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November 01, 2022

Tyrese Maxey's growth is about much more than just his shooting

Sixers NBA

The story coming out of the first week of Sixers basketball was pretty straightforward: Joel Embiid was sputtering, James Harden was scoring, and the Sixers were losing games. The second one was arguably the most important possible development, a sign that last season's big acquisition might be trending closer to the form that made him a perennial MVP candidate.

Even after that initial scoring barrage, Harden currently sits third in the scoring department for this year's Sixers. Philadelphia has righted the ship and started winning games, and just as notably, Tyrese Maxey has taken another step forward to open his third NBA season.

Playing alongside two ball-dominant stars, Maxey's biggest offensive hurdle has been simply getting the touches and shot opportunities necessary to have big nights. But when the chances are there, Maxey has showcased a game that continues to expand over time, flashing skills beyond the shooting improvement that has defined his last year.

Initiating and playing through contact

Making a living as a small guard in the NBA is tough enough that the size of a "small guard" seems to grow every year. Maxey is listed at 6'2", taller than the listed heights for greats like Allen Iverson, John Stockton, or Chris Paul, each of whom made a living in very different ways. Though height concerns are more about the defensive end of the floor, the ability for a guard to succeed in traffic is what often determines a pro guard's fate.

In his first season with the Sixers, Maxey mostly tried to work around the fact that he was playing amongst the trees, and the good news for him is that he had developed skills to do so. Maxey's runner and floater package were a staple of his game dating back to his amateur days, and he made those shots look natural as the rest of his game waited to catch up.

Philadelphia's coaching staff, though, sensed Maxey making life a little bit too difficult for himself. Strong as his floater game may be, it's a low-percentage, high-difficulty shot compared to many others, and settling for those shots has other repercussions. Getting his hand to the backboard was and is a point of emphasis, something driven home to Maxey by assistant Sam Cassell and others.

The first good sign for Maxey's growth here comes in the form of his shot distribution: Maxey's percentage of "long two" attempts has plummeted since his rookie year, dropping from around 13 percent of his shots to a paltry 5.2 percent this season. Those in-between attempts have mostly turned into threes, with Maxey's volume and efficiency climbing considerably since then. But there's another noteworthy number in the form of his at-rim finishing. We're early in the season, but Maxey is shooting just shy of 69 percent from 0-3 feet this season, a climb of nearly 10 percentage points compared to his rookie year and over three percent better than last season. 

Some of that simply comes down to Maxey's good touch being weaponized in a different area of the floor. You can also see a young man getting stronger and more confident that he can win physical battles, with Maxey targeting the opponent to seize the advantage of the first hit. Against frailer defenders, he has proven capable of bulldozing guys, but even good defenders can struggle when a player puts them on the back foot.

In their recent win over the Wizards, we got examples of the obvious and subtle varieties, with Maxey making poor Kristaps Porzingis look silly by running him over a couple of times in the second half. It's the quieter finishes that I think deserve highlighting, though, because those show up against tougher competition. More and more, you see Maxey inviting contact so that he can use it to keep a defender at bay, creating gaps with which to finish in:

While Maxey's free-throw numbers remain low for a scoring guard with his talent, they have increased over time as well, and continued attacking of this nature is likely to win him more respect and consideration from the officials.

Playmaking flashes

Setting up teammates isn't a top-of-mind concern for Maxey at this point, nor should it be. His best gifts are in the scoring department, and he has Harden alongside him to take care of primary table-setter duties. His version of "point guard" is never going to resemble the aforementioned Stockton or Paul. 

By the numbers, Maxey's playmaking has actually been worse than last year to start the season, his turnovers up and assists down. Those are not always reliable measures of a young player's progress as a playmaker, though, and there have been brief flashes of more advanced reads from Maxey this season.

The main pass that has been jumping out is Maxey looking for the corner shooter, punishing any team that overhelps toward the paint in an attempt to slow him down on drives. This is another area that can be impacted by a player's size, as trying to get passes by bigger, longer players can be a challenge for someone like Maxey. What he has started to figure out is the timing on said passes, rising for what looks like a layup attempt before firing a pass off in one fluid motion.

The Niang three vs. Washington is a perfect example of how you'd like to see a guard make that pass, while the pass to Tucker in Toronto deserves some further scrutiny. I think there's an important difference between what Maxey is doing here and the midair passes most fans and analysts would dock a player for. Maxey seems to go into his jump in Toronto knowing he's going to spray a pass in the corner, which is a much different proposition than firing off an off-balance pass because you put yourself in the air without a plan.

Frankly, it's pretty obvious that Maxey's game will feature scoring the basketball first, second, and third, and that playmaking will come as a secondary concern after that. But even if Maxey simply becomes a more credible leader of backup units, it eases the burden on players around him and alters the sort of lineups you're capable of putting around him. When he can carry groups in multiple ways, there will be no stopping him.

And yes, the shooting

Of course, we don't need to just ignore the biggest step forward Maxey has taken. He has a credible case as one of the league's best, most dangerous shooters right now, someone you simply can't leave open for any period of time.

How's this for a stat: Tyrese Maxey is shooting 54.3 percent on catch-and-shoot threes this season, per the NBA's tracking database, and he's taking more catch-and-shoot threes per game than he took total threes per game last season. For the time being, Maxey has pulled off the rare feat of increasing his efficiency as his volume has skyrocketed, with Maxey ranking among the best volume shooters in the entire league to start the year (Maxey is 11th in three-point percentage among players who have attempted at least five threes per game).

This might be an outlier in terms of his typical shot selection, but this is Maxey's current confidence on full display:

Drilling down, there are some spots on the floor where Maxey has been better than others, but the most important area might just be the corner. Early days, obviously, but Maxey is a combined 11-for-14 from the corners this season, close to an 80 percent bet to make a corner three if he shoots one. He's going to come down from that number, though his stats from last year suggest he can't be left alone there. In 2021-22, Maxey shot 57.6 percent from the corners, lighting up teams when they did not hug him tight enough.

With each passing game and each made jumper, Maxey becomes a tougher proposition to guard. His shooting numbers are now highlighted and underlined on any scouting report, but if teams overcompensate for his shooting, he has both the speed to go by you and the growing intelligence/strength to bounce off of a defender in the paint. Sitting back off of him is simply not an option, and he has become a weapon on and off-ball, a player who is just as valuable as a stationary target as he is with the ball in his hands.

There's a long way to go before we can talk about All-Star cases and what else is ahead for young Maxey, but his continued improvement is a big story for the Sixers, who have one of the most productive young players in the league suiting up for them every night. 

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