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June 02, 2023

Nick Nurse highlights the importance of Tyrese Maxey in Sixers' future

Nick Nurse has a clear vision of Tyrese Maxey's future and wants to help the young Sixers guard get there.

In his first press conference in charge of the Philadelphia 76ers, Nick Nurse was not willing to commit to much when it comes to the team's future. The new head coach made clear he did not want to "vibrate on the frequency of the past," indicating that this was a new team with new challenges that would require a fresh look from top-to-bottom.

But from the outside looking in, it seems obvious that growth for the franchise will come from a few primary figures, barring major trades to shake up the roster. Tyrese Maxey might be at the top of that shortlist, a 20-point-per-game scorer with a fork in the road in front of him. Will he evolve into an All-Star level player, or become one of many young names who are viewed differently once they're on a big-money extension?

The Sixers, and certainly the head coach, are hoping Maxey fits in the former category. One noteworthy piece of Nurse's opening press conference was how clear his vision was of Maxey's future. The understanding of where Maxey needs to go next showed an understanding that goes beyond what you'd learn from coaching against Maxey in more than a dozen games over the last few seasons.

"From afar, playing against him was very difficult," Nurse said Thursday. "Just the sheer speed and quickness that he has it was tough to gameplan against him. Sometimes you just can't beat speed, you can't come up with anything to beat the speed. But what he did and what our experience was, it wasn't just speed and layups, then he started shooting the ball really well. Then he started making, little further layups, and a little further, we were trying our best to get him away from the rim but he'd still make a lot of those.

"He's got a tremendous chance to improve and take a step forward, and from all indications, he's really hungry to do so. Good worker, good person who really wants to get better. There are some specifics, I would say. Maybe being more of a creator, and well what is creating? Creating is you're scoring or you're drawing more people than one, then you're creating for others. Can he make the reads, all the reads? And I think that's the first place I would start offensively, getting him more reps in the pick-and-roll so he can make the reads for all the other players on the floor depending on what he sees."

In some ways, this instinct to grow Maxey as a primary creator drove the Sixers to use Maxey in a sixth-man role for part of last season, giving him more opportunities to lead an offense by himself so that he wasn't being lost within the multi-star look they had to start the game. There were tremendous growing pains for Maxey within that look, though you could argue that was only partially about the player's skills and the X's and O's. Maxey was transparent about the mental challenge of returning from injury and essentially being "demoted" in the rotation, and he needed to lean on talks with his family and former coaches like John Calipari to get him through a rough patch.

"I had a rough last week, man," Maxey said in February, "Just rough and mentally, I didn't play well. I had a conversation with my parents yesterday for about an hour-and-a-half and I kind of got all the emotions out that I needed to get out. I told Coach Doc, I told Sam [Cassell] that I was human and I had to let it out. Once I let it out, I told him I would be the best version of Tyrese that I can be for the rest of this year."

The numbers were striking for starter Maxey vs. sixth-man Maxey — Maxey shot over 45 percent from three as a starter compared to a decent 37 percent off of the bench, benefitting from being a second-side player rather than the primary ballhandler in charge of the offense. It's not as clean of an explanation as that suggests, but like any young player, giving him the proper amount of responsibility has helped Maxey be at his best.

As he approaches a big potential payday, the training wheels will have to come off, and the burden on Maxey will only grow if the Sixers can't/don't bring back Harden in free agency this summer. With the Sixers unlikely to create significant cap room in any potential version of this offseason, there are two most-likely futures ahead of them: one where the Harden/Maxey backcourt remains in place, and one where Maxey is asked to step forward and lead the team from the perimeter. 

One of the reasons Maxey's offensive growth is so important is actually a reflection of the other side of the ball. Should Maxey grow into more of a natural point guard, his size limitations in the backcourt become less important, as the Sixers can explore putting a more traditional two-guard or guard/wing combo next to him in the backcourt. At present, the tricky part of building around Maxey is that he leaves them stuck between two worlds — a guard who might take playmaking responsibility off of his hands is likely to be on the smaller side and leave them limited defensively. A bigger, more athletic option at two-guard will probably leave more on his plate as a setup man. A two-guard-sized player with defensive chops and playmaking ability is all but guaranteed to be a max player, so the onus is on Maxey to simplify the decision-making for the rest of the roster.

Defensively, Maxey took steps forward at the end of the year, looking like a more capable option as a switch defender against bigger wings in the playoffs. Nurse said Thursday that he doesn't come in with a view on Maxey as a defensive negative, and that the same attributes that make him dangerous on offense can be translated into success on the other side of the ball.

"We didn't really think he wasn't a good defender, we though that quickness and speed and all of those things, he could get up the floor a little bit and disrupt rhythm and all of those kind of things," Nurse said. "One of the things is we like to guard pretty hard, especially the ball, so we'll certainly be diving into that and probably working on that." 

Nurse's arrival in Philadelphia has been viewed primarily through the lens of what it means for their top two stars. Will Harden commit to the team with Nurse as the head man? Will Embiid be asked to change his game at all under a new head coach? But fostering a relationship and charting a path forward for Maxey is almost as important for the new head coach, who seems to have a firm idea of how to do both. 

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