Robert Covington wasted little time in his second Sixers stint before he started bestowing nicknames.
“Man, he’s a growing superstar,” Covington said Saturday of Tyrese Maxey. “We were talking yesterday … about ‘Fourth-quarter Maxey.’
“The last two games, he’s been phenomenal. He’s stepped up, made a lot of big plays. That’s what he’s going to have to do. He has the ball in his hands. I told him, ‘It’s your role. That’s your position now. You take on that challenge.’ ... I’ve been a fan of Maxey for years. When he first came in, everybody was talking about how can he be acclimated, but he’s taken on that challenge and he’s grown.”
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Maxey made all those words look wise Sunday night when he scored 16 fourth-quarter points on 7-for-11 shooting, guiding the Sixers to the finish line of a win against the Pacers at Wells Fargo Center. The Sixers’ only loss so far is a one-point opening-night defeat in Milwaukee. Their 8-1 record is the NBA’s best.
“Fourth-quarter Maxey” is a bit narrow, though. He tallied 34 points over the other three quarters Sunday, joining the 50-point club and exceeding his previous career high by six.
Joel Embiid, Maxey’s MVP teammate, calls himself “The Process.” As for Maxey …
“You know your nickname? The Franchise,” Embiid said loudly in the locker room to Maxey after the game. “Remember that. I gave you that nickname. Trademark it.”
With Maxey's humility, he doesn't appear inclined to fully embrace either name.
In fact, his initial response to a “Fourth-quarter Maxey” question was to heap praise on Covington, who’s been back with the Sixers for about two weeks.
“RoCo’s great,” Maxey said. “He’s been great, honestly. … He brings energy, he brings toughness and he just brings great camaraderie as a teammate. He’s a good teammate to have and I’m glad he’s on our side, not on a different team.
“I just go out there in the fourth quarter and try to be aggressive. That’s a time where Joel gets his rest — and we need him to get as much rest as possible, because we’re going to need him down the stretch. Me and that group, we’ve worked a lot when nobody’s watching, 5-on-0 (against) whatever the defense is going to do — if they’re switching, trapping, dropping. So we know what we can get to, we know how to score the ball and we know how to defend on that group.”
There’s no question Maxey knows how to score the ball in those important Embiid-less minutes to begin fourth quarters.
Among players to play in at least four games, Maxey’s 9.0 points per fourth quarter rank fourth in the NBA behind Luka Doncic, LeBron James and Damian Lillard. He’s shot 61.2 percent from the field, 46.7 percent from three-point range and hit all 14 of his free throws.
The Sixers got Maxey two immediate fourth-quarter points vs. the Pacers with a smart play call that exploited Andrew Nembhard’s desire to play ultra-tight defense.
Maxey made an Iverson cut — running wing to wing across a couple of teammates as Sixers legend Allen Iverson once did — and then used Danuel House Jr.’s rip screen to break free for a layup.
Maxey and Iverson are now the only Sixers to reach the 50-point mark at 23 years old or younger.
For anyone who watched Iverson’s brilliance, it’s not natural to consider the idea of a scoring Sixers guard being better than him in certain ways. However, Maxey is superior to every high-usage NBA guard right now in terms of his turnovers being rare events. He has a minuscule 4.5 turnover percentage outside of garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass, and a 65-to-10 assist-to-turnover ratio.
No one will argue about Maxey’s outside shooting either.
He shot just 29.2 percent from long range in his one college season at Kentucky, 30.1 percent as an NBA rookie. Over the past two-plus years, Maxey’s at 43.1 percent. He’s taken eight three-pointers per game this season.
“I think I was always a decent shooter in high school and stuff,” Maxey said. “I know I missed some shots at UK. (Head coach John Calipari) is going to call me about that. … Having people doubt me or whatever, it keeps me humble. It keeps me being able to go into the gym every offseason, every single day and work on my game, work on my craft and try to be the best possible version of myself.”
Maxey’s deep range is especially valuable because of his exceptional downhill burst. If a pump fake helps generate a driving angle, he’ll likely capitalize.
And it’s harsh to fault any defenders who bite on the occasional Maxey fake or concede open step-back jumpers. The play after Maxey’s fourth-quarter floater, Nicolas Batum set an effective ghost screen, creating momentary confusion for the Pacers’ Bruce Brown and Myles Turner. Maxey nailed a step-back three.
“I thought he just mixed in so much of what he does so well,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said. “I thought he blasted to the basket with speed a bunch of times, 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.”
Call him whatever you’d like.
Nine games into Maxey’s fourth season, almost everything sounds right.
“He just wants to get better,” Embiid said. “He wants to learn. He’s willing to learn; he listens. Extremely humble. I’ve always said he’s the hardest-working person I’ve ever been around, 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.”