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Tyrese Maxey is making the most of Ben Simmons' absence in Philadelphia

The 76ers' sophomore guard has taken a big step forward while the 3-time All-Star remains out.

Second-year guard Tyrese Maxey has seen his scoring average jump to 17.2 ppg this season.

One of the more unfathomable and unexplainable NBA stalemates took hold over the offseason when Ben Simmons refused to join the Philadelphia 76ers out of petulance, annoyance, spite or just simply didn’t want to play basketball all that badly anymore.

Imagine: an All-Star player in his prime on a max contract who was riding shotgun for a title contender suddenly brought his career and the Sixers’ momentum to a halt, all because of backlash — external and internal — over his inability and reluctance to take shots in a disappointing 2021 playoff run.

Rather than swallow the medicine, work on his game and return as a better form of himself, Simmons shut it down, hasn’t suited up since and left the Sixers scrambling to salvage the season. Philly clearly isn’t better without Simmons, an indefatigable defender and rebounder who brings sharp floor instincts as a 6-foot-9 point guard.

Philly just had to be … different without him. And such is the case with the Sixers, who are certainly feeling the affects of missing Simmons yet refusing to allow it to overwhelm them, and that’s partly due to a 21-year-old who’s serving as a silver lining amid the madness.

Tyrese Maxey isn’t replacing Simmons at point guard mainly because Maxey isn’t a point guard, never really has been a point guard and the Sixers are OK if he never will be.

“You are who you are,” coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s a scorer at the point position.”

So that’s settled. The Sixers still need Simmons even if there’s no relief in sight to their unfortunate stare-down, and if Simmons walked through the door tomorrow he’d be given the ball and the team would feel better about itself even if Simmons probably won’t share that sentiment. While there are obvious raw feelings emitting from Simmons toward the Sixers, the club is adamant about its position on the situation: We want him even if it’s not mutual, and we will not trade him without an acceptable return.

Tyrese Maxey goes off for a career-best 33 points in a loss to the Raptors on Nov. 11.

Meanwhile: Philly is stuck in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings, partly because of Simmons and also because Joel Embiid missed time due to Health and Safety Protocols.

But Maxey is making the most of his opportunity to breakthrough here in his second NBA season. He had a stretch of games last month where he was a tornado, dropping shots and commanding attention and elevating his game when the Sixers needed him to do so. He’s nine inches smaller than Simmons but is strong and plays without fear.

He’s started in every game this season, averaging 17.2 points on 46.5% shooting and keeping his mistakes to a minimum (1.2 turnovers per game this season). That’s an applaudable amount of production from a young player thrown into the fire, who came into this season expecting to be a role player and suddenly finds himself a crucial piece to the starting lineup.

It hasn’t been totally smooth and, as expected, Maxey’s had some dry spells. That’s understandable given the amount of the load he’s carrying and the urgency at hand. That said, there is growth and an accelerated learning process and he’s the unexpected bonus the Sixers could use.

“People sleep on him,” Sixers guard Danny Green said. “Great kid, very open, takes suggestions, knows what he’s capable of doing, a coach’s dream. I’m not a coach but if I were, he’s a kid who takes criticism and asks questions and does what coaches ask him to do. He’s bubbly but it doesn’t keep him from taking this seriously or affects his focus and attention. He’s a nice kid who comes with competitive fire. We’re throwing things at him every game and he’s responding and learning.”

Maxey certainly feels pressure-free and plays like it, totally without strain or burden. That has served him well. Blessed with scoring instincts and the skills to realize it, Maxey looks relaxed in a situation that would probably rattle other players his age and experience.

That’s why he’s gaining the respect of his teammates, who understand his plight and watching him respond favorably.

Tyrese Maxey went for 31 points against the Bucks back on Nov. 9.

“It’s just my teammates trusting me, talking to me,” Maxey told “Especially like the older guys. They help me a lot. They stuck with me, they really helped me, and they say they believe in me. When those guys say they believe in you, you just go out there, you play the game, and you try to help them do whatever it takes to win.”

