August 10, 2022
Do the Sixers have a star in the making in Tyrese Maxey? The answer from a lot of fans is a resounding yes, and I'm not here to cast judgment on anyone dreaming about big things for Maxey. Between the progress he has already shown, the reviews he receives from everyone he works with, and the environment he is in here in Philadelphia, all signs point to continued success for young Maxey.
That's the part that's fun to think about, so let's begin there as we chart out what his season might look like.
I sat and stared at my computer screen for a good 5-10 minutes thinking about what a “reasonable” positive outcome looks like for Tyrese Maxey this season. Not because I think it’s hard to see he has upside, but because his year two leap was so transformative that it’s hard to find a comparable career path.
Coming into the league, Maxey was viewed as a decent bet to shoot, mostly due to good free-throw numbers and the feathery touch he showed on runners and floaters (the latter of which immediately translated in the league). I don’t think anybody would have guessed, though, that he would go from a reluctant, below-average shooter in year one to one of the best shooters in the league to close his second season. And the volume was the most important piece of that transformation — Maxey took 84 threes across 16 games in the month of March, after shooting just 89 threes in 26 games across November and December combined. That trend continued in the playoffs, where Maxey stayed at a pace greater than five threes a game in both the Toronto and Miami series.
It goes without saying that if Maxey is a 40+ percent shooter from deep on medium-to-high volume moving forward that his offensive ceiling is extraordinary. And with James Harden handling a lot of the creation responsibilities, Maxey’s limitations as a playmaker for others don’t matter too much. He can focus on being the dynamic scoring guard he has proven himself to be, putting teams in unwinnable situations by forcing them to choose between defending his jumper and preventing his attacks of the rim.
Maxey is not going to hit teams by surprise anymore, and that may honestly be a good thing. If teams decide to play up on him to take away his jumper, which you can expect to be on the scouting report now, Maxey’s speed will produce blow-by after blow-by. What he does with those advantage situations is ultimately going to determine his worth more than his three-point shot.
To me, his willingness to shoot matters much more than Maxey matching his percentage from last year. Teams expecting him to take open shots and fearing the possibility of it happening is what’s important, not whether he’s a 38 percent guy vs. a 42 percent guy. And though you’d expect his pull-up shooting numbers to come down after a torrid year last season, the quality of his catch-and-shoot looks playing off of Embiid and Harden should be enough to power a strong year from deep.
While Maxey’s free-throw numbers are still low for a guy who spent a lot of the year as a lead (or close to lead) guard, he trended in the right direction last season, abandoning some of his preferred runners and floaters to attack the bodies of defenders. Maxey is small, so finishing over length will be an adventure at times, but he has already improved at finishing through contact that he initiates. The coaching staff’s message to get his hand to the backboard clearly hit home for the Kentucky product, and I’d expect he’ll continue to build off of that hit-first approach we saw in spurts last year.
The holy grail for Maxey, and frankly for this team, is if he can develop the sort of two-man chemistry with Embiid that he had with the likes of JJ Redick and Seth Curry. Their skill sets are quite different from Maxey’s in a number of ways — movement shooting is not something that has really been asked of Maxey, and shooting out of a handoff is a different process than rising up out of a pick-and-roll or catch-and-shoot situation. But he possesses downhill speed neither guy could come close to, and is their best bet to replicate the danger of those sets that prey on defenders second-guessing their actions. If those two can work defenders in the free-throw-line extended area as well as Embiid and Harden’s pick-and-roll does the middle of the floor, the Sixers basically have an unlimited offensive ceiling.
As it is, Maxey has earned the benefit of the doubt on future improvement. He’s a notoriously hard worker who translated that into a gigantic step forward last season. A first All-Star appearance might be tough to pull off in a crowded East with lots of popular stars, but it’s within the realm of possibility if the Sixers play up to their potential as a group.
Just thinking about Maxey disappointing is going to get me excommunicated from Philadelphia. Not sure I want to invite the wrath in the middle of August, but somebody has to do it.
There is a part of me that wonders when Maxey makes the transition from beloved young player with lower expectations to guy expected to produce at all times in all situations. This phenomenon is not unique to Philadelphia, certainly, but there reaches a point in every young athlete’s career where the kid gloves come off and people begin to hone in on what they can’t do rather than what they can. Save for the rare cases where a star just continues to rise until they win a championship, the backlash is a thunderbolt, sudden and echoing sound and fury.
So let me get ahead of that a bit — there will be a moment of realization, likely after he gets a big payday, that building around a small defensive target is difficult unless they have otherworldly offensive talent. Granted, not everybody gets to play with a defender like Embiid manning the paint behind them. But Maxey is also well short of "otherworldly offensive talent" at this stage.
The people who are most bullish on Maxey's future have thrown out names like Damian Lillard, as one example. I think you could maybe talk yourselves into Maxey's shotmaking potential at this point, but that is a comparison that would require him to up his shooting volume significantly while maintaining good efficiency, getting to the line at least twice as much, and most critically, taking a significant leap as a playmaker for others. Lillard did arrive later to the league than Maxey, allowing him to hone his skills longer before taking the NBA stage, but he was a far more advanced playmaker than Maxey right from the get-go.
Maxey's current limitations as a playmaker necessitate him playing next to someone like Harden, who can take that responsibility off of Maxey's shoulders. The downside to that in the near and long term is that the Sixers effectively have a backcourt offering little-to-nothing on defense, unless you eventually swap Harden for a high-level playmaker with defensive chops (good luck acquiring one of those). Maxey is willing to defend and has sharpened his reads/decisionmaking, but he gets swallowed up by a lot of screens and got picked on a good bit in last year's playoff run. If you had perfect defensive building blocks at the other spots, you'd shrug it off and say that backcourt defense is of lower importance (I'm not so sure that's true these days, though it was historically). But Philadelphia's 3/4 situation is merely good, not great. Neither Tucker nor Harris is built to swap assignments and chase jitterbug guards around all night, and you wouldn't really want Maxey holding on for dear life against bigger guys anyway.
The Sixers may end up chasing lineup combinations that really work as a result of those limitations. Lineups with Maxey on the floor and without one of Embiid or Harden were underwater overall last season, and though that might improve with better depth to flank him, the real concern is that they were below average on offense, which is where a lot of those lineups (featuring Seth Curry, Tobias Harris, Georges Niang, etc.) were supposed to be stronger. The Sixers need Maxey to get to a spot where he can lead a good offense on his own, as that could be the difference between buying more rest for the headline stars and needing to attach most of his minutes to theirs.
It's hard to envision a reality where Maxey outright disappoints this season, as any regression as a shooter feels like it will be made up for with some other skill development. He has a good head on his shoulders, his teammates like and trust him, and the organizational belief in him is significant. Going through a rough patch or facing questions about some of his weaker points likely won't rattle him, and he'll have plenty of playing time with which to work out any issues. A lot of young players would kill to be in his spot, surrounded by high-end talent but empowered to leave their mark on the team.
But it's easy to focus on all of the good things right now rather than the team construction quirks that come from having him as a building block. For now, the trade-offs have been well worth it as we've all watched him blossom into one of the most exciting young guys in the league. How long the excitement lasts hinges on what happens next, and whether that massive step forward was a one-off event or a sign of more to come.
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