Tyrese Maxey’s ascension in mock NBA Drafts has surprised no one inside the Kentucky program who, since the 6-foot-3 freshman first stepped on campus last spring, have watched him steadily hone his craft -- with a little help from his friends.
As Wildcat coach John Calipari does with all his players, regardless of whether they’re future NBA Draft picks, he’s been tough on Maxey, urging him to value every possession, make the right decision and strive for consistency. But on the practice floor is where Maxey has elevated his skill level, jousting every day with sophomore guards Ashton Hagans, an elite defender, and Immanuel Quickley, one of the hottest shooters in Division I basketball the last couple of weeks.
“Having to play against Ashton Hagans one day, and then Immanuel Quickley the next, has been huge for him,” says Kentucky assistant Joel Justus. “Both are different covers. You play against a pit bull [Hagans] one day who just comes right after you and gets you trying to play faster and out of your comfort zone. And then the next day, you’re going against a craftier, taller, longer, trickier guy [Quickley], where you have to play cerebral and you’ve got to your speed, whereas the other guy, you can’t use your speed. You’ve got to try and outwit him.”
Here’s a kid who has a little bit of it all and can do it on a big scale
Maxey, a consensus Top 10 recruit in the class of 2019, was prepared for what he’d face at Kentucky, having been taught the game’s finer points by his father Tyrone, who played at Washington State. At South Garland High School in Texas, the combo guard was rated a five-star prospect, a McDonald’s All-American and Texas Mr. Basketball.
Maxey wasted no time living up to those accolades. In his first game at Kentucky, against Michigan State, he scored 27 points in a Wildcat victory over the consensus preseason No. 1 team. As the season has progressed, Maxey has continued to thrive in the spotlight, stepping forward with his biggest games against the Wildcats’ toughest opponents. He scored a season-high 27 in a win over rival Louisville, knocking down 4-for-5 3-pointers to prove a facet of his game some perceive as a weakness can be a weapon.
Maxey’s overall performance in a win at Georgia -- 17 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, four blocks and a steal -- were key as Kentucky came away with a win in a hostile environment.
He made a couple of 3s in that game, and if he continues to gain consistency from behind the arc (30.3% 20-for-66), he’ll be hard to contain. He can score at the rim and in the midrange, a deadly floater sometimes transforming into a crafty lob pass and dunk for a rim-running big man.
“Here’s a kid who has a little bit of it all and can do it on a big scale,” says Kentucky associate head coach Kenny Payne. “So he’s dangerous. But Kentucky will never see the best of it. This is just the foundation.”
Maxey is a combo guard in the truest sense of the term. Payne wouldn’t classify him as a shooter or a slasher, just a scorer. And his all-around game -- as a facilitator, defender and even a rebounder -- is beginning to convince NBA scouts and Draft analysts of his value.
“Forget the scoring,” Payne says. “Look what he did at Georgia. Eight assists, seven rebounds, four blocks. That translates to the NBA. Our big thing with him is, everybody thinks scoring is the indicator of a professional or being a great player. A lot of the kids that have come through here have filled up the stat sheet. They get seven or eight rebounds, four of five assists and three or four steals, maybe block a shot from the guard position. All that translates.”
This isn’t to diminish Maxey’s great potential as a scorer. The Kentucky staff has been urging him to improve at catching and shooting, because if he does and defenders respect it too much, he’s off to the rim, where he can score or find an open teammate.
“The thing he can really become elite at is his catch-and-shoot game,” Justus says. “Like a lot of high school kids, he was used to catching the ball and figuring out what he’s going to do next. He’s getting better and better. Cal is continuing to force him to play faster and be more decisive when he gets the ball.”
Payne laughs when he talks about Maxey’s toughness.
“We don’t have to ride him so hard, but we do,” Payne says. “Coach Cal pushes him every day in practice. How are you going to handle adversity? We want results. We want affirmation. A lot of this is new to him, and it’s coming at him fast. We’re asking him to figure it out on the fly. That’s what pros do.”
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