Absences are scattered across the Philadelphia 76ers’ rotation. All-Star point guard Ben Simmons has yet to suit up for a single contest. Due to health and safety protocols, Tobias Harris (six games), Matisse Thybulle (four games), and Joel Embiid (three games, plus an earlier one for rest) have all missed extended time. Nursing an ankle injury, Shake Milton didn’t debut until game five. Danny Green sat out three games to work through a hamstring issue. Even Seth Curry, Furkan Korkmaz, and Andre Drummond have each been sidelined for a night.
To this point, the lone constant is Tyrese Maxey, who is looking the part of a future star. Unlike some players who earn that distinction, Maxey’s play makes it seem like the future might already be here. Through 13 games, the 21-year-old speedster is averaging 17.1 points, 4.7 assists (1.5 turnovers), and 3.8 rebounds on 59.3 percent true shooting.
He’s converted 54.7 percent of his twos, 38.5 percent of his threes, and 87.2 percent of his free throws. After posting a true shooting percentage 4.1 points below league average as a rookie, his current mark stands 4.4 points north of league average, all while seeing more minutes against starters on a team often missing its best player(s). That’s a mighty fine leap.
Over his past five games, he’s averaging 22 points, 5.4 assists (0.8 turnovers), five rebounds, 1.4 steals, and one block on 61.4 percent true shooting (.518/.435/.933 split), including back-to-back 30-burgers. Philadelphia’s plethora of close games amid a compromised rotation has tasked Maxey with a gargantuan minutes load. He’s logged at least 37 minutes in six consecutive outings and 39+ in the last five, though none of it seems to bother him.
Against the Toronto Raptors on Thursday, he keyed a fourth-quarter comeback (albeit, unsuccessful) with 15 points, two assists, one steal, and one block in the final frame, blazing up and down the floor for delightful sequences.
Dating back to his pre-draft days, Maxey was always a drive-first, shoot-second scorer. As an NBA sophomore, he’s refined both aspects to emerge as one of the best scorers on his team and from the 2020 class. The dude’s a sprinter masquerading as a hooper. He zips past defenders in a jiffy, varies his speed to compound its effectiveness, and can convert around the basket from an array of angles.
Per Cleaning The Glass, his rim frequency (38 percent, 84th percentile) and finishing (67 percent, 84th percentile) both place him clear of the 80th percentile among point guards. He’s elite in both volume and efficiency. Last season, he had the former (88th percentile), but was missing the latter (58 percent, 41st percentile).
What’s more is he’s continuing an in-season trend from 2020-21 by relying less on his silky floater. Per Synergy, his “runner” frequency is down from 22.2 percent to 16.4 percent, but after ranking in the 79th percentile in efficiency as a rookie, he finds himself in the 82nd percentile to open 2021-22. It’s still a weapon, just not the headlining one that leads him to settle occasionally.
A year to add counters and further learn how to succeed as a downhill-inclined, 6’2 guard has made him a devastating slasher to provide the Sixers with much-needed dribble-drive equity. He knows how to adjust his finishes based on defensive interference and alters his release points when warranted. The manipulation of pace and screens, diversity of deliveries, and driving technique are marvels. Take note of how low he gets here:
Maxey’s role has changed from being predominantly a bench spark plug a year ago. He is tasked with organizing the offense in Simmons’ absence, even if Embiid and Harris are the centerpieces when they play. Keenly identifying pockets of space, Maxey is increasingly discretionary as a scorer and balancing all the responsibilities associated with being the starting point guard for a playoff team.
With Embiid, Harris, and Curry the focal points most often, Maxey is not always afforded on-ball rep after on-ball rep to cook downhill. Even separate from them, he’s also just not yet equipped to be a primary initiator, which slides him into an off-ball role for periods. This is where many of his recent strides are manifesting. Last season, and early this season, he was burdened by hesitancy and prone to many record-scratches when the ball swung his way. He’d bypass open catch-and-shoot threes and tepidly aim to venture inside the arc.
Now, he’s either launching from deep or decisively attacking to get to a pull-up, floater, or rim foray. In his 33-point outing against Toronto, such maturation was readily apparent. He knows what he wants to do but isn’t predetermined, and the finishing guile is even more practical against a scrambling defense.
This growth also helps explain why his long midrange frequency has trickled down from 16 percent as a rookie to nine percent this year, per Cleaning The Glass. There are fewer instances where he dribbles himself into the binary options of a pass or an uninspiring long two.
Serving as a secondary fiddle alongside Embiid, those occurrences are paramount. Many of these plays are not ones he would’ve made as a rookie or even earlier in the season. For instance, the two semi-contested threes that he drains in the compilation below are almost assuredly record-scratch sequences from a younger version of Maxey. Instead, each tacks on three points for the Sixers and are examples of his development into a dynamic off-ball scorer.
A quick glance at Maxey’s slash line and his surge beyond the arc pops out. After shooting 30.1 percent from deep in year one, he’s up to 38.5 percent in year two. He’s more willing to fire spot-up threes, of which he’s knocked down 38.1 percent (8-for-21). His off-the-bounce flashes have, to this narrow point, become consistent, connecting on seven of his 18 (39.1 percent) pull-up attempts from three.
Although his .247 three-point rate is barely higher than last season (.240), he’s certainly more comfortable this year. It’s just that he’s found other ways to generate efficient shots inside the arc. There are fewer instances where any sort of an aversion to triples looks or actually is detrimental.
When defenders duck under screens, he’s ready to let that sucker fly and he also holsters a fluid step-back for self-creation. Given the menacing nature of his interior chops, the jumper emerging as an auxiliary tool when he leverages his driving prowess is important for his chances of becoming a legitimately elite guard scorer. Through 13 games, he’s taking the steps necessary to accomplish that.
Maxey hasn’t merely replaced Simmons as the team’s nominal starting point guard. On many nights, he assumes the opponent’s primary perimeter option. He’s already battled James Harden, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Trae Young, and Damian Lillard, among others. While he’s sometimes lost navigating through all the off-ball chaos defensively and must stay down against shot fakes more commonly, he’s laying the foundation for high-level guard defense and is already tenable for his position.
He helped severely limit Young in Philadelphia’s victory two weeks ago, coaxed various challenging shots from Lillard, and has incorporated some of Thybulle’s rearview contest artistry into his toolkit. His lateral mobility and core strength enable him to thwart drives, and he’s flashed instinctive off-ball playmaking.
Despite the difficulty of on-ball assignments being elevated from last season, he’s performing better on that end and already showing heightened discipline against fakes, even if he must sustain that improvement.
Consistent off-ball defense and tact against savvy fakes are atop the forward-thinking defensive checklist. Better handling hedges and traps out of ball-screens, along with replicable passing reads beyond skips to the corner, confront him offensively. His 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio seems tidy, but speaks more to his conservative tendencies than delicate, daring facilitation.
There have been many occasions recently in which he’s failed to feed an open Drummond on the roll because he’s flustered or deterred by multiple bodies. A balance between timidity and foolishness exists, and he hovers too close to the former right now. This experience is good for him. He can identify those errors of omission and adapt accordingly. He’s already a vastly better player now than early October, just as was the case throughout last season.
The Sixers have thrust much onto Maxey’s plate in year two. He’s one of their foremost creators, routinely initiates possessions, and locks horns with explosive offensive talents nightly. By and large, he’s handling it superbly and resembles an obvious top-10 player from his class. At age 21, he’s a good player, which is why the possibilities ahead are so promising and alluring.