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Is Tyrese Maxey ‘the straw that stirs the drink’ for the Sixers?

Joel Embiid is the reigning MVP, but Tyrese Maxey could be the player that most impacts the Sixers’ success.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

What was true a few days ago is truer today.

Tyrese Maxey, Portland coach Chauncey Billups said Sunday, is “the straw that stirs the drink” for the Sixers.

He said that before Maxey put up 26 points in the Sixers’ 126-98 rout of Billups’ Blazers, before Maxey was named this season’s first Eastern Conference Player of the Week and (of course) before the trade that sent James Harden to the Clippers.

Billups, for 17 years an NBA guard (notably with Detroit), acknowledged all that reigning MVP Joel Embiid brings to the table, while at the same time insisting that Maxey — because of the fourth-year guard’s shooting, speed and spirit — is the key to the whole operation.

“I think Tyrese makes this team go,” he said. “I think he is the guy here.”

Debate that if you will, but certainly now more than ever, Maxey is going to have to shoulder a sizable part of the load. And certainly he understands that.

“Yeah, I think I’m prepared,” he said after Sunday’s game. “I prepared a lot throughout the summer and throughout a lot of different things. … I think I’m more confident — even more confident.”

But still — the straw that stirs the drink? It is a line that echoes something Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson reportedly said — about himself, naturally — when he was in his heyday with the New York Yankees 46 years ago. Now Billups wants to put that on Maxey, which is heady praise indeed.

“It means a lot,” Maxey said, when apprised of those remarks. “It means that we’re trying to do something right.”

Maxey preceded Sunday’s output with 31 points against Milwaukee and 34 against Toronto in the season’s first two games, and his mesh with Embiid was notable. Time and again they ran dribble handoffs to great effect. Time and again they found each other, fed off each other.

Maxey said it is the sort of chemistry Embiid has been seeking since Maxey was in his second season.

“We didn’t get a lot of opportunities,” Maxey said. “But when we do, I try to be the best version of myself.”

That’s more likely to happen now, with greater responsibility placed in his hands, and with the installation by new coach Nick Nurse of a free-flowing offense that emphasizes ball and player movement.

It’s also because Maxey, a renowned gym rat, has steadily improved across his four seasons. The 21st pick of the 2020 draft — and how astute a choice was that? — his scoring average and three-point accuracy have improved every year. In 2022-23 they were 20.3 and .434, respectively, and over the first three games of this year they are 30.3 and .560. The latter number is almost certainly not sustainable, but what is clear is that he can shoot and scoot.

“He’s played great,” Nurse said before Sunday’s game. “I know I should be surprised that he’s played so great, but I think he’s gone into it understanding that he was really hard to game-plan for.”

Nurse said that when he coached the Raptors, “We never really could figure him out.” Not only is Maxey “super-fast” when he attacks the rim going right, his new coach said, but he is “able to pull up at any moment, going left.”

“If you want to be scared of his right-hand dribble and push him left, then you’re going to push him into a bunch of three-balls that he’s going to make,” Nurse added.

Maxey’s backcourt partner, De’Anthony Melton, also saw this coming. Saw it coming when he was with Memphis and Maxey put 33 up against the Grizzlies in January 2022. (“I wanted to match up but I really didn’t get to match up with him,” Melton said.) Saw it coming upon arriving in Philadelphia last season. And sees it when they work out together.

“It’s always fun,” Melton said. “We always compete against each other, especially shooting-wise.”

Melton believes Maxey has made particular strides as a passer, while Maxey believes he is better able to vary speeds than he once was — to go “slow, fast, slow,” as he put it.

There’s still room to grow, of course.

“I just want him to be 25 percent more aggressive than he’s being,” Nurse said.

He would also like to see him get a little more respect from referees. Nurse noted that while Maxey shot 10 free throws on opening night against the Bucks, “It should have been 17.”

“He needs to get more of those calls,” Nurse added. “I’m going to keep stressing for him to get the contact.”

The coach is also going to continue lobbying the officials.

“I’m certainly going to be biased for my guys,” Nurse said. “I used to have to fight like heck to get Freddie Van Vleet (his point guard in Toronto) to the line. He used to get pinged around like a pinball going down the lane. So we’ll just start that process all over again, with a new player.”

One thing that is a constant with Maxey is his upbeat approach. Always seems like it’s sunny in his part of Philadelphia. Always seems like he’s got a smile on his face. When veteran forward Tobias Harris was asked if he’s ever seen Maxey in a bad mood, he said, “No. Never.”

An exaggeration, certainly. But Maxey described himself as “a pretty happy human being” and added that if and when he is feeling low, “You wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t let anybody know.”

Instead, he spreads sweetness and light.

“When I come in happy every single day, I think I do a good job of building Jo up — starting there and then going with the other guys as well,” he said.

His own buildup is ongoing. Whether he truly proves to be the Sixers’ drink-stirrer remains to be seen. But what is clear is that he’s going to be a big part of the mix, that he’s going to have a lot to say about whether he and his teammates emerge from this season with a good taste in their mouths.

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