A 21-year-old stabilized the Sixers in 2021; what's next for Maxey?


When the Sixers wrapped up their final game of 2020, Tyrese Maxey had yet to make a professional three-pointer. He was 0 for 5 following a blowout Sixers win over the Magic in which Ben Simmons went 1 for 1 from long distance.

Maxey drained a career-high five long balls in the team’s last game of 2021, capping the year he served as an NBA starting point guard for the first time.

We don’t think it would be hyperbolic to say the Sixers experienced joy, disappointment, chaos, confusion and ubiquitous uncertainty in 2021. Somehow, the growth of the 21-year-old who the team took 21st in the 2020 draft was a constant — a stabilizer, in fact.

Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey was asked the night he made the Maxey pick whether the team was surprised that the Kentucky product fell to late in the first round.

“I was thrilled,” Morey said, “because I think teams tend to fixate on weaknesses instead of celebrating strengths with guys who fall. … This is a guy who constantly works on his game. He’s improved his game every year and also is a big team guy. Those things are important. If you have a top-level talent like him plus you love basketball and you’re willing to work and continue to work, that’s when you end up having a top player.”

Almost anything Morey said would look prescient in retrospect, but those comments do capture Maxey’s essence well. Even when he’s had every excuse to be discouraged or apathetic, he’s played the game like it’s a game.

Attitude is one factor of many in a sport largely about skill and size. It’s within a player’s control, though, and perhaps it gives Maxey an edge in avoiding prolonged slumps. 

After Joel Embiid told Maxey he was “trash” following the second-year guard’s 2-for-11 performance Tuesday in Toronto — not with a straight face, of course — Maxey posted 25 points on 10-for-18 shooting, seven rebounds, four assists and no turnovers in the Sixers’ win Thursday over the Nets.

“I’m going to work regardless, whether I’m going through a slump or whether I feel like I’m pretty hot,” Maxey said on Dec. 18. “My thing is just staying mentally locked in, staying mentally focused, and keeping my mind steady on the task at hand. I think that’s what helps me when I’m going through a slump or even when I’m shooting the ball well.”

There’s much more to his job than raw numbers. For instance, though it’s excellent that Maxey has a 7.5 turnover percentage according to Cleaning the Glass, the lowest mark of any point guard, a slightly increased figure would be fine if it corresponded with greater aggression. Still, it doesn’t hurt to see where Maxey ranks among his peers in a few basic categories. Here’s where he sits for sophomores with a minimum of 15 games played and at least 15 minutes per game:

  • Fifth in points per game: 16.8
  • Fourth in assists per game: 4.5 
  • Fifth in three-point percentage: 38.0 
  • Third in free throws made (2.8) and free throws attempted per game (3.2) 

Maxey has been a good NBA player this season — no qualifiers about age, experience or position needed. Position is relevant, however, in that doubts about his ability to play as a true point guard or optimism about Seth Curry’s ball handling and partnership with Embiid shouldn’t be used to diminish Maxey's role.

With Maxey out because of a left quad contusion, Curry had a strong outing as an emergency starting point guard on Dec. 20, recording 26 points and seven assists in the Sixers’ victory over the Celtics.

“I love it,” head coach Doc Rivers said of Curry at point guard before the team’s next game. “We’ve worked on that a little bit with him, because we believe there’s going to be a lot of games where we want to do that, whether start him at point or have him play point. Because, when he comes off a pick, it’s a different meaning than most point guards coming off. A scoring guy comes off a pick, the whole team notices, and that creates action for us.” 

The note about possibly starting Curry at point guard under typical circumstances was an eyebrow-raiser, and Rivers then did it in a dismal loss to the Hawks. The circumstances were unique, with Maxey playing his first game after an injury, but it did lead one to wonder whether Maxey might ever shift to the bench.

There’d be sound rationale to justify such a move. Maxey has been tentative at times next to Embiid compared to his lack of inhibition in shorthanded situations. Curry is indeed a threatening ball handler. When everyone’s healthy, Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle are the Sixers’ two top wings. The team has been very successful when they’ve shared the court, too (plus-33.7 net rating this season, plus-14.7 last season according to Cleaning the Glass), though small sample size caveats apply.

But Maxey himself is a tremendous argument for not overthinking the starting lineup. He’s been one of the team’s best and most reliable players, and anyone who’s watched the Sixers this year can see he relishes responsibility. 

Continuing to start him and trusting him to keep improving with the ball in his hands doesn’t sound like a bad idea at all as the Sixers enter 2022.

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