TYRESE MAXEY CHARGES AHEAD
Sixers standout Tyrese Maxey was raised in a tight-knit family, including a father who instilled a relentless work ethic and accountability that fits Philly’s culture.
On the way out the door for work each morning, Tyrone Maxey hit the button on a stuffed teddy bear with a basketball. That triggered the gift from father to baby son, Tyrese, to play the organ tune popular at sporting events that ends with a rapid six-note lead-in prompting fans to chant “charge!”
“And he would just smile,” Tyrone said. “It was, I guess, prophetic.”
Not just that Tyrese would someday turn basketball into his career two decades later, but how he would play the game.
Today, Maxey is a fearless driver for the 76ers who can contort his body, fight through contact and spin the ball for finishes at the rim. The speedy ballhandler exudes confidence and flair that dazzles fans and prompts awe-struck tweets from prominent NBA players. And his big smile has become a signature.
That style has helped Maxey produce 16.5 points per game on 46.5% shooting. He is also taking care of the ball, with 117 assists against 31 turnovers for an offensive system predicated on ball and body movement. It’s what makes Maxey a contender for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award and a likely participant in the Rising Stars game at All-Star Weekend.
The high expectations expressed by Sixers coach Doc Rivers and veteran teammate Danny Green for Maxey during the preseason no longer seem far-fetched. Maxey’s rapid ascension as a starting point guard in his second NBA season has been the brightest development of the Sixers’ first 26 games, which have been marred recently by multiple players in COVID-19 health and safety protocols, injuries, and the Ben Simmons saga.
That he has thrived after being thrust into this role at only 21 years old may seem sudden. But those who know him best are not surprised.
Maxey was raised in a tight-knit family, including a father who instilled a relentless work ethic and accountability that fits Philly’s culture. He trains with some of the NBA’s biggest stars during the offseason. And his personality, competitive drive, and eagerness to improve allow him to absorb and apply a barrage of information.
To steal two descriptors from teammate Georges Niang, Maxey brings a combination of pizzazz and poise that makes him beloved by teammates and primed to own the moment. University of Kentucky coach John Calipari dubbed Maxey the “Smilin’ Assassin” who can morph from a jovial kid to a killer on the court.
“Tyrese’s energy is so contagious,” teammate Matisse Thybulle said. " ... He’s got one of the hardest jobs on the court being a point guard trying to quarterback the whole gym, and Doc [Rivers] doesn’t take it easy on him, and he’s able to take this challenge and show up day in and day out with one of the best attitudes on the team.”
Maxey was raised in a full house on the northeast side of a Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex rooted in deep faith. And he credits his upbringing in Garland, with parents Tyrone and Denyse, and sisters Denasia, Talia, and Keira, with far more than igniting his passion for basketball.
Both grandmothers lived with his immediate family, teaching Tyrese how to practice gratitude and uplift others even if his day was not going well. He created friendly competition with oldest sister Keira, vowing to finish high school with a higher grade-point average (he did, graduating in the top 5% of his class). He became a Marvel movie aficionado and applied his big personality to theater classes, performing in shows such as the Wizard of Oz in the fifth grade but was unable to pursue lead roles because of the commitment that travel basketball required.
By then, he and his father — who played college basketball for Kelvin Sampson at Washington State and was a longtime coach and trainer — had established a deliberate and consistent daily routine.
When a 7-year-old Tyrese said he wanted to be like favorite player Dwyane Wade, Tyrone turned his daily one-on-one games into purposeful skill development workouts, implementing videos he had studied from Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving to drill form shooting, ballhandling, and finishing at the rim. In one part of the circuit, Tyrese would dribble between his legs and simultaneously pick up a tennis ball on the floor and put it back down.
“My high school kids, they couldn’t even execute the drills,” Tyrone said. “He could come in and just do it, and they would just be watching him like, ‘Man, that little dude. …’”
Tyrone also taught Tyrese to shoulder blunt, constructive criticism.
When Tyrone was asked when he was hardest on Tyrese, Denyse interjected to say “every day.” Tyrese half-joked that his dad would blame him for on-court errors that were not his fault and would never say “good game.” After a sixth-grade AAU game in Memphis, Tyrone sat Tyrese down to watch film immediately after the 6-hour drive home.
