talent.

For Maxey to garner more initiating reps, he must evolve as a passer. He grew from October to May, becoming more daring, weaponizing his speed to open windows, discovering more avenues to feed rollers and showing embers of an interior playmaking trait. Traps can still fluster him and he’s not a reliable interior passer, missing laydown reads or lobs to finishers. He’ll also ignore kick-outs to shooters and is timid passing through traffic.

Philadelphia is stocked with credible spot-up threats. If a team opts to help on his drives from the strong- or weak-side, he should make them pay. Because his touch is immaculate and he excels playing through contact, most of his field goal attempts are quite makeable and fine outcomes. But he’s not always executing the ideal decision on some of his possessions.

Maturing as an interior passer, decelerating and probing in crowds to assess the situation, and aspiring to thread the needle are all paths to warranting grander on-ball usage.

Broadly, heightened court awareness as a distributor when in motion could behoove him. That takes time to incorporate, and could be a skill he downloads after an offseason of film and training. Being such a menacing scorer is a significant triumph. Learning how to parlay that into the proper play for everyone on the floor isn’t an overnight lesson. A summer of teachings will likely point out missed reads and help him patch this hole of his game.

A minor place Maxey could polish — and emphasis on minor — is his proclivity to rip-and-go to his right off the catch. Both the Heat and Raptors began to sit on that move in their respective series, which presented a hiccup for his off-ball scoring repertoire. He appears less adept traveling to his left for pull-ups, though can transition into a floater from that direction. Slicing to the non-dominant hand for some buckets is a nitpick that could only further balloon his ravaging off-ball scoring.

After a dazzling second year, stardom looks like a foregone pitstop on Maxey’s NBA journey. With the Sixers largely lacking financial flexibility, internal improvement is paramount to their efforts of finally advancing beyond the Eastern Conference Semifinals. His trajectory is squarely at or near the top of ceiling-raising assets to do so.

Defensive discipline, on-ball technique and passing versatility are his avenues for further development. Independent of these facets, he’ll presumably be an even better scorer next year. Adding lanes to demand more on-ball touches and be a bankable difference-maker defensively trudge on as vital. Maybe, he also targets off-movement shooting to foster another leap.

Maxey’s future and present are glowingly bright. How he peeks through the light to blossom after another offseason is up to him, but optimism should reign. These are merely suggestions, and ones he’s certainly capable of addressing over the next few months.

Maybe, they’re irrelevant and he amplifies his strengths to elevate himself instead. The steps to stardom are not rigid, nor is my analysis canon. From an all-encompassing lens, he routinely talks about getting one percent better every day. If that’s the case, expect to see a 21-year-old whose game is once again wonderfully improved next fall.

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