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The 2020 NBA draft and COVID-19: Tyrese Maxey, Paul Reed, and Isaiah Joe reflect on a Sixers rookie class unlike any other

Thursday will mark one year since Maxey, Reed and Joe officially became Sixers. They have formed a deep bond they believe will carry through their NBA careers and beyond.

Coach Doc Rivers of the Sixers instructing Tyrese Maxey during their game against the Nets at the Wells Fargo Center on Oct. 22.
Coach Doc Rivers of the Sixers instructing Tyrese Maxey during their game against the Nets at the Wells Fargo Center on Oct. 22.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Paul Reed emphasized that he refused to cry. And Tyrese Maxey could not help but interject.

The two 76ers were recalling the night they were drafted by Philly, and a playful debate ensued about the outward emotions that should or should not have flowed.

“I almost started crying,” Reed began. “But I’m a man, so I ain’t let no tears come out my eyes. ... I was fighting tears that night. I was like, ‘I ain’t gonna cry. That would be messed up.’”

“What kind of sense does that make?” Maxey countered. “That you a man, so you can’t cry? Where you get that from? You can be a man and have emotions.”

“I just feel like you can’t have feelings when you a man,” Reed responded.

" … They can be tears of joy,” Maxey added.

“I guess you right. You’re not wrong,” Reed conceded.

“I ain’t fighting no tears,” Maxey said.

That exchange gave a glimpse into the dynamic among the Sixers’ second-year players who have become close friends. Maxey is smiley and gregarious in everyday life, but a fearless finisher on the court. Reed offers subdued-yet-sly comments that will float by if you’re not paying attention, but brings the energy to track down loose balls or stand up to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Isaiah Joe, who grinned while sitting between Maxey and Reed during their banter, is polite and polished, but a flamethrower from beyond the arc.

» READ MORE: From ‘minivan’ to ‘sprinter’: Georges Niang proving to be a perfect fit for the Sixers and Philly

Though their personalities are different, all three players are gym rats forever connected as part of the 2020 Sixers draft class that just completed a bizarre, whirlwind calendar year.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the end of their final college seasons, then created the longest pre-draft process in history. That wait sharply transitioned to a rapid turnaround for Sixers training camp, followed by a rookie season full of health and safety protocols and restrictions while playing for the team that posted the best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference.

Now, Maxey, Reed, and Joe are 15 games into their second NBA season and contributing to a Sixers team hit hard by injuries and the virus. Maxey has thrived as the starting point guard, Reed has stepped in as a reserve frontcourt player, and Joe recorded a season-high in minutes Tuesday at Utah in his return from protocols.

In the process, Maxey, Reed, and Joe have formed a deep bond they believe will carry through their NBA careers and beyond.

“We’re always learning something from each other,” Joe said. “Every time we talk to each other, it’s almost like meeting each other for the first time, finding something new. But it’s also [that] we’re comfortable with each other, too. It’s weird. We’re all so different, and we clash so well.”

Thursday will mark one year since Maxey, Reed, and Joe officially became Sixers. The three players recently sat down to reflect on the last 12 months, in their own words.

(Note: Answers have been edited slightly for length and clarity)

On Nov. 18, 2020, Maxey, Reed, and Joe waited for their names to be called at the NBA draft. With the pandemic still raging and vaccines not yet available to the public, the ceremony was held virtually rather than in person in New York City.

Reed: I was in a mansion. We threw a mansion party in Orlando. My agent threw a mansion party.

Maxey: I was at the crib in Garland, Texas. My mom kind of re-created the draft green room type of thing. It was mostly family and friends. Because of COVID, she made everybody get tested 48 hours before. Then they had to test again at the door. Of course, we didn’t get to go through the process of going to the green room, going to New York, but I feel like this one was better. Being at home, you could have more people there that you know and it was more intimate.

Joe: I was back in my college town, Fayetteville, Ark. My strength trainer had just opened up a new gym, so we decided to do our little draft night there. Had some fans, family. It was strong COVID, so we didn’t have as many people as we probably would have in a normal situation. But, nonetheless, it was a great experience just to be able to celebrate with my people and get drafted. It was a dream come true, that happening. I knew, from that day on, it was just time to push forward and get better.

