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If you think about the combination of factors it took for Tyrese Maxey to end up in Philadelphia, you often think that this kid probably shouldn’t be here in the first place.
It’s a thought Maxey says enters the mind of a Sixers security staffer at least twice a month, when he reminds Maxey of his origin story. Former Sixers big Mike Muscala, playing in the Disney World bubble for an Oklahoma City team with no incentive to win, hit a pair of threes to beat the Miami Heat. That win allowed the Sixers to hold onto a draft pick they acquired by trading Markelle Fultz to the Orlando Magic.
“Shout out to Mike,” Maxey said after a 50-point outburst against the Pacers on Sunday. “I like being here.”
Even that falls short of explaining Maxey’s unlikely path here. He was robbed of an NCAA Tournament during his only college season at Kentucky, and knowing what we do now, it seems a certainty that platform would have been Maxey’s platform to push his stock well past pick No. 21.
At the very least, a “normal” pre-draft process should have allowed teams to uncover the gem lurking in plain sight, a kid with an insatiable work ethic, a megawatt smile, and a support structure that has kept him humble even as he pushes into the ranks of the NBA’s best. He seems to be everything you could want in a building block for any organization — confident yet conscientious, relentless yet respectful, electric yet even-keeled.
A player’s makeup is the oft-missed piece of NBA player development, and not for lack of effort. Even Maxey’s brightest teammates find themselves in occasional awe of how he carries himself, still taken aback by what he offers others while demanding so much from himself.
“The hardest working person I’ve ever been around, and that’s saying something,” Joel Embiid said Sunday. “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.”
“He’s something else. It starts with when you got people like that in the building, always smiling, it’s rare. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him mad. Usually me in the morning, I don’t mess around. Him, you can come in seven in the morning, [he’s] smiling. I’m like dude, you just woke up. But that’s always the same energy. Doesn’t change, good game or bad game, always the same. When you 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.”
And still, Maxey has faced doubt every season. Would he shoot enough, and would he shoot well enough? Was he capable of being a lead guard with a star player absent? Would he be disrupted by a star player returning and pinballing him between two very different roles?
Embiid, for one, has always been a believer. Maxey has described him as the big brother in their relationship, a dynamic reflected in their locker room banter and playful barbs for one another.
“When I come over sometimes and he passes me the ball and I don’t shoot, I drive and do anything else, I know I’m going to get an earful from Joel Embiid,” Maxey says.
That message to trust his talent has landed for Maxey in a big way. In a league with big egos and territorial stars, that familial bond is what allows an MVP to have a 37-point outing and still recognize that it’s the other guy who needs and deserves the spotlight. And it certainly helps that Maxey is driving success as Embiid watches on from the sideline, proud of little bro.
It used to be that Embiid would hit the bench in a game and fans would be pushed into nervous breakdowns, aware that blown leads and chaos were coming. Maxey has managed to beat that idea back by himself, picking up nicknames like “Fourth Quarter Maxey” from Robert Covington and “The Franchise” from Embiid. En route to his first-ever 50-point performance on Sunday, Maxey poured in 16 in the final quarter through any means necessary, from stepback jumpers to off-ball cuts to his patented floater.
There was even a putback on an offensive rebound, with Maxey securing a Pat Bev airball after creating the initial shot by drawing defenders toward him with his pace. In some ways, that is the summary of his career — he was in the right place at the right time because he had already done the hard work.
Captaining units on his own was a struggle for Maxey as recently as last season, but he is dismantling teams on his own right now. Before he dropped 50 on the Pacers, lineups featuring Maxey and excluding Embiid were outscoring opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions, in the 90th percentile of all lineup combos in the NBA. And this is with the Sixers introducing new role players midstream following the completion of the Harden trade.
There is certainly room to credit Nick Nurse here, for using his pieces creatively rather than just rolling the ball out and expecting Maxey to figure it out. Philadelphia opened the fourth with Beverley on-ball and Maxey running an “Iverson cut” across the face of Indy’s defense. When the initial passing window to Maxey wasn’t there, Beverley hits the initial screener (Tobias Harris) as Danuel House Jr. hits Maxey’s man with another screen, freeing him for a cut and layup:
Maxey’s flexibility has been a hand-in-glove fit with Nurse’s approach to offense. They can spend minutes at a time spamming empty corner pick-and-rolls, only to pivot into Maxey coming off of dribble handoffs and ready to shoot if the big man drops. He has grown more comfortable as a movement shooter, and Nurse hasn’t been shy about tapping into that. Sprinkle in that deadly pace, and there’s a way to keep him involved (even as a decoy) on every single possession.
At this rate, it will not be long before the conversation shifts from “Maxey could be an All-Star” to “Maxey is coming for every piece of individual hardware.” While this writer recognizes that there’s a lot of season left and many more factors than raw stats, compare Maxey’s numbers to the numbers of the last five guards to win an MVP award:
|Guard (Season)||Basic stats|
|Tyrese Maxey (2023-24)||28.6 points, 7.2 assists, 5.4 rebounds, 50.5/43.1/93%, 1.1 turnovers|
|James Harden (2017-18)||30.4 points, 8.8 assists, 5.4 rebounds, 44.9/36.7/85.8%, 4.4 turnovers|
|Russell Westbrook (2016-17)||31.6 points, 10.4 assists, 10.7 rebounds, 42.5/34.3/84.5%, 5.4 turnovers|
|Stephen Curry (2015-16)||30.1 points, 6.7 assists, 5.4 rebounds, 50.4/45.4/90.8%, 3.3 turnovers|
|Stephen Curry (2014-15)||23.8 points, 7.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 48.7/44.3/91.4%, 3.1 turnovers|
|Derrick Rose (2010-11)||25.0 points, 7.7 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 44.5/33.2/85.8, 3.4 turnovers|
Even with across-the-board regression, which is inevitable over a long, 82-game campaign, Maxey’s numbers would hold up with the guys on the lower end of the volume chart (2010-11 Rose, 2014-15 Curry) while outpacing or matching the higher volume players (Westbrook and Harden) in scoring efficiency. He, like most guards in history, would still be chasing the ghost of Apex Steph.
But it’s striking specifically because Maxey has punched his way out of every box people have tried to fit him in. Surely, the thought went, a player who made two consecutive big leaps is due for a plateau. Even if Harden is traded and the ball is his, there’s only so much higher Maxey can climb, right?
Maybe someday we will find out what that ultimate ceiling looks like. For now, the only appropriate reaction feels like dreaming, of what’s to come and what this kid might accomplish with more time to work and the opportunity to showcase it.