The past calendar year has been one of uncertainty for Sixers rookie Tyrese Maxey. The first-year guard out of Kentucky spent eight months working out in preparation for the 2020 NBA Draft, waiting to find out where he’d be continuing his basketball career. Once in Philadelphia, it was a month-long turnaround from Draft to the start of the regular season, learning everything he could about Doc Rivers’ system and his teammates on a squad with title aspirations.
Maxey was thrust into a major role early, as the Sixers found themselves as one of the first teams in the league to have significant absences due to health and safety protocols. During that time, Maxey had an early breakout, scoring in double-figures in six straight games, including a 39-point outburst when the Sixers were stretched to an 8-man rotation. It was an assertion that he belonged, but on a team with title dreams and veteran depth, once the group was healthy Maxey returned to the periphery of the rotation. He’s played sporadically in the weeks since, but his energy and enthusiasm hasn’t diminished.
It was those traits that kept him focused on the work in the seemingly interminable draft process last year, a process detailed in Klutch Sports’ “Drafted” podcast on iHeartRadio, hosted by Keegan Michael Key that follows Maxey and Anthony Edwards throughout last year leading into the 2020 Draft. Maxey spoke with Dime on the phone last week about that Draft process, lessons learned already in his rookie year with the Sixers, how he evolved his game during countless workouts prior to the Draft, and why he’s always ready whenever an opportunity presents itself.
You were just doing COVID testing, right?
Yeah, literally just got done with a COVID test.
What has it been like adjusting to this schedule that y’all have this year and having to do that along with getting acclimated to being in the NBA?
It’s been crazy. It’s been crazy, but like I told a lot of people, it’s not an adjustment for me because it’s all I know. This is my rookie year so it’s all I know, as far as the NBA. Like no fans or limited fans and no interaction with anybody or going to the room and to quarantine in your room until a game and then fly right back, so I haven’t really … it’s not an adjustment, it’s an adjustment to the vets. They’re the ones going crazy. I’m just happy to be here.
Who are some of the guys on the team that you’ve been able to lean on this year for some advice as you make your transition into the NBA on and off the court?
Right. I think this team is very veteran oriented. It just started at the top with guys like Danny Green who’s won three championships with the Spurs, one for the Raptors, and recently one with the Lakers. You have guys like Dwight Howard, who’s made over $200 million in contracts, probably, and has a ring as well, and then you take it down to guys like Tobias Harris who didn’t play his first two years in the league and now he’s making $34 million a year, so he’s been great. Then you got the All-Stars like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. It’s a lot of different perspectives and lots of different views of how they see the league and it’s really helpful to get information from all of them.
In your situation, you come in as a rookie on the team that has championship hopes and that’s meant that your role has occasionally been spotty. You played a little more early in the season and haven’t played quite as much recently. What are the things you’re able to talk with somebody like Tobias about staying engaged and continuing to do the work and and all the things you have to do so you’re ready if your number does get called, and just knowing that eventually you’re going to be in that position?
Well, you know, early in the year, like right when we were getting ready to start preseason, one of the biggest things that Doc and Sam [Cassell] and different guys on the team had told me was like, I mean, it’s gonna be a year of staying ready. Staying ready and healthy just because of the COVID situations, next man up is at its finest this year, because you never know when someone gets sick, you never know when someone can get random contact tracing and different things like that. And that hit us early. That his us early in the year, so my 10th game, I was already starting, I had to step up and start, and Doc said something that really registered in my mind. He was like, if we want to be a championship team, championship teams win games even when their stars are out.
So during that time while I had to play a lot more than expected, we were still able to win games and I was able to show what I was capable of doing and producing, really helping the team and not just being out there. So that’s one thing that really helped me and helped my confidence, and helped the confidence in the coaches and my teammates, just knowing that, you know, if something ever happens and I have to step up, then I’m capable of doing it.
Listening to your first episode of the Drafted podcast, and you talk about how you went about your summer and constantly putting in early morning workouts. How does that mentality you’ve always had about putting in the work — in practice and on your own — help you now in a situation where there aren’t as many game reps and minutes, but you know they’re going to be in the future and you have to make sure you’re ready?
It’s kind of like staying the course. Over this pandemic and over the summer and over the offseason and during the down period of me getting drafted and me getting ready to start in the NBA, I could have relaxed. I could have chilled. I could say okay, well, I’m not playing right now so I can kind of relax and ramp it back up, but no, I stayed the course. I was staying consistent, and that’s what I’m doing now. I’m staying consistent and doing the same things that I was doing when I was in the rotation, if not even more, and just trying to stay ready.
You never know, you never know, especially on a team like this, you never know when we have to rest guys or, you know, older guys need their rest, and I have to be ready to step in and help contribute. I want to be able to … there should be no downfall. Like Coach Doc said, we got to be able to win those games when our key guys and our vets, if they’re hurt or when they’re sitting, we have to be able to win those games and that’s how you know you’re championship ready.
I do want to talk about the Draft process and this podcast. What are you hoping that people can can learn about you both as a player and a person by listening to this?