Unlike most offseasons for newly drafted players, which include summer league in Las Vegas and workouts with teammates and staff before training camp, Maxey, Reed, and Joe needed to quickly report to Philadelphia for the start of the 2020-21 season. That’s also where they met one another for the first time.

Joe: After Tyrese decided to get COVID and miss the whole training camp …

Maxey: Well, technically I have no idea how I got COVID.

Joe: I also appreciate Philly for right after the draft, we didn’t have to report right away. They gave us an extra week to be able to be with our families over Thanksgiving. That was just cool to get a week to experience the emotions with your family, knowing what your next steps were going to be.

Maxey: It was kind of surreal. Once you figure out what city you’re finally going to, you figure out your teammates, you figure out your situation, figure out all this contract stuff. Then, for me, it was like, all right, boom, I’m about to leave in two days, let’s go get tested. For some reason, I randomly just started feeling bad the day before Thanksgiving. I get my test results back, have COVID. Now I’ve got to quarantine for at least 10 days. After all the hard work I’d put in to stay in shape throughout all the time since the college season stoppage, all those months it was, for me, to be the best shape of my life, and then now going into training camp I have to sit out 10 days before I have to step on the court. It was really weird. You got to be resilient and fight through it.

Joe: We started bonding, I want to say, right as soon as all of us saw each other. I first met P. Reed, I saw him at the Four Seasons hotel.

Reed: Actually, I saw you at the airport.

Joe: The airport! Yeah! We did meet at the airport, actually. We became cool on sight. As soon as Tyrese came here, we all became cool. I think it’s just us all being in the same situation and being relatable at the time really brought us together throughout the whole season.

Maxey: I remember meeting Paul in the Four Seasons for the first time. I was just confused why ...

Reed: I remember this ...

Maxey: He was downstairs. It was early in the morning. We were about to get our physicals and I’m like, “Why are you not practicing or whatever?” and he was like, “Man, they said I had COVID, but it was inconclusive.”

Joe: Paul disappeared on me, man, for like three days. Paul was at the gym the first few days, and then I didn’t see him for like four days and I’m like, “Where is Paul?” And I come to find out, he’s been stuck in the Four Seasons on quarantine protocol. Oh, my gosh.

When does a friendship become official? Probably when a group chat is created, which Maxey, Reed, and Joe have used for multiple purposes throughout the year.

Maxey: We were on the road to go to Indiana. In the hotel, there’s a Steak ‘n Shake right there. I wanted to go to Steak ‘n Shake. I asked Isaiah and Paul who wanted to go. We met in Isaiah’s room, and then I started thinking, like, “Well, can we even leave the hotel?” Because they were so big on the COVID stuff. And then we called and it was like, “No, y’all can’t go. You have to DoorDash.”

Joe: And Steak ‘n Shake’s not on DoorDash …

Maxey: I’m like, “I can see it, right? I’m looking through the window looking at it. I promise you we’re just going to walk there and come right back and get it.” And they were like, “Nah.” We couldn’t go. Then down the line, remember we went to that one? We doubled back and went the last time. Ever since then, whenever we need something, we use the group chat. Last year, we had rookie duties that we needed to do for the group chat.

Reed: Chick-fil-A. Carrying Jo’s [Joel Embiid’s] bag. There would be times when Isaiah would be like, “Hey, man. I can’t do it today, man.”

Maxey: All I remember is one time, with Joel’s bag, it was snowing in, I want to say ... maybe Detroit? I don’t know, but it was cold and it was snowing and we got to walk upstairs to get on the plane. I have Joel’s bag, and I thought it was going to be over for me. I got up there and I slipped on the snow, and I grabbed myself on the rail. I dropped Joel’s bag, but I caught it, and I just stood there for like two minutes and everybody was like, “Tyrese! Bro!” And I’m like, “Bro! Wait! Let me get my mind and my bearings back right, my focus.”

