Maria Taylor is one of the fastest rising stars in sports media, becoming one of the faces of ESPN’s college football coverage as the lead sideline reporter for the ABC Saturday primetime game as well as featuring prominently on College Gameday and other CFB shows. This year, Taylor, a former basketball and volleyball player at the University of Georgia, has also taken on the responsibilities of hosting ESPN’s NBA pre and postgame show, NBA Countdown, flanked by Jalen Rose, Jay Williams, Adrian Wojnarowski, and others.
Wednesday will be her first time hosting the NBA’s Christmas Day festivities, as ESPN will carry Celtics-Raptors at noon before shifting to ABC for Bucks-Sixers, Rockets-Warriors, and Clippers-Lakers, with the Blazers-Nuggets nightcap back on ESPN.
Taylor spoke with Dime this week about taking on her new role on NBA coverage, balancing that with all her college football responsibilities, her recent sitdown with Giannis Antetokounmpo, and her thoughts on the marquee players and teams set to play on Christmas Day.
How has the start to your first season on NBA Countdown gone and how are you feeling now that we’re nearing the halfway point of the season?
Right, it’s funny because now I feel like we’re in a rhythm. At first you’re just kind of trying to feel each other out. I worked with Jalen on Get Up!. I worked with Jay Will on College Gameday basketball and Get Up! and I worked with Woj on the NBA Draft Combine, but never all together in one studio. So it’s been cool to have a few shows under our belt to where now I feel like we all know kind of our roles and how to work together, and then you throw Paul or RJ in there or whoever comes through the studio and it feels like the machine is well oiled. Which is a good time to get there because going into Christmas Day is certainly when the spotlight shines on the NBA.
I’ve done a similar thing as you. I started in the NBA and then did college football at CBS for awhile before coming back to the NBA here. They’re such different seasons.
College football is a sprint with 15-16 week and then bowl season. And the NBA is obviously months and months and there’s a bit of a slower build to the key points of the season like Christmas and All-Star. How has it been bouncing between those and starting to get to settle in a bit more on NBA?
I gotta tell you, the week of Heisman was like the craziest week ever. I did an NBA Countdown, went to Philly and did Gameday, it was the week of the College Football Awards so I was bouncing between Atlanta and Clemson doing sitdown interviews with like Trevor Lawrence. I went from Philly to the Heisman and that Monday, I forgot, we were in Milwaukee for the game and I interviewed Giannis for the Christmas Day stuff. So that’s how blurred the lines I feel like have been for me between NBA and college football, almost to the point where it’s like, ‘is this one and the same?’ But, yeah, you’re literally so right. I keep telling people, I know they’re both sports but it almost feels like it’s biology versus social studies or something like that. Just completely different lanes I’m operating in.
So I’ll do Christmas Day and then fly out to Phoenix for the Fiesta Bowl, then I’ll fly straight to L.A. — I think we’re doing a show on the 29th live from Lakers-Mavs. So, still all the way kind of through to the national championship I’ll be pinging back and forth between the two. Maybe it’s helping me. I think if you stay busy you don’t have time to think about it, because if I really thought about what’s happening I’d probably go crazy, but I don’t have time to think about it.
Yeah, I did a feature on Cassidy [Hubbarth] last All-Star and she said the same thing. She stays so busy she doesn’t have time to freak out about everything she has to do, she just goes and does it.
Literally, where am I waking up? Let’s go, got it. This interview? Cool, done.
You’re not like, ‘OK, I’ve got to sit down with Giannis and come up with all this,’ it’s just “OK, we’re in Milwaukee let’s do it.
[laughing] ‘We’re in Milwaukee,’ exactly. ‘How do I get to Atlanta? The College Football Awards start in an hour.’
I do want to get into the Christmas Day games with you and get your thoughts on them. It starts with Celtics-Raptors — I know y’all come on at 2 p.m. after this one — but it’s two teams that have been two of the biggest surprises in the East. I think we all thought it’d mostly be a two-team race at the top, but both of these teams have played really well, Toronto through injuries and Boston through its roster changes. What have you seen from these two teams and how do you see their chances of keeping this level of play up?