“He was extremely hard on me,” Maxey said. “Harder than anybody else, I think, any other coach that I’ve ever had. … My pops was the best thing for me, I think he prepared me for these moments.”
Father and son knew Tyrese could be a pro when he broke his finger in the middle of a sixth-grade game and scored more than 45 points. Around the same time, Tyrese proclaimed he wanted to play for Calipari. So he and Tyrone started watching every Kentucky game, paying close attention to when players got pulled for not playing defense or missing a box-out assignment.
“Somebody gets blown by and gives up a layup, [I’d say], ‘Watch this, he’s comin’ out of the game,’ ” Tyrone said. “And sure enough, they would come out of the game. And [Tyrese] was like ‘Oh, dad ...’ ”
Tyrese eventually developed into a lethal scorer and a top-10 recruit, often a precursor to being a high NBA draft pick the following year. In his final game for South Garland High School, he tied a Texas state tournament record by dropping 46 points in an overtime semifinal loss.
And Calipari made Maxey’s childhood dream a reality, offering him an opportunity to become part of a long legacy of blue-chippers who played at Kentucky before turning pro.
But first, Grandma Mildred Maxey — aka “Mimi” — needed to give her seal of approval on Calipari’s in-home visit.
“She sat there [and] I don’t even know if she asked me a question,” Calipari recalled. “But she looked at me the whole time and she had to OK it. It was like, Grandma, when I left, said, ‘Go play for him.’ ”
Off to Kentucky
Calipari cannot remember what city he and the Kentucky team were visiting during the 2019-20 season, but when the coach went to an early-morning chapel at a church called Saint Aloysius, he sent a playfully mocking text message to the Wildcats roster that a season-long catchphrase had arrived in real life.
“We aren’t playing Saint Aloysius High School” became Calipari’s go-to critique whenever Maxey made an immature mistake that he should have left behind at South Garland. The coach uttered the comment so often during interviews that fans started sending T-shirts featuring the name to Maxey’s dorm room.
“I heard that so many times,” Maxey said.
Maxey took the sarcasm as another lesson in building his own confidence, rather than relying on affirmation from others. But Calipari also knew Maxey would take it the right way, and wanted to be held accountable.
“You know what I loved about him?” Calipari said. “Every day I came in, I walked in practice, he’d have a smile on his face. Every single day. ... Different kinds of souls come here, now. I’m not too old to change and I tell them all the time, ‘Look, I’m Italian. I talk loud. Doesn’t mean I’m mad or mean. It’s just how I am.’ ”
In reality, Maxey was an excellent on-court and locker-room fit with the Wildcats.
Calipari joked that Maxey’s dad ran the dribble-drive offense better than he does, “and I’m the one that brought it to college basketball and had everybody watching it.” Maxey’s experience with getting downhill and spacing the floor allowed him to shift between playing on and off the ball, with Calipari drawing a comparison to the path of former Kentucky star and current NBA standout Jamal Murray.
Maxey was sensational in a 26-point college debut in a win over top-ranked Michigan State at Madison Square Garden, then formed a dangerous perimeter core with Immanuel Quickley, who became an NBA All-Rookie second-teamer for the New York Knicks last season, and Ashton Hagans, the SEC’s co-Defensive Player of the Year.
Calipari laments that Kentucky could have won the 2020 national title had the pandemic not arrived that March. Instead, Maxey’s extended family drove with him from Nashville, where they had all gathered for the SEC Tournament until its abrupt cancellation, to campus in Lexington, then all the way back to Garland to quarantine together. Even with about 15 people in the same house, “there was no bickering, no arguing. We woke up every day and we had fun,” Maxey said.
That propelled Maxey into the longest pre-draft period in NBA history. After signing with Klutch Sports, the agency helmed by LeBron James confidant Rich Paul and that also happens to represent Simmons, Maxey began working in Los Angeles with Chris Johnson, the acclaimed and intensely sure-of-himself personal trainer who boasts “you can’t even be around me if you don’t meet my expectations as a player” and compares his no-nonsense approach to ripping a part of the body where the sun don’t shine.