Joe: But other than carrying bags, getting Chik-fil-A, getting doughnuts … we’d run errands from time to time, but it wasn’t too bad. I think COVID actually helped us out with that. We couldn’t be out and about all the time.

Maxey: Now we just check up on each other — especially over the offseason, after summer league and before summer league, when we weren’t with each other.

» READ MORE: Isaiah Joe’s trip to rejoin the Sixers was just as hectic as his COVID-19 departure

Maxey, Reed, and Joe leaned on each other while finding their way as rookies during a condensed 2020-21 season. Because they were on the roster of a championship contender, playing time was inconsistent. Reed became MVP of the G League bubble, where Joe also played a stretch. Maxey was a breakout performer during the playoffs. But much of their development took place while competing against one another behind the scenes.

Reed: These dudes work just as hard as me. When I come in the gym in the morning and I see these two dudes, it’s like, “All right, I got some people with me at the same time.” We all work hard. As long as you got a respect level for these guys, there’s nothing better.

Joe: We would have low-minute-player scrimmages, and they’re supposed to be, like, four six-minute quarters. We would get so competitive at times, we would turn those four quarters into eight quarters and coaches would have to say, “Hey, this is the last one, for sure. No matter the result, this is the last one.” We were so competitive. We all want to win and be the best that we can, and we know what it takes to get there. The coaches do a really good job of pushing us, as well. We definitely take it to the extreme whenever we’re competing against each other. We never want to stop.

Maxey: Last year, we never knew how much we would play. We were on a championship-aspiration team. We were the No. 1 team in the East. It was extremely hard, especially with COVID, with no summer league. You never knew what your minutes were going to be like. Being there for each other during certain times, like low-minute games, or maybe even just checking up on each other. We’re all on the bench, “Hey, man, you good? Stay ready, man. You never know.” Which is true.

Reed: The biggest things that were different were the tempo and the speed and the skill level of all the players. Just adapting to how good everybody was. Normally you go in, and I get a hook shot up. For me, I’m 6-9, normally it’s money. Now, it’s like you’ve got 6-11 guys, Joel Embiid, it’s a different feel for the game.

Maxey: Paul went to the G League, was the MVP, comes back. I remember he gets thrown into the game first quarter against the Lakers. Knock on wood, you never want anybody to get hurt, but when someone gets hurt, it’s time for one of us to step up. Last year, I think we really did that for each other and made sure we had each other staying ready, made sure each of us was locked in at all times. Then, when we went head-to-head for low-minute games or just working out, we always competed. It was never personal. It was always, like, we want to make each other better for when the moment comes.

Reed: I always knew I was coming back up from the G League. I knew I was going to be right back in the mix. We always felt connected. Isaiah came down.

Joe: I took a visit to see my boy. To see the madness he had created down there.

Maxey: I was about to come, too. I watched dang near every game. Every time Paul or Isaiah was on, I would try and watch. I remember one time they were playing in the championship game, and we were in maybe Chicago or Washington. I remember I was just sitting there at my locker just watching the game. You always support your brothers, no matter what the situation is.

Reed: The biggest challenge might be when Doc’s screaming at you, and you’re really kind of scared. That’s the biggest challenge is just getting past that in your mind. You’ve got Doc screaming and you’re just like, “OK, I got to focus. I got to lock in.”

Maxey: I’m not going to lie, the lowest point for me was not getting in the game. Some games I didn’t play, and it hurts. Of course, I’m always team-oriented, so if we win, it makes you feel good. But at the end of the day, you work extremely hard to perform on the court, to play on the court and try to help your team. The hardest thing for me was the games I didn’t play, and that’s just being honest.

Joe: My challenge was off the court. Coming from college, where you got to worry about basketball and school and get your studies in, to come into this situation where it’s just basketball, you leave yourself with a lot of free time once you leave the gym. My challenge was finding out things to do, trying not to be bored all the time. Time management. It got to the point where I’m like I’m calling my people like, “Hey, I need my trainer. I need somebody to come spend some time with me, because I hate living by myself.”