Well, it’s funny because if you told me at the beginning of the season that a Kawhi-less Toronto that has to weather the injuries of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka at some point during the season and by the time we get to Christmas Day we’re going to be talking about them as a power player in the East, I’d be like, ‘I don’t believe you.’ That’s exactly what they’ve been able to do. They just keep winning games. Pascal Siakam, I don’t think we’ve been able to talk about him as much as I’d like to on Countdown, and them being highlighted on Christmas Day is an awesome opportunity to do so. Because all he’s done with the spotlight is look even better than we thought he could a year ago on a team that wins the world championship, which is impressive.
And I think it’s been fun to watch the Celtics led by Kemba Walker. They’ve managed to kill teams with their offense, and I think a lot of that has to do with adding Walker. At the same time, their defense is right up there with Toronto’s for one of the best in the league, so it’ll be fun to see them going at each other. I love Jayson and Jaylen, the Jays, as they both continue to improve. I sat down with Tatum recently and we talked about the step back he took last season and the leap forward he’s taken this year, and I attribute some of that to what we’ve been able to see Kemba Walker do to this offense and the overall chemistry of this team. They seem to be having a lot of fun.
Bucks-Sixers is the second game, and that and Clippers-Lakers are going to be the two marquee games. These are the two teams we thought would be at the top of the East coming into the season. The Bucks look better than we even thought they would, which is crazy because I think we all thought they’d be in that 60-win range again. You said you sat down with Giannis. What did y’all talk about and what do you get from him when you sit down with him, because he seems so focused and locked in in a way we only see from guys like LeBron?
I think what I’ve noticed, and I’ve had the pleasure and you’ve had the pleasure of covering sports at the most elite. So you’ve been around the Nick Sabans of the world. You’ve been around the Dabo Swinneys. And I get to be around now the Giannis’, and I add to that whole pot of greatness, and I think the number one ingredient is that no one is ever complacent if you make your way into the great conversation. There is no sense of complacency in Giannis. He told all the fans after they had the MVP parade for him that he doesn’t want to be called MVP anymore, but at the same time he knows that he’s playing at an MVP level. He understood that the thing that I have to continue to add to my game is consistency shooting the three, and that’s what he’s done. He’s shooting 45 percent from three in the month of December and it’s consistently gotten better each month.
Another part of greatness is knowing where your weakness is and finding ways to correct that, and that’s what he’s been able to prove he’s great at. So, not relying on, ‘I’m an athletically gifted freak,’ but ‘I am going to put in the work to strengthen every single weakness.’ If the worst thing that he had was a left-handed dribble, I imagine him being a young kid that was like the only hand he dribbled with. That’s the kind of player he gives off to me when I sit across from him. He wants to stare down the face of his weaknesses and attack them, where some people shy away from that. Some people don’t want to be vulnerable in that way, and I think part of that comes from his upbringing, his family, and the way he lives his life.
I look at him in the same way — Kawhi’s done the same thing. LeBron’s done the same thing. They look back and they go, OK, this is what I was worst at and they work on it.
Almost like that’s all they can remember.
Right, and he got better at the other things too. Like, he’s been better finishing at the rim, which is crazy. He’s a better passer this year. He’s a better shooter. I think last year in the playoffs he learned that he has to involve his teammates a bit more because of how teams are going to attack him, but also that he’s got to be able to do more because they’re not going to let you get to the paint every single time.
And part of that too, we even saw it against the Lakers. You mean to tell me Eric Bledsoe’s not going to be able to play and is going to be out for a few games, so Donte DiVincenzo’s going to have to come in and almost be a plug and play player and still find the chemistry and find a role on that team. And the only way that happens is if Giannis finds a way to get him involved and put in the best situation to excel with the team, and I think he’s been able to do that. That’s another step of leadership and basketball IQ that he’s taken that I guess we all thought he could do, but it’s amazing to see him do it in real time.
On the other side, the Sixers have been kind of up and down, still trying to figure some things out. What have been your impressions of them this year? I know y’all have had them a few times on ESPN games and when they’re great they’re great, and when they’re off the offense seems stuck in the mud sometimes.
Yeah, we just had them on Mavs at home, and that’s what it does. Sometimes it looks offensively like rubbing a rock and a stick together. Nothing’s smooth about it. You cannot stir that mixture. And then other times they’re going fast, Simmons is getting into transition, it’s looking smooth. Or Joel Embiid is completely unstoppable, which by the way he was in that Mavericks matchup. Defensively they’re going to be able to lock everyone down.
