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Q&A: Tyrese Maxey on hot start, building teammates' trust and more

Philadelphia's young spark plug guard explains why his confidence is continuing to grow each day.

Tyrese Maxey says he expected to have the impact he’s had at the start of the season.

Only a handful of games into his third NBA season, Tyrese Maxey’s value to the Philadelphia 76ers isn’t known only to his teammates and coaches. Forward Tobias Harris’ wife Jasmine appreciates what the slender, effervescent 21-year-old guard means to the Sixers’ fortunes and future too.

“My wife says, ‘Protect Tyrese at all costs,’” Harris told reporters after their game at Chicago Saturday. “Just his aura about him, his smile, ‘protect him at all costs.’ When he’s out there playing, it’s like that. We embrace his energy, we embrace just who he is as a person and as a player. And he’s young.

“But he has this glow to him on the basketball court,” Harris continued. “No big moment phases him. He’s just a hooper and a pure hooper at that. Impressive, and he’s only going to get better.”

That development has been happening before our very eyes. Maxey, a native of Dallas who was the No. 21 overall pick out of Kentucky in the 2020 Draft, has been more than a spark plug for the Sixers. At times, he has been the best player on the floor for a team boasting both Joel Embiid and James Harden.

He is averaging 23.3 points and, with 186 points through eight games, ranked ninth among all NBA players (behind eight established All-Stars). He had a career night Friday at Toronto, scoring 44 points while becoming only the third player in league history to score at least 40, hit nine or more 3-pointers and shoot 75% or better from the floor overall (15 of 20) and from beyond the arc (9 of 12). Kyrie Irving in March 2022 and Klay Thompson in 2019 are the others.

Twenty-four hours later against the Bulls, foul trouble spoiled his first half. Yet Maxey scored 11 points in the third quarter, then proved his worth by playing almost the entire fourth quarter while going scoreless. At Washington Monday, he was back at it: 28 points on 12-of-22 shooting to help Philadelphia to its fourth victory in five games.

After the game in Chicago, caught up with the young Sixers scorer about his meteoric start to 2022-23, among various topics.

Editor’s note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited. Your team lost a 24-point lead and fell behind late 107-105 but managed to hold the Bulls scoreless for the next three minutes. What was going well?

Defensively we pride ourselves on being able to get stops in the fourth quarter. That’s one thing [assistant coach] Dan Burke has been big on since I’ve been here. Our communication, our trust, has been a lot better. Both offensively and defensively. Knowing your teammate has your back. If you’re going to make mistakes, make ‘em aggressive. And then know your teammate has your back.

Tyrese Maxey joins GameTime after the Sixers' win over the Bulls, and breaks down the way to successfully play alongside Joel Embiid.

What’s the key to that communication?

Tuck [newly acquired forward P.J. Tucker] is a leader at it, and then we all just kind of follow behind. His talk is contagious. And then with us switching, doing different things defensively that we haven’t done in the past, we have to talk through it.

Doc Rivers told us earlier that your team’s veterans are developing some real trust in you, your game and your decisions. “If you can trust ‘em, you can trust ‘em in isos, you can trust ‘em down the stretch,” your coach said. “Trust is a tough one for veterans. Selective passing at the end of games, to me, kills teams.” They seem quite content to give you the ball when you’re open.  

I appreciate that. The vets are great. I build my own trust, I build my own confidence through the work that I put in. But when your older brothers have your back, and when they trust you and want you to be aggressive – even in late-game situations, when everybody’s on the court – it just makes you feel better about yourself.

Tyrese Maxey’s explosive play has given the Sixers another threat.

Tucker has called you the fastest player he’s ever seen, while pointing out that you go so fast he winds up getting called for illegal screens. Joel Embiid was just talking with you about your team’s first offensive possession. [He was trapped on the left baseline by Nikola Vucevic and Patrick Williams. Maxey stayed planted on the left wing when he could have cut to the basket for an easier pass from Embiid and a higher percentage shot than the 27-foot late-clock heave for which he settled.] You seemed to really welcome that type of advice.  