Maxey’s statement game so far was 31 points against the Bucks and Jrue Holiday, one of the NBA’s best defensive guards. He had 28 against Damian Lillard on Nov. 20 and, in a three-game span last month, he averaged nearly 30 points on 58.6% shooting. He’s also had 10 games with zero turnovers despite heavy minutes.

Just two years ago Maxey was playing high school ball in Dallas. Imagine going from small gyms with a few hundred people and no sense of pressure to running the floor with Embiid, being coached by Rivers and being asked to help a team that’s missing Simmons. It’s an awful lot thrown his way in such a short amount of time.

“He’s been great,” Rivers said. “There’s been times he’s shown some fatigue, just when to shoot, when to be aggressive, what type of shots. … Overall he’s been great. Defensively he’s been getting better. He’s a sponge, he listens, a lot of positive traits that you love.”

Maxey didn’t play point guard in high school or in his only season at Kentucky, yet he’s doing so now on the game’s highest level. Rivers, a former NBA point guard himself, wants Maxey to play to his strengths and not overthink it.

Philadelphia’s veterans have more than welcomed Tyrese Maxey into the starting lineup this season.

Rivers is stressing patience: “That position is probably the toughest because you have to not only know yours, but you have to know everyone’s spot. You have to know what you’re looking for every time you run a set. It just takes time. I’m in no hurry.”

Asked if he’s hard on young point guards, Rivers said: “Every coach is whether he plays the position or not. In my 20 years, half my teams have been point guard-oriented in the offense and half have been motion offense. It really depends on the type of team you have. With Tyrese we really don’t have a point guard-oriented offense. We don’t want him coming down and orchestrating like Chris Paul. (Rajon) Rondo ran a point guard offense because he could call the game and orchestrate everything. When you don’t have that, you need more of a motion offense.”

Maxey is accustomed to making an immediate splash. In his first-ever collegiate game, he scored 26 points in a win over top-ranked Michigan State.

Last January in his first NBA start, Maxey erupted for 39 points, seven rebounds and six assists. That night, the Sixers were only able to suit up seven players for the game because of injuries and COVID-19 protocols. The points were the most by an NBA rookie in his first start since 1970.

So there’s an ingrained sense within Maxey that he belongs, with or without Simmons.

“I think it’s just confidence, being myself, helping the team the best I can,” Maxey said. “I think now I’ve become a little more comfortable with it and just trying to do my part and help us win.”

Tyrese Maxey put on a show in his first NBA start on Jan. 9, 2021.

Rivers suspects the Kentucky experience, brief as it was, prepared Maxey for this role and threw flowers in the direction of John Calipari.

“Going to Kentucky, knowing you’re going to get coached hard by Cal, that’s all been a plus,” Rivers said. “When you go to their practices and watch, they’re brutal. They work their practices and they’re very NBA-oriented practices. I’m sure that’s carried over. I’m sure that’s helped.”

When Embiid returned a week ago, Maxey had his struggles, and so it was another adjustment.

“I think where people get lost is when Joel’s out, someone’s got to score,” Rivers said. “You know, that’s just the way it is. When Joel and Tobias [Harris] is out, someone’s got to score. When Joel, Tobias, and Seth [Curry] are out, someone’s got to score more points. And when they come back, that doesn’t mean that same someone is going to score the same amount of points.”

Rivers added: “He’s playing with a bunch of guys that are really good. And every time he shoots, he’s thinking, ‘Hell, should’ve got that to Seth, to Tobias, to Joel.’ He’s got to keep picking his spots.”

The Sixers will continue hoping Maxey’s growth trends upward while they try to scratch their way back into the upper-half of the East standings. The health of Embiid will be paramount, and Philly has little margin for error given the competition in the conference.

In a perfect world, Simmons would return, bury the animosity and play his way back into the good graces of Philly fans and the Sixers’ locker room. In that sense, the Sixers would be armed with Simmons and an improved player who kept the seat warm for him.

That might be wishful thinking at this point.

In the meantime, an upgraded Maxey must do. Undoubtedly, the Sixers are thrilled to discover a gem among the distraction.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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