Tyrese Maxey was the eventual beneficiary of Paul Reed’s rejection of Giannis Antetokounmpo, when the ball landed in the 76ers’ point guard’s grasp to take to the opposite end for a second-quarter floater. But for a brief moment, Maxey morphed into a fan while watching Reed elevate against perhaps the best basketball player on Earth, swat the ball away at the rim, and talk a little smack for good measure.
“That [play] I haven’t seen a lot of guys make in this league,” Maxey said. “I was in awe.”
The man they call Bball Paul — a nickname that stems from his rhyming Twitter handle so literal and catchy that public-address announcer Matt Cord uses it instead of Reed’s actual name — has received increased opportunity during the past week. It is a ripple-effect of starting frontcourt players Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris and flexible wing Matisse Thybulle missing time while in Covid-19 health and safety protocols for positive tests, before Harris returned to action for Thursday’s home game against the Toronto Raptors.
Reed made his first two NBA starts over the Sixers’ past four games and remained in the rotation even with Harris back Thursday, totaling four points on 2-of-2 shooting, two rebounds and three steals against the Raptors. He has flashed the energy and athleticism that quickly made him a fan favorite while gaining experience that should prove valuable for the second-year big man.
“That’s the best way to improve in the NBA game,” coach Doc Rivers said. “The problem is there are guys in front of you that you have to do it on the practice court and other areas.”
A sampling of Reed’s play over the past week includes a sequence at Detroit where he lost the ball while trying to spin in the lane, corralled it from the floor, hit Andre Drummond with a bounce pass under the hoop and stood up to dunk the putback off Drummond’s miss. In Chicago last Saturday, he tracked down a loose ball outside the three-point arc and took it all the way to the rack. In the first quarter against the Raptors, he blocked Dalano Banton on one end, ran the floor the opposite way, took a pass from Maxey and stormed to the basket for a two-handed dunk. He averaged 5.8 rebounds in 16.5 minutes over the four games entering Thursday, and scored 10 points in the win over the Bulls.
Normally the third-string center behind Embiid and Drummond, the 6-foot-10, 210-pound Reed has played a variety of less-than-familiar positions during this stretch, including small forward in Detroit and power forward against Chicago and Milwaukee on Tuesday.
“There was a couple times down the court where guys had to direct me [or] tell me to go to the corner,” Reed said following the Bulls game. “And then it was loud. You got to adapt. I’m adapting right now.”
Yet the defensive assignments Reed has drawn have been even more important for the Sixers.
In that surprise first NBA start against the Bulls, he was the primary defender on savvy All-Star DeMar DeRozan, who had lit the Sixers up for 37 points in their meeting three days prior. Reed was hard on himself for biting on one of DeRozan’s quintessential pump fakes, but Rivers was pleased with how Reed’s size and length helped keep DeRozan out of the short corner area between the basket and three-point arc.
“I held him under his average,” Reed said of DeRozan, who scored 25 points that night. “So it’s a win.”
Then, Reed matched up against Antetokounmpo, who uses supreme strength and athleticism to consistently barrel toward the basket like a freight train. Reed was sturdy in a first half that included that highlight block, but Antetokoumpo adjusted after the break and kept forcing Reed to play him on the side.
“[That approach] is like water; he just went through him,” Rivers said. “ … You gotta play Giannis square, and make him go through your chest. If he gets you on the side, it’s over, and Giannis seized the moment.”
The newness of this increased role for Reed poked through when his cellphone ringer went off during the postgame press conference in Chicago, prompting him to say, “My bad. My first media [availability after a game].”
It was the latest step for a player who has displayed potential and not-quite-ready-for-this moments during his early NBA career.
He was the MVP of the G League’s bubble 2021 season, averaging 22.3 points on 58.8% shooting to go along with 11.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. During Summer League in August, he exploded for 27 points, 20 rebounds, four blocks, four steals and four assists against Minnesota in only the second 20-20 game ever recorded in the offseason exhibition for young and fringe players.
Rivers lamented that Reed fouled too much during preseason practices — he picked up three in 13 minutes Thursday — yet has regularly uttered some version of the phrase, “If there’s a loose ball, Paul Reed’s gonna get it.” That ability is part instinct and part diligence, a quality teammate Georges Niang immediately noticed when he joined the Sixers last summer.
“I remember when I first got here,” Niang said, “I was like, ‘Is this dude really always in the gym? Or is this just like a front for the first couple days of training camp?’ Then, I’ll come back and shoot every once in a while, and Paul Reed will be coming in right after me.”
Reed said “I don’t got emotions” when asked about his reaction and approach when notified he would get his first NBA start last week. But that does not mean he is a robot on the court.
During the preseason, Reed chuckled while retelling a story about the time last season he tried talking smack to Embiid “so I can get in his head,” and the result was, “I’m not gonna say he dunked on me, but he just got me out the way.” By Tuesday, Reed had made a defensive play worthy of chirping at Antetokounmpo, who then pointed at Reed with a bewildered look.
And even if Reed’s minutes dwindle as the Sixers’ roster begins to reload as players steadily come out of protocols, Maxey sees the value of the highlight moments within the meaningful playing time the second-year big man just received.
“Stuff like that,” Maxey said of Reed’s block, “I think that’s what carries on.”