Any time a veteran like Joel or [P.J.] can help you, it’s great. They have seen so much. … To get that trust from your teammates means a lot. That you have to go out and give it your all every night.

Did you have an inkling you’d have such an explosive start?

Yes. It’s just work, honestly. I trust myself, I trust my work. And I believe in what I’ve done when no one’s around. So I have no problem performing in front of thousands of people when the lights are on. I just do what it takes to help us to win – that’s the biggest thing for me. Being aggressive and getting my teammates involved, and myself as well.

There’s a lot of talk in this league about players and their third-year steps [Maxey turns 22 on Nov. 4]. Is that what we’re seeing?

Not really. I just knew I could build off what I did last year and really in the playoffs. My confidence was up with that because they trusted me to step into that role after Ben left. That, and then to play heavy minutes in the playoffs and be a top go-to guy, a top rotation guy in the playoffs.

What was going on with your team’s 1-4 start?

Y’know, a lot of people were probably panicking and I understand why. There’s a lot of talent on this team. It still has to gel. P.J. Tucker is new, Danuel House is new, De’Anthony Melton is new, Montrezl [Harrell] is new. That’s four new rotation guys right there. They have to get acclimated.

Not enough time for that before the opener?  

Training camp is good. Preseason is good. But there’s nothing like the real deal. We got some bumps in the road early, but I think this trip has been good for us. We lost at Toronto in a game where we just didn’t play well as a group – we were lackadaisical, didn’t play hard on defense. The next game, the Big Fella sits and we knew we’d have to have a different mentality, a different approach to the game, everybody chipping in. Everybody does that, we get a split in Toronto.

Then you fend off the Bulls’ comeback.

Our first back-to-back, we play another Eastern Conference team [Chicago] that we know we have to go through to get to our goal. We come out, jump on them early. They fight back, take the lead late. For us to be resilient and win, we can start to feel that and build momentum off that.

That second game against Toronto, Embiid was out with a sore right knee and you scored 44. Is it about playing with desperation when you’re missing your MVP? [At Washington Monday, the Sixers won without Embiid again.]

You also have to play differently, without someone who creates double-teams like that. James [draws them] also. But Joel creates them every time he steps on the court, no matter where he is because he’s that good. So you’ve got to play at a different pace. You’ve got to play different defensively. You have to kind of play more together, as far as collective rebounding, collective scoring, things like that.

Fewer double teams should make it harder on you, yet you’ve had big nights in the small ball lineup with you, Harden and Melton starting.

I mean, yeah. Like I say, we have so much talent on this team, it could be anybody’s night on any given night. Like George Niang had 15 off the bench [at Chicago]. That’s what we can do on some nights. I don’t think it makes it harder on me. The way we play, play with pace and the ball moving a lot, it makes it easier on all of us.

Rivers said the opponents are focusing on you in ways they never did. “He’s starting to see different coverages for the first time in his life,” he said. “Toronto started trapping him, he’d never seen that. He’s going to keep seeing it, so there’s a learning curve.” Have you noticed that?

I think so. They probably have a lot of film on me from the last two years, and in the playoffs because I played a lot. But that’s good. That’s why you work on a lot of different aspects of your game. That’s one thing I’m proud of.

So they react to your progress and you react to their reactions?

You have to. That’s the only way. I think watching film is one of the biggest things. And skill development – I believe in working every single day and getting better every single day. As long as you get 1% better every single day, the sky’s the limit.

With the amount of talent you spoke about on this roster, how will you ultimately keep everyone happy?

It’s sacrifice. Sacrifice for the greater good, the ultimate good. We all have the same goal in mind. So we know, some nights it’s not going to be our night, it’s going to be our teammate’s night. You have to cheer him on and be happy about it. At the end of the day, this is a competition and it’s us vs them. There are no individual goals here.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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