During Joel Embiid’s entire NBA career, it’s felt like a dark cloud has hung over the Sixers.
Weird injuries, roster and front office upheaval, burner accounts, trade demands — a Hollywood script about The Process would get thrown out on account of its ridiculousness.
But the beacon of light from those dark times arrived in a way that’s truly stranger than fiction. The stakes were pretty low when the Oklahoma City Thunder squared off against the Miami Heat in “The Bubble” on Aug. 12, 2020. Both teams were locked into playoff positions and emptied their benches in the second half.
With 5.2 seconds left in that game, former Sixer Mike Muscala nailed a game-winning three for the Thunder, completing a 22-point, fourth-quarter comeback.
Muscala’s shot is now the stuff of legend ... in Philadelphia.
With the win, Oklahoma City’s 2020 first-round pick conveyed to the Sixers because it landed outside the top 20. If Muscala missed that shot, it would’ve turned into two second-rounders.
And with the 21st pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, the Philadelphia 76ers selected Tyrese Maxey, guard from the University of Kentucky.
And with that pick, the entire state of the franchise was altered.
With the ball now in his hands, Tyrese Maxey is becoming a superstar. After continuing his stellar start to the season with a career-high 50-point night Sunday, Maxey was asked if he’s ever reminded of the randomness that led to him becoming a Sixer.
“I hear it so often,” Maxey said postgame. “[Assistant director of team security Anthony Jackson] reminds me at least, I don’t know, twice a month. I’ve seen it and that’s great. It’s cool.”
Maxey’s lethal combination of game-changing speed and elite shooting have made him a dangerous player in the NBA. Opponents have to account for both of those attributes, making him a tough cover. He’s also learning to master his pace, making the task nearly impossible some nights.
On Sunday, Maxey’s full bag was on display.
“I thought he blasted to the basket with speed a bunch of times,” Nick Nurse said, “and then he did his step-back or separation for threes. Just a heavy dose of both. It was obviously really hard to guard tonight, but it’s really hard to guard (overall) when he’s that fast one way and he’s so deadly a shooter the other direction. It’s kind of like, ‘Which one are we going to try to take away?’ It makes it hard.”
To truly appreciate what Maxey means to the Sixers and Philly fans, you have to retrace the steps to get here.
Ben Simmons was the first overall pick in 2016. He was the Rookie of the Year, a three-time All-Star, a two-time All-Defensive Team pick and made All-NBA in 2019-20. His time here was marred by his refusal to shoot and sometimes prickly attitude. It culminated in the infamous pass during Game 7 against the Hawks which was followed by his trade demand and subsequent holdout.
Markelle Fultz was the first overall pick in 2017. Bryan Colangelo made a deal with the dev... errr Danny Ainge in order to trade up to the top spot. When Fultz was here we learned a whole lot about thoracic outlet syndrome, but the Washington product also had issues with his jumper. To make matters worse, the Celtics took four-time All-Star Jayson Tatum with the third pick.
Then of course there was James Harden. There’s not much of a need to rehash this one since it’s so recent.
With Simmons and Harden specifically, think of the contrast between those players and Maxey. Maxey’s smile fills a room. He’s coachable and has taken notable steps to improve the weaknesses in his game. There isn’t a player in the league that will outwork him. He doesn’t finger point when things go wrong or boast when things go right.
He’s immensely talented, is a great teammate and a great ambassador for the franchise.
“It changes everything,” Embiid said of Maxey’s attitude. “Like I said, he’s going to be here a long time and I hope he does retire here. The fans should love him. They should appreciate him and everything that he does for them, because he’s something else.
“It starts with people like that. When you’ve got people in the building that are always smiling, it’s rare. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him mad. Usually, me in the mornings, I don’t mess around. Him, you can come in at 7 in the morning and he’s smiling. I’m like, ‘Dude, I just woke up.’ But that’s always the same energy — it doesn’t change. Good games, bad games always the same — that smile. When you’ve got people around like that, especially when they’re someone that high in the organization, it changes everything. It sets the tone for everyone else.”
So much of the talk surrounding Maxey was about if he’d be able to succeed as the team’s lead ball handler and point guard. Through nine games, he’s passed that test with flying colors.
Though he was eligible for an extension, the Sixers opted to wait until next offseason to talk long-term deal in order for the team to have optimal cap space next summer. Through nine games, Rich Paul is looking like Scrooge McDuck during the Duck Tales theme song.
Maxey has looked like an All-Star, an All-NBA player, a superstar. Through nine games, his production gives Sixers fans so much to dream on.
On the season, Maxey is averaging 28.6 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. His shooting splits are amazing (50.5/43.1/93.0). Only two players in NBA history have averaged over 28 points and seven assists while shooting over 40% from three: Larry Bird (1986-87) and Damian Lillard (2019-20).
With his 50-point night against the Pacers, he joins Allen Iverson as the only Sixers to score 50 at 23 or younger. He’s the first Sixers guard to go for 50 since Iverson did so against the Hawks in 2005.
It’s funny because for years the Sixers unsuccessfully hunted for the perfect running mate for The Answer. In recent years, they’ve hunted for that perfect second star to play alongside Embiid.
It sure seems like they found him — except this isn’t looking like a Batman and Robin situation. It’s looking more like Batman and Superman.
“I’ve always said he’s the hardest-working person I’ve ever been around,” Embiid said, “and that’s saying something. He doesn’t take plays off. He always finds a way to get better. Obviously he’s doing great, but I think he has an even brighter future. I think he can get to another level. Philadelphia’s got a good one. He’s going to be here for a long time and like I said, he’s The Franchise.”
Eat your heart out, Jimmy Butler and your stupidly locked in 4 a.m. workouts.
For a guy that folks like to throw in trade rumors, Embiid sure seems happy in Philadelphia playing with Maxey.
“I think Joel wanted me to get 50 more than I think myself did,” Maxey said. “He went to grab the ball and was like, ‘You are going to shoot this basketball.’ I just appreciate my teammates, man. I appreciate my teammates, appreciate the fans, appreciate the coaching staff. It was a great night. We got the win, so that’s what matters the most.”
That’s a far cry from declaring yourself “The System.”
As a refresher, the pick Maxey was selected with was originally owned by Oklahoma City, but bounced around quite a bit. The Thunder traded it and veteran Ersan Ilyasova to the Sixers for Jerami Grant. The Sixers would move it to the Orlando Magic as part of a truly awful trade that landed Philly the draft rights to Anžejs Pasečņiks. The Magic would eventually send that pick back to the Sixers as part of a trade for ... Markelle Fultz.
Truly, truly bizarre.
“That’s just ironic, I guess,” Maxey said. “Shout out to Mike. I like being here.”
Yeah, Philly likes having you here too, Tyrese.