DENVER — Tyrese Maxey has known Charles Bassey longer than anyone in the 76ers’ locker room.
“I first met Charles when I was a freshman in high school,” Maxey said. “He was ranked the No. 1 player in Texas. I was the No. 2 player in Texas.”
As a result, Maxey wasn’t surprised by Bassey’s stellar performance in Thursday’s 103-89 victory over the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena. The seldom-used rookie center finished with career-highs of 12 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks and 19 minutes.
“I knew he could do this,“ Maxey said. “I told him. I just told him when I was back there [in the locker room], I said, ‘That’s the Charles Bassey I know from high school. You got to keep doing that, keep your confidence high, keep working and you’d be great.’”
Maxey is not alone with that assessment.
Coach Doc Rivers raved over the 6-foot-11, 235-pounder’s impact, basketball IQ and on-court communication after the past two games. Tobias Harris called Bassey the spark that pushed the team over the top versus the Nuggets.
“He’s a heck of a player and he showed it,” Harris said. “So for him, I just think the key going forward is to build off of that same energy night in and night out. He is ready for the opportunity.”
He’s getting this opportunity because Joel Embiid is sidelined.
Embiid, a four-time All-Star center, has missed the past six games after testing positive for COVID. His absence thrust reserve center Andre Drummond into the starting lineup during those games and provided more minutes for Bassey. Before then, Bassey’s only game action came during garbage minutes in three of the Sixers’ first seven games.
But he was ready when his time came. Before he was in the rotation, Bassey worked hard in workouts and studied a lot of film.
With the Sixers (9-7) undermanned, Rivers inserted Bassey into the Nov. 9 game against the Milwaukee Bucks for close to five minutes. He rewarded Rivers by blocking two shots. Then four days later, Bassey saw four minutes of action against the Indiana Pacers.
He followed that up with 5 points, 4 rebounds and 1 block in 9½ minutes against the Utah Jazz. But Bassey’s biggest contribution might have been telling veteran teammates where they needed to be on the floor. He did the same thing on Thursday. Bassey said he’s learned to be vocal from watching Embiid and Drummond.
“You rarely see a five, a rookie five, calling out coverages, calling switch,” Rivers said. “He veered three times where he took the guard and the guy went out to [Denver center Nikola] Jokić.
“He’s been somewhere coached well or he just has a great feel for the game. That’s what’s going to make him a great player.”
Bassey’s work ethic and attention to detail have a lot to do with his excelling when called upon. He’s shown glimpses of what he’s capable of doing during shootarounds and practices.
“J. Love and D.J. have been in my ear for about a week, just saying, ‘He’s ready. I’m telling you he’s ready,’ ” Rivers said of skill development coaches Dwayne Jones and Jason Love. “And he was.”
Some could argue that he’s been built for this moment.
As a 6-10 freshman, Bassey averaged 20.2 points, 17.1 rebounds and 5.9 blocks at St. Anthony Catholic High School, in San Antonio. Before his junior season, he transferred to DeSales High School in Louisville, Ky., and played for Aspire Basketball Academy. Bassey averaged 19.4 points and 12.8 rebounds and was rated the nation’s No. 3 college prospect in the Class of 2019 by 247Sports.
However, he reclassified to the Class of 2018 and signed to play for Western Kentucky in the 2018-19 season. Bassey excelled at Western Kentucky, but his sophomore season was cut short after he suffered a tibial plateau fracture (at the top of his shin bone, at the knee).
As a junior last season, he was named the Conference USA player of the year and defensive player of the year.
He then entered the June draft, expecting to be a first-round pick. Bassey slid to the Sixers with the 53rd pick partly because of concerns about his shin/knee.
Bassey’s agent held him out of NBA summer league because he had yet to sign a contract. Bassey finally signed his deal in late September, a couple of days ahead of training camp.
“There’s a little bit of adversity just from my injury, then [not playing] in summer league,” Bassey said. “All I can do is control what I can control. That’s going out there, playing as hard as I can play for the team.
“Then after that, Doc gave me a chance... My teammates trust me. That’s all can do.”