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Tyrese Maxey is ready for key role with the Sixers, thanks to an ‘unbreakable spirit’ and diligent approach

Whether he is the starting point guard or a bench spark plug, Maxey is poised for a breakout season.

Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey passes the basketball against the Detroit Pistons during a preseason game last week.
Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey passes the basketball against the Detroit Pistons during a preseason game last week.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Tyrese Maxey made a vow the morning after the 76ers returned from a disappointing preseason opener at Toronto.

While watching film alongside skills development coach Spencer Rivers, Maxey noticed how he tried to force himself into being a traditional point guard, instead of using his speed to get past defenders and into the paint to create scoring opportunities for teammates and himself.

“I said, ‘That was the last time I will play a basketball game without being myself,’ ” Maxey recalled last week. “That’s not a selfish thing. I’m saying for me to be the best and help this team the most, I have to be Tyrese Maxey. Me not being Tyrese Maxey hurts the team.”

Expectations are high for Maxey heading into his second season, which begins when the Sixers play their opener Wednesday night against the New Orleans Pelicans. His exact role on this team remains in flux. If Ben Simmons, who returned to practice Sunday following a two-week holdout because of a trade demand, never actually plays a game for the Sixers, Maxey will likely begin the season as the starting point guard. If Simmons does play for the Sixers, or if a trade — that does not involve Maxey — brings back a lead ballhandler, Maxey will be the second unit’s scoring spark.

» READ MORE: Why Andre Drummond joining Doc Rivers was a decade in the making

The uncertainty does not matter to Maxey, an affable 20-year-old whose wide grin masks an unrelenting work ethic and fierce competitive streak. He’s already earned the respect of veteran NBA teammates such as Danny Green, who called Maxey “special” and a future NBA star, and coach Doc Rivers, who on media day said this about Maxey: “I don’t want to bestow all this on him, but I am, because I believe in him — he’s gonna be a key with or without [Simmons].”

Though nothing so far in Maxey’s basketball life compares to being a rotation player on a team with championship aspirations, his past experiences and mentality have helped him prepare for what’s to come.

“He just has an unbreakable spirit about himself,” said Joel Justus, one of Maxey’s assistant coaches at Kentucky. “He comes in every day. He’s excited to be alive. He’s excited to be in the gym. Loves to be coached. Loves to be engaged with people. …

“When you have kids like that that are intoxicated about getting better and learning and working, it only kind of feeds into your excitement.”

That diligent approach was engrained in Maxey from a young age. Once, after his sixth-grade team lost a game in Memphis, father and son made the long six-hour drive back home to Dallas. Even so, Maxey’s father, Tyrone, immediately sat Tyrese down to watch the film of that day’s performance.

“I’m thinking at the time, ‘Man, why would I want to watch the game again? We just lost. I didn’t play well,’ ” Maxey said. “At the time, I didn’t understand why we’re doing that, but now you look back on it, I really do appreciate him for that.”

That was life for Maxey as the son of a 20-year high school and college coach and former player at Washington State. Maxey said those sessions laid the foundation for the way he approaches film study today. His father instilled discipline that Maxey implemented, down to the details of making sure each pass to a shooter he threw while playing in summer league was on the laces.

Film study generated Maxey’s strong basketball IQ to pair with his immense talent. At South Garland High School, he developed into a McDonald’s All-American and Texas’ Mr. Basketball in 2019. That season, he tied a state tournament record when he dropped 46 points in a crushing semifinal overtime loss, then departed for Kentucky as the top-rated recruit in that year’s class.

Kentucky was more than a factory for one-and-done NBA draft picks who happened to compete for an NCAA title along the way. Justus said Maxey’s 2019-20 team was not populated with what he called “lawn mowers,” aka players the coaches needed to “start up” because they lacked self-motivation.

Maxey was an ideal fit in that regard. He dazzled in his collegiate debut, scoring 26 points and hitting the game’s biggest shot with less than a minute to play in the Wildcats’ win over No. 1 Michigan State inside the illustrious Madison Square Garden. He became an All-SEC performer for a team that would have been a No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament if it had not been canceled at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet behind the scenes at practice nearly every day, coach John Calipari would curl both hands into fists and yell “HIGH SCHOOL!” whenever Maxey made a mistake. In response, Maxey would look at Calipari and smile, Justus said.

“He really had to develop some tough skin,” said Justus, who now coaches at Arizona State. “Tyrese was always such a happy-go-lucky kid, and I could see there being some days that he was just like, ‘Man, what am I doing? I can’t do anything right.’

“Cal was hard on him. Probably not too hard, but overly critical at times.”

» READ MORE: Ben Simmons returns to practicing with Sixers as a full participant

Maxey called it a lesson in building his own confidence and sacrifice. That team also featured point guards Immanuel Quickley, an NBA second-team All-Rookie selection last season with the New York Knicks, and Ashton Hagans, the SEC’s co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2020, who spent time on a two-way contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves last season.

So Maxey primarily played off the ball, learning how to run off pin-down screens to get his shot. But he needed to abruptly shift into the lead guard spot during Kentucky’s final regular-season game against Florida, when Hagans did not make the trip for disciplinary reasons and Quickley fouled out about midway through the second half. Maxey only scored seven points and missed 10 of 11 shots, but dished out seven assists in 39 minutes to propel the Wildcats’ rally from 18 points down to win, 71-70.

“Just the grit and the grind that he showed during that game,” Justus said, “that, to me, was tremendous growth from the beginning of the season to the end. … Tyrese never really had the ball in his hands [previously], and he had it for 40 minutes that day.”

Maxey believes that experience matured him for a whirlwind rookie NBA season, which he called “the biggest test of my life.”

He reminds others that it has not even been a calendar year since he became a Sixer or met his teammates or coaching staff. The 2020 NBA draft unfolded the night of Nov. 18. Training camp began the first week of December, though his arrival was delayed because he tested positive for COVID-19.

It was also an adjustment for Maxey to join an experienced team that posted the Eastern Conference’s best regular-season record. His playing time was spotty throughout much of the regular season — he flashed his potential when he scored a season-high 39 pointsin a January game against Denver — until he seized more