“If Tyrese can embrace me every day going at him the way I do, nobody can break him,” Johnson said. “Nobody.”
Maxey showed right away that their mentalities aligned.
When Johnson told Maxey that Rajon Rondo arrived at the gym at 5:45 a.m., Maxey asked to move up to the same time slot so they could work together. That became the first of his three on-court sessions every day, with weight training in between. When Maxey was finished, he would grab a smoothie and get mental reps while observing other players.
An indicator that Maxey quickly earned the respect of his famous peers: Kevin Durant chose Maxey for two-on-two runs that summer — and kept feeding him the ball.
“I would be scoring three or four in a row,” Maxey recently recalled, “and he would just be … saying, ‘Go finish it.’ ”
Added Johnson: “[He] and Tyrese literally just ripped the gym apart.”
Meanwhile, the Sixers’ interest in Maxey grew as they prepared for a delayed 2020 draft. President of basketball operations Daryl Morey credits the organization’s scouting department and general manager Elton Brand for doing the evaluation legwork on Maxey before Morey arrived from the Houston Rockets.
Though Maxey shot 29.9% from three-point range in his one college season, the Sixers believed his mechanics and work ethic would make him a threat to shoot in the high 30s throughout his NBA career. They paid close attention to his finishing at the rim. They believed the pride he took on the defensive end would help him progress on that end of the floor.
The Sixers had Maxey ranked in the top 12 on their big board, Morey said. There was an option to trade down on draft night. But when Maxey fell to the Sixers at 21, the choice was easy.
“We believed in Tyrese so much,” Morey said. “We weren’t looking for ‘solid’. … We felt like our first-round pick, we wanted to shoot for someone who could be a higher-end player in the league.
“We were surprised he was there, and really thrilled he was there.”
‘That’s who he is’
As the first quarter of a late-November home game against Orlando ticked down, Rivers and assistant coach Sam Cassell screamed at Maxey from the sideline. Maxey had just subbed in with 7.2 seconds to play in the period, but did not bring the ball up or generate a shot at the buzzer.
“[Rivers] was like, ‘What do you think I put you in the game for?’ ” Maxey recalled. “I’m like, ‘My bad, Coach. I’m sorry. I had a brain fart there, man.’
“They find something every single game, and it’s great. I love it. I know that they care. If they weren’t on me, then I would be worried because then I’d know that they had given up on me. I just try to listen and soak it all in.”
It’s easy to forget how little time has passed since Maxey became a pro. He celebrated his 21st birthday last month in Detroit, where he snuck in breakfast with his parents (complete with a balloon and cake delivery to his room) at the team hotel before totaling 20 points, five assists, and four rebounds while playing 45 of 48 minutes in a win over the Pistons.
Since arriving in Philly a little more than a year ago, Maxey has lived by his new jersey number that also reminds him of a Rivers mantra: zero excuses.
Morey said Maxey “constantly” asks for the player-development staff to be available for extra individual work. Though Maxey acknowledged that not being in the rotation for extended periods was difficult as a rookie last season, Morey observed him sharpening his scoring point-guard skills in practice, such as hitting off-the-dribble three-pointers when the defender went under the screen.
Maxey got his opportunity during a breakout playoff stretch, scoring in double figures four times, including a 16-point, seven-rebound effort in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Atlanta. When Calipari visited Philly to watch Maxey play in person, he estimates about 20 people stopped him to say, “We love your kid.” The most meaningful greeting came from a Wells Fargo Center employee, who said Maxey regularly went out of his way to say hello and thanks for the dedication to the Sixers.
“That’s who he is,” Calipari said.
“Tyrese’s energy is so contagious. He’s got one of the hardest jobs on the court ... and Doc [Rivers] doesn’t take it easy on him, and he’s able to ... show up day in and day out with one of the best attitudes on the team.”
During his exit meeting last summer, Rivers told Maxey to expect to be a major part of the Sixers in 2021-22. Maxey studied film on the spots on the court where specific teammates are most successful upon receiving the ball, an intricacy he acknowledges he “never actually looked at” previously. He and Johnson dissected the pick and roll on the court, from reading the defense, to footwork, to knowing when to drop the ball off or go to his floater.