When your starting five, everyone is 6’6 or above, you should most certainly be able to do that, but at the same time, I think they’ve got to figure out what their offensive identity is going to be. Because I don’t think they know what that is yet, or even get to something that gets them into the Finals or Eastern Finals conversation. I think we’re all waiting on that, because that’s where we think the Sixers should be.
Right now there is a glaring weakness and it is that offense, and it’s going to be interesting to see them in that spotlight against the Bucks, and seeing Giannis and Joel going at it. But if you want to get to the Finals, I know a team you’re going to have to go through. So, here, let’s see it.
The middle game is Rockets-Warriors, who have been decimated by injuries. But Houston is a fascinating team because they seem to be starting to figure things out. Russ and Harden are starting to have good games at the same time and the win over the Clippers was impressive. What are your thoughts on this Rockets team and where they fit in the Western Conference picture?
I think if the Rockets can focus on defense for an entire game, they can be a challenger to anyone. I truly believe that. Especially after seeing Russ go off against the Clippers, in their place in Staples Center. It still wasn’t a perfect game for Harden, but [Russ] was able to step up in that absence and that’s what you need in a 1-2 punch. What if we’re just seeing the beginnings of them figuring this out and who needs to take the reins and when? What if this is just the beginning of that?
That’s what is so interesting about Houston right now. Again, I think there’s times where it’ll be the first half and they’re just like, ‘eh, we’ll get them in the second half.’ But imagine for an entire game they lock in, it could be a different story. I mean we’ve seen teams score, what, like 70 points on them in the first half. They could easily turn that around if they wanted to.
We talk about Harden a lot and we talk about Russ and Harden together, but we really should start talking about the Rockets as a real contender, especially after what they did against the Clippers.
Then there’s Clippers-Lakers. This is the one everyone wants to see every time they play each other. AD and LeBron, questionable, and fingers crossed they both can play. We saw them play opening night and it was a great game and the Clippers kind of overwhelmed them with depth. Where do you see this matchup now with where these two teams are at two months later?
I think this is going to be a different game, because I was actually there for opening night. Even though the score read closer, it felt as though the Clippers were in command the entire game. It almost looked like they knocked the Lakers back. I expect it to be different. For one, I expect LeBron to play and everyone to be healthy and play in this game [laughs]. I also expect it to be a really strong outing from LeBron. I expect AD to do even more — and he had a great game on opening night — and for the Lakers to just be more dominant.
Like you said, we’re almost halfway through the season, it’s Christmas Day, everyone’s understanding how to play with each other and what your role is, but to answer your question about what happens down the stretch, to be able to really pull it off is the depth.
At the end of the day, the Clippers have it. You can bring LouWill out and he’s like instant offense or you can run the pick-and-roll with Montrezl Harrell, and you have a lot of answers the Lakers don’t have if someone got in foul trouble or injured. Those question marks can happen in the middle of the game and right now I think the Clippers have that edge.
Finally, the nightcap is Pelicans-Nuggets. Obviously it’s been a bummer not having Zion playing due to his injury, but the Nuggets are coming off an impressive win over a LeBron-less Lakers. This has been a hot and cold team this year, but they might be coming around, particularly the play of Nikola Jokic. Where do you see Denver fitting into the West and did we forget about them a little bit with a sluggish start?
It’s so interesting, right? They have a breakout season, 54 wins, second round of the playoffs. I know I was very intrigued by how they would do, and we know the Western Conference is very top heavy, so what will the answers kind of be. But so far it’s been a little lackluster, and I think a big part of that has been Jokic and the more we see him get into shape and be able to be the same player as last year is going to be the answer for the Nuggets.
I hate the fact that Zion won’t be able to play, but I know after a year of covering him that he’s going to be doing everything to get back on the floor. If anything the Pelicans are going to have to hold him back. But it should be interesting, I want to see how the Nuggets look down the stretch. Now that we’re near the halfway point, how do you look on the other side of this. Because it almost seems like they’ve been in preseason mode or trying to get to the strongest portion of their team, and maybe they’re hitting their stride, but I don’t know.