Tyrese Maxey’s tone and body language have just perked up.
Finally, someone asks him about the shirt he’s wearing, the one that invites the simplest of parallels to the Philadelphia 76ers, the franchise that, one day earlier, selected him 21st overall in the 2020 NBA Draft. He’s excited to tell people the origin of his shirt, which everyone in the virtual room notices but has yet to act upon or inquire about.
“It’s so funny, because, like, my uncle, when I was in high school, he gave me this shirt. Not this exact shirt, but he gave me a shirt that said, ‘Fall in love with the process,'” Maxey says on a Wednesday morning Zoom call with media. “It kinda just stuck with me because, like, the way I work, and, like, getting up at 6 a.m. and doing those different things like that. I wore it yesterday when I worked out at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. and I posted it, and then, I got drafted to Philadelphia and I just seen it everywhere. I’m like, ‘Wow, OK.’ I had another one and it was blue, too, so might as well wear this.”
Of course, The Process, in Sixers vernacular, denotes the Sam Hinkie Era of Sixers basketball, when the team stockpiled assets, and laid the foundation to acquire stars, whether that be through the draft — Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons — or via trade — Jimmy Butler — and invigorated a stagnant organization. That time period and means of leadership ended years ago, but with Hinkie’s former boss, Daryl Morey, now running the show as President of Basketball Operations, there is a renewed sense of optimism and hope, derived partly from Maxey’s arrival.
In Maxey, the Sixers holster someone with off-the-dribble creation, a rare presence, aside from Jimmy Butler’s abbreviated tenure, throughout Embiid and Simmons’ time together. Simmons’ shortcomings as a scorer are well-explained and the downside to running an offense almost solely through a low-post big man was illuminated during the Sixers’ first-round loss to the Boston Celtics last season, when ball-handlers made entry passes look entirely foreign and complex during critical junctures.
Philadelphia took a step toward alleviating that concern Wednesday. Expecting a rookie to eradicate this deficiency cannot be the threshold, especially for a team eyeing title contention. But given the Sixers’ previous missteps in roster-building, the acquisition of Maxey is about as good as it gets for them. He was the best player available and fills a glaring need.
“It feels like a great, amazing situation for myself. I was talking to my parents about it,” Maxey says. “I feel like I can go in and make an immediate impact on a contending team, a competitive team.”
The infrastructure of Embiid and Simmons already established as the offensive cornerstone likely prevents Maxey from being burdened to a stratum he cannot excel. Ideally, the Sixers roster a bonafide half-court initiator for Maxey to work alongside, but the Sixers operated far from team-building ideals for so long that they must take what they can at this point.
Maxey’s underwhelming collegiate production dampened his Draft stock, but recognizing and fleshing out context is vital to recognizing why many people still considered him a lottery-caliber prospect. After orchestrating offense as a primary initiator in high school and AAU ball, John Calipari asked him to take on a secondary handling and off-ball role. Kentucky’s spacing inhibited some of his driving prowess, though he still displayed the requisite package to believe in his slashing game. The objective, for both himself and the Sixers, is that his time spent exploring new offensive requirements as a Wildcat empower him to blend this on- and off-ball aptitude, filling a void on the perimeter for Philadelphia.
“I really appreciate the circumstance I was in at University of Kentucky because now, I feel like it fit in the new-age NBA, with guys like Jamal Murray, C.J. McCollum, even Damian Lillard, Jrue Holiday, different guys like that, who have to play on and off the ball,” Maxey says. “Now, it’s just another asset to my game where I can play on the ball if I have to and, when guys like Joel and Ben are in the game, I can play off the ball and find ways to help the team like that.”
Despite shooting 29.2 percent beyond the arc, he should emerge as a rather effective floor-spacer, merging spot-up and off-movement capability, as well as a bit of pull-up equity. He shot 83.3 percent from the free-throw line and exhibited deft touch on floaters. His pre-collegiate shooting sample is highly encouraging, too. During his junior and senior EYBL seasons, he shot 62.5 percent on twos (861 attempts), 83.1 percent at the line (532 attempts), and 33.7 percent from deep (602 attempts).
Silencing the narrative that he cannot shoot helped shape Maxey’s pre-Draft training habits. He staunchly believes he is a better shooter than his collegiate numbers convey and is determined to follow through on this credence. Every day, he arrives at the gym for a 6 a.m. training session with a goal to net 750-800 shots. After a weightlifting workout, he returns at 10 a.m. to achieve that same goal. Sometimes, he’ll head back later for a third try, too.
“I’ve been working on it all. Catch-and-shoot off of different actions, off the dribble,” Maxey says. “You have to have all that in today’s game and I feel like if you can’t be able to knock down shots from everywhere on the court, wide open threes, especially now playing with a guy like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, who cause a lot of attention, it’s gonna be hard to get on the floor.
“My thing is to set my own records, so, like, I’m trying to make consecutive shots in a row so you can see that consistency build up,” he continues. “Making 20 one day, making 25 the next day. As high as I am right now is 36. Keep building, keep building to where you have that confidence to where I have it now, where I feel like if I’m open, I’m gonna knock it down. I have no doubt in my mind that it’s gonna go in.”
With the Sixers, he will not be overextended as a passer, helping to mask some of his playmaking flaws. Asking him to navigate the occasional pick-and-roll (86th percentile in efficiency last season) is well within his bounds. He has strength, burst, intermediate craft, and sets up ball-screens intuitively. His understanding of the opportunities surely bestowed upon him working off the attention created by Embiid and Simmons pairs well with his slashing knack, augmented by strength, balance, coordination, and flexibility.
He ranked in the 47th percentile at the basket last season (relatively good for a freshman guard), where 28.6 percent of his shots occurred, bringing a level of rim pressure and standstill creation this roster will gladly welcome and benefit from. A backcourt player brandishing the shooting credentials to force defensive respect, while also having the horizontal explosiveness and finishing acumen to work off the bounce, is vital for Philadelphia’s half-court offense. Embiid’s post gravity is the best in the league, and Simmons can collapse defenses, too. The issue, for years, has been lacking anyone to consistently capitalize on the advantages this star duo yields. Maxey can, and in a variety of facets.
“Off instincts, being able to use my speed, use my pace, use my different creative finishes at the rim,” he says. “I realized that I was gonna be about 6’3, 6’4, around that range, my senior year in high school, so I figured out ways, not always get all the way to the rim, but still getting to the rim using floater packages, different finishes practices, being creative.”
Maxey will not manifest all of these traits from the outset. The Sixers are not instantly back among the league’s foremost title contenders, despite a significantly rosier short- and long-term vision due to a strong Draft and the ability to move Al Horford on Wednesday evening. Maxey spoke candidly in a manner that suggests he is fully cognizant of how he can immediately apply his strengths to complement Embiid and Simmons (and the entire team), yet also with an underlying sense of accountability that he must continue to improve to deliver on the intrigue surrounding him. All of it is part of his process, the perpetual grind with which he fell in love many years ago as a teenager eyeing lofty hoop dreams.