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When Rivers met with his coaches ahead of the 2021-22 season to discuss lineups, he made a bold declaration:
No matter what happened with Simmons, Tyrese Maxey was going to start for the 76ers.
“That [was met] with a little, like, ‘How are we going to start him with Ben?'” Rivers said during practice last week. “And I said, ‘I don’t know, but he’s starting.'”
Maxey had played just 15.3 minutes per game as a rookie, showing flashes of promise, such as a 39-point, 44-minute performance last January, when four 76ers starters were sidelined due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. He dropped 30 points in 35 minutes in the 2020-21 regular-season finale four months later.
But this was a leap to full-time starting point guard for a team with high-profile veterans, championship aspirations and the league’s biggest saga looming over it.
Predictably, as the season began there were plenty of growing pains.
“You couldn’t hear anything but ‘Tyrese! What the hell, Tyrese!'” 76ers forward Georges Niang said, imitating Rivers’ voice.
“And, you’re like, ‘Man, is this kid gonna fold?'”
As the 76ers sit one win over the Toronto Raptors away from reaching the Eastern Conference semifinals, it’s Maxey — equipped with bursts of speed and energy and a historically improved jump shot — who could determine just how high this group’s ceiling can be raised.
“In my exit interview [last season], my goal was to get one percent better every single day,” Maxey says. “I stuck with it the entire summer.”
The result? Maxey has evolved from spark-plug rookie to offensive threat whom defenses can’t afford to ignore.
FEW GUARDS DART to the basket faster than the lightning-quick Maxey. The problem was what he did once he got there.
As a rookie, Maxey would regularly toss up awkward floaters when he entered the lane, a practice on which he and Rivers agreed the 6-foot-2 guard was far too reliant.
“I always thought, man, if I go in there, I think I’m going to get my shot blocked,” Maxey says.
“But then I just kept doing it and I realized, if I can get to the rim, I’m athletic enough and I have enough touch [that] more than likely it’ll go in.”
So Maxey went to school. While he grew up idolizing another dynamic combo guard in Dwyane Wade, Maxey spent much of the summer studying two of the best small interior scorers in recent NBA history.
“Tony Parker had a floater, but he also would get to the rim and he was able to put the ball on the backboard in different spots where the big couldn’t get it,” Maxey says. “And then Kyrie [Irving] … studied the spots on the backboard where you can spin it and it’ll fall in.”
Now, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Maxey is finding success attacking the rim from every angle. And while he’s going to his floater 4% less than last season, his 72 makes through this regular season and playoffs still rank among the top 10 leaguewide.
Maxey shot 60.5% on layups and dunks during the regular season, up from 54.7% in 2020-21. He’s been automatic in the playoffs, going 13-for-13 from the restricted area.
“He gets to the front of the rim before your help is there because he’s so fast,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said Sunday. “He’s got a lot of the offensive package going, that’s for sure.”
That package wouldn’t be complete without also a massive upgrade to Maxey’s jump shot. That meant a summer of reps from beyond the arc — a lot of them.
“I would get up, and I’d be in the gym,” Maxey says. “First one in the gym at 6 a.m. and I’d try to make at least 700, 800 shots. And then I’d go lift and I’d come back again at 10 [a.m.] and I’m doing the same thing.”
That offseason gauntlet has paid historic dividends.
After shooting 30% on 1.7 3-point attempts per game last season, Maxey leapt to 42.7% on over four attempts per game in 2021-22.
Since the NBA introduced the 3-point line in the 1979-80 season, only two other players — Allan Houston and Todd Day — saw their percentages jump by at least 12% on such a dramatic increase in attempts, per ESPN Stats & Information research.
The season it happened for Houston and Day was 1994-95, when the NBA moved its 3-point line back to 22 feet, meaning Maxey is the only player in NBA history with such an improvement from the standard 3-point line.
Maxey also shot 44.9% on catch-and-shoot 3s, the sixth-best mark among the 175 players who attempted at least 150 such shots this season.
“It changes the dynamic of their team,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said last week of Maxey, whose scoring average jumped from 8.0 points per game during his rookie year to 17.5.
“Any time you’ve got a guy that’s got that type of speed and athleticism and has turned into a really good shooter, it just changes the floor spacing and the balance and the way that they operate, and it frees up Joel, it frees up James.”
AS HARDEN DRIBBLED up the left side of the court and surveyed the defense late in the third quarter of Game 1 against the Raptors, he saw a blur in a blue jersey streaking behind Toronto’s retreating defense.
Harden fired a dime, a two-handed, cross-court bounce right to Maxey, who launched and soared to the other side of the rim to finish a left-handed reverse layup, avoiding the block attempt by the chasing Pascal Siakam in the process.
What had started as a typical transition break turned into a lasting image of Maxey’s breakout playoff performance — and season.
“I saw growth,” Harden said of Maxey’s 2021-22 after his 38-point Game 1. “I saw him from being up-and-down and not really having consistent minutes last year in the postseason to starting and having a huge role on a championship-contending team.”
That growth has taken Maxey, 21, from a rookie who was seen as an intriguing part of the 76ers’ future — and occasionally rumored as a possible inclusion in trades — into a core player deemed untouchable in the Harden-Simmons trade discussions.
Harden’s elite passing, coupled with the defensive attention Embiid commands, has given Maxey the room to thrive in ways few around the league could’ve anticipated.
As Philadelphia moves forward — presumably with Harden receiving a lucrative new long-term contract this summer that would take him into his late 30s — Maxey is on a path to ensuring the 76ers have one of the league’s most exciting big threes.
That hasn’t prevented the occasional grumble from Rivers — usually because of Maxey’s defense, which remains a work in progress — but the 76ers guard of the present and future has deservedly earned the respect of opposing defenses, coaches and his teammates.
“If it was up to me, he would probably be the Most Improved Player in the league,” Embiid said before the start of the playoffs, “[with] what he’s accomplished and the situation we were in all year.
“I’ve always believed it was going to pay off.”