Reed: A high point, I think maybe scoring the first two points, catching my first body.

Maxey: If one of us got in, our job was to put on. The highest point I had for us was when I scored or I did well to help the win. When I was in, it was all of us. We were one person at that time. Just contributing in the playoffs, as us rookies, it was the best moment. Them having my back. Every time I went in the game or every time I had done something, they were always the first two saying, “Man, good job. You put on today. Keep doing what you’re doing and always stay ready.”

Joe: Even off the court, we just make sure each other’s mental health is all right. There was a devastating passing last year with Terrence Clark [the former Kentucky player and friend of Maxey who was killed in a car accident in April], so really checked up on my guy ‘Rese all the time.

Maxey: It was right after the game when I found out. Those two were the first two right next to me. I had someone to lean on and someone to be there for me at a time of need. They have no connection to Terrence Clark, but at the time, they’re connected to me, so they know, “Hey, man, we’ve got to go pick up our brother while he’s down. He needs us.” They were always there for me, and I appreciate them for that.

A hectic rookie season turned into another shortened offseason. All three players thrived while playing in their first summer league, and have been called on to contribute early in the 2021-22 season. It’s been the next step for three players who will always be bonded as part of a unique 2020 NBA draft class.

Joe: It was like you’re back at school when you come back up here for summer league or workouts, just to have some players that you have chemistry with. One job that we really took on whenever we went to Vegas was trying to be leaders of the team, because we were ones with more experience that some didn’t have, like the rookies. We knew the plays that were going to be run coming from the Sixers. So just going out there, being leaders and continuing to push each other all the time.

Maxey: This season is extremely different. It’s not even close, comparison-wise. You think about it, I didn’t get to play much in training camp. The reps we got in training camp if we were here last year, we didn’t play as much.

Reed: That’s a fact.

Maxey: This year, we had summer league. We had individual workouts here back in Philly. And then in training camp, we were in it a lot more. Now the games come, the comfort level just increases, because you feel more comfortable because you got the reps in training camp, you see what you can do in the summer league. I feel like the team trusts you more. They see you a little bit more. The coaching staff trusts you a little bit more. You know the organization a little bit more. You’ve been in Philly or Jersey or wherever you live for a year now. Your comfort level, it naturally grows the longer you’re in a place.

Joe: Tyrese and Paul, they were always checking in when I was out with COVID. That’s my guy. We’ve been through a lot this last year. As much as we’ve been through, it feels like we’ve been in this together for five-plus years, but we’ve been through a lot.

Maxey: As soon as I saw Isaiah walk in the locker room, I stopped what I was doing and gave him a big hug and told him I missed him. It was really good to see him. I’m glad he’s healthy; it was good to see him back on the court running around.

Joe: I’m not surprised at all that Tyrese is out there doing his thing, putting up big numbers. I’m not surprised that Paul Reed’s out there being a menace around the basket, like a lot of us found out real quick. Paul’s out there getting big minutes now, rebounding, contesting at the rim, just being a high-energy guy. Tyrese is doing a phenomenal job of taking on that point guard role and controlling the team. He’s really had a lot on his plate this whole season, being the starting point guard. I feel like he’s taken that role on tremendously.

Reed: Coming in, you’re learning so much, and that’s been what the past year has been for us. A lot of learning experiences. A lot of opportunities for growth. It’s a dream come true. This is what we wanted our whole lives.

Joe: The great thing about this group right here is we all have a chip on our shoulder, especially coming in as rookies trying to pave our way and prove our point. We definitely came in with a chip on our shoulder, and no matter what’s going on right now, we’ve got to remember that this is a long journey. This is just the beginning. Everything takes time. With that being said, it’s just about staying connected, putting pressure on each other, competing every day, getting better, just so we can secure our future.

Maxey: We’re connected for life now. We’ll always be a part of the 2020 draft class for the Philadelphia 76ers. No matter how our career turns out, where we go, we’re always connected. We’ll always go down in the history books.