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Despite strong finish heading into the break, Maxey still adjusting to new sixth man role

Known for his prodigious offensive skills, Maxey has made defensive intensity a focus of late as well.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Aside from when he fractured his foot in November, the nadir of Tyrese Maxey’s season was likely last week in Boston, when the 22-year-old recorded a season-low six points on 3-of-14 shooting from the field. In a game that the Sixers lost by just seven points, even just a normal Maxey performance might have been enough for Philadelphia to pick up a crucial game in their quest to summit the Eastern Conference standings.

At the time, it was fair to wonder if Doc Rivers’ new starting lineup experiment had run its course. With Maxey coming off the bench in favor of the more defensively versatile De’Anthony Melton, Tyrese had scored 12 points or fewer in four of his last five games. From a team perspective, the Sixers had lost three of those five contests.

Then, however, Maxey had the long conversation with his parents, as he “got all the emotions out that [he] needed to get out.” Let’s call that a mental reset of sorts. Since that call, Maxey has been excellent, averaging 20.3 points, 3.3 assists, and 1.3 steals per game across four contests, while shooting at least 50 percent from the field three times. Meanwhile, the Sixers went 4-0 over that stretch heading into the All-Star break.

Following Monday’s win over Houston, Maxey spoke to reporters about being impactful coming off the bench:

“I’m just trying to find ways to be impactful, be disruptive. Get into the ball every single time a pick-and-roll comes. Try to get into the ball and make guys tired, and make them exert energy and exert clock. So now, when they get the ball past half court, they’re getting it (over) right at 16, 15. Now they’re getting into their offense at 13 seconds and it’s hard to run offense at 13 seconds. You’ve got one or two passes, and then you’ve got to shoot. So I’m just trying to be as disruptive as I can.”

As you can see, making a mark on the defensive end of the court is very much on Tyrese’s mind at the moment. One of the primary reasons for the starting lineup shift this season was concerns about the perimeter defense with a Maxey-James Harden backcourt. If Maxey continues to improve in that area, maybe Rivers feels more comfortable rolling with the opening-night alignment. Maxey elaborated Monday on how he has been working on his defense:

“I’m just out there watching. When you sit there and you watch different people, you take a lot from everybody. When I was younger, like in high school, I got a lot of steals. But once I got to college, I got scared to make any mistakes and come out of the game for Coach Cal. So I wasn’t reaching as much, wasn’t gambling. But I can be a little more aggressive now, because of course we’ve got the big fella behind us and we’ve got help defense. It’s been pretty good.”

The sacrifice Maxey is making by coming off the bench is not lost on his teammates. Joel Embiid spoke after Wednesday’s win over Cleveland on Maxey accepting the sixth man role:

“You know, that was his first time going through an injury… He just shows how tough he is. Not just physically, but mentally. To be able to come back and lose your spot in the starting lineup, and you know, having to come off the bench and adjust. It just shows you that he’s in for the right reasons and what you’re seeing, and that’s what we need—for everybody to be on the same page. No matter who’s playing or not. We just need everybody to be balling.”

Of course, it makes it easier to buy in when you’re on a team with realistic title aspirations, and that possibility starts with having a guy like Embiid putting together another MVP-caliber season. Following Wednesday’s victory, Maxey was asked about playing alongside Embiid:

“I mean, it’s funny, I tell you all the time, I try not to take it for granted because some things that he does on the basketball court, I’ve never seen before. For him to do it at his size and his speed, and do it at a high level, he does it every single night is remarkable. We’re going to need him and like [Embiid] said, one of the keys to this year is just staying healthy. If we can stay healthy, I feel like this team has a really good chance and sky’s the limit.”

Whatever your personal opinion may be on the ceiling for this Sixers club, most of us can agree the sky’s the limit for Maxey. Even though I personally feel the starting lineup change has run its course, it’s good to see Tyrese is taking it in stride and improving his game in other areas. Whether with the starters or coming off the bench, Maxey remains a huge part of both Philadelphia’s present and future.

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