“When I watch him play, I see everything that we work on,” Johnson said.
When Simmons opted not to report to training camp following a trade request and Shake Milton sprained his ankle during the preseason, Maxey became the opening-night starting point guard. His role dramatically increased as he needed to become a go-to scorer when several players were out in health and safety protocols or injured during the past month.
He eclipsed 30 points in back-to-back games against Milwaukee and Toronto. He scored more than 20 points in four of the six games on a grueling road trip primarily against Western Conference playoff teams, spending a chunk of his postgame media session in Portland describing exactly how he learned how to burst into the lane and spin the ball high off the glass for those difficult finishes.
“That’s pretty telling,” Morey said. “That’s not easy. On the road, without a home crowd behind you, consistently providing a lift. … That’s the kind of stuff that makes my head turn to where you go, ‘OK, young fella. Maybe you got it.’ ”
Since Thanksgiving, however, Maxey has been navigating his worst offensive stretch of the season, shooting 32.3% from the floor over five games while the now-healthy Sixers attempt to regain their rhythm. He also missed his first game of the season, a Dec. 6 win at Charlotte, because of a non-COVID illness.
Yet he flashed his bullish nature during the second quarter of Thursday’s loss to Utah, when he penetrated and finished over Hassan Whiteside at the rim, hit the back of his head on the court as he fell and assured “I’m good” as teammates and medical staff surrounded him. After a quick trip to the locker room, Maxey received a rousing ovation from the crowd when he returned to the scorer’s table.
Maxey is aiming to balance being a facilitator and aggressive scorer, because every shot he takes is one that Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, or Seth Curry does not. He is learning how to help space the floor from the “dunker” spot along the baseline, an area of the court once reserved for the bigger Simmons. He constantly has coaches and teammates in his ear for candid feedback and tips, a development Tyrone noticed from the stands during the Sixers’ home opener against Brooklyn and wondered, “How can he internalize all that information?”
When asked for a specific example of a teammate or coach getting on Maxey, Niang quipped, “You got all night?”
“There’s been plenty of times where someone is yelling, ‘TY-RESE!’” Niang said. “And he looks, his hair is swinging, and he listens. He doesn’t ever complain, and he goes out there and goes even harder. For a -year-old kid to be mature like that and to take that on the chin and go out there and perform and not let that get in your head, I think that speaks volumes to the person that he is and the basketball player that he’s going to become.”
Added Rivers: “You gotta tell them, anyway. They have to hear it, and the fact that [Maxey] can take it helps. A lot of guys can’t take it, but you still have to tell them. The good news is we tell him, he moves on.”
Debriefing, a tactic learned from Calipari, helps Maxey do that.
When he arrived in Boston last week, Maxey searched for a movie theater to go watch “Eternals,” the latest Marvel installment. He loves hanging out with his growing 10-month-old Cane Corso named Apollo. And he calls his mom after every game, no matter how late, to chat for about 15 minutes about his sister Denasia’s latest volleyball match, what they’re watching on Netflix, or what he will eat for breakfast the next morning.
The Maxey family took things a step further while in Philly for a Nov. 27 double-overtime loss to Minnesota, when Tyrese committed a turnover in the final seconds that he believes cost the Sixers the game. To lighten the mood, Denyse instructed everybody to remain silent when Tyrese got in the car.
“I turn the music down and I’m like, ‘Hey man, y’all can say something. We’re not gonna sit here and not talk,’ ” Tyrese said. “They all just busted out laughing and asked me if I was OK. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m good. Stuff happens.’
“We were talking about Thanksgiving, my sister’s first time going to a game, [my] niece’s first time. They’re just saying how much fun they had. That really helped me.”
That they were all gathered to watch Tyrese as an NBA starting point guard can be traced back to that stuffed teddy bear with the basketball.
A photo of baby Tyrese with the toy has become an iconic staple in his family’s home. Tyrone wondered aloud recently if they still have the sentimental keepsake stashed away somewhere, even momentarily stepping away from the phone to check with Denyse.
Whether they do or not ultimately does not matter. Tyrese has emphatically answered the organ tune’s request, charging ahead.