One thing I really want people to learn is just, you can do anything that you put your mind to. I know it’s, like, cliche, people say that all the time and some people say just to say it, but I really do believe that. That you can do whatever you put your mind to. Like I’m a normal kid from Garland, and I just worked extremely, extremely hard to get to my position where I am today. And it’s a lot of stories like that, and I’m not gonna say no one knew that this was possible, but I worked extremely hard. It wasn’t like it was given to me, I had to go get it myself. I want them to know that and then I want them to know just, like, off the court, I like to have fun. I like to live my life, I like to enjoy it — you only get one — so I think you can enjoy it to the fullest while being smart.
Absolutely, and in that first episode you talk about your relationship with your father and your mother and everything they’ve taught you. They talk about how hard your dad coached you but also you say that your mom won’t let you slip up, either. What does it mean having that support system behind you and knowing that you always have someone you can go to whenever you may need advice or just need somebody to talk to about whatever is going on?
It’s great having a support system like that, and it doesn’t just start with my parents. I mean, it goes all the way down the family tree, starting with their parents, both of my grandmothers who lived in the house, one of them passed recently, but both of them, they set the standard. Once they set the standard it just trickled down and everybody, they have to follow it. You don’t want to be the one that’s called slack, you want to be the one who’s not on top of their game. So it’s like a competitive friendly competition or family competition in between all of us. Everybody’s not one upping each other but everybody’s trying to be competitive to show what they bring to the table. And I think, I think that’s how we hold each other accountable. It’s not just my parents, but my grandmothers, my sisters, my uncle and so on and so on.
One of the things I talked with Isaiah Joe about earlier this year was how you had a unique Draft process where it was the longest Draft process and then the shortest training camp run up when you actually knew where you were going to be playing. What are the things that you looked at as you went through the summer as the draft kept getting pushed back and saw as, like, “OK, this is my opportunity to get better?” Were there any things in your game that you really felt like you were able to improve over that period from what you showed while you were at Kentucky?
Yeah I feel like I was able to improve, just playing in the pick-and-roll is so important for a guard my size and just guards period in the NBA. To be able to play in the pick-and-roll, make different reads, scoring reads, passing reads, and just different flows in the game. That’s huge, and I was able to show that immediately when I stepped onto the court here in the NBA. I wasn’t able to show as much of that [at Kentucky], and it was something I need to work on during the offseason. So that’s one thing I really focused on. That and shooting, becoming more confident in different situations. A lot of different shots, different angles to shots, different floaters, runners and different shots that you need as a guard in the NBA.
Your college teammate Immanuel Quickley has been one of the guys that’s had a breakout year, and the Kentucky fraternity is something that I know a lot of guys talk about. Do you still talk with him regularly and other guys from Kentucky around the league and what does it mean to have those kind of resources on top of your teammates in Philly?
It’s great. Of course I talk to Immanuel, I talk to him at least three, four times a week just catching up, checking on him. I’m always watching him. Of course we’re always supporting each other. He’s supporting me when I’m playing, I support him when he’s playing and I think that just goes throughout the entire Kentucky brotherhood. I mean the Big Blue Nation it’s … I think once you’re in it, you’re stuck in it. Everybody looks out for each other.
You mentioned earlier how Doc talking about staying ready stuck with you. What have been the other things that you’ve been able to pull from this coaching staff that you feel is making you already a better player being with a veteran, championship staff?
Just different aspects of the game as far as the details. Our coaching staff is very detail oriented, from Doc all the way down to Sam and the player development. They really believe in film and details and what you’re doing on the defensive end and different concepts of the game It’s was really helped me to just learn, learn to become a better basketball player and a better professional.
Obviously it’s a team that has a strong defensive identity with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as two of the best in the league at their respective positions, and strong defenders all over. What have you learned about that side the floor because that that can always that can be one of the bigger adjustments for guys coming into the league, and you’ve got just a great kind of group around you to kind of show what it takes on that end?
Right. I feel like defense is cerebral. It has a lot to do with the mind. A lot of people, you can be quicker or faster, but a lot of people who aren’t as quick and fast can be smarter and can take you out of what you’re doing or what you want to do. So I think that’s the biggest thing that Danny Green and Ben and Joel, even Matisse Thybulle [have shown me]. You know, it’s just his second year in the league but it feels like he’s a seasoned vet the way he plays defense and he’s very good for us. And I’ve learned a lot from him just in this half of a season. Just how he keeps coming on plays and how he’s able to fight through screens and how he’s able to navigate around being screen and different things like that.
Finally, what are the things that you look at in your game that you’re already kind of looking at and saying like, alright, here are the things that are going to take me to the next level and get me into those rotation spots and get you where you want to go in your career?
I think it’s just getting one percent better every single day. Being one percent better, staying healthy, and continue to stay the course. One thing about me is, no matter the situation I’m always gonna put the work in. I’m always gonna have confidence in myself whenever I get the opportunity, and I’m always going to stay faithful, stay prayed up, and stay ready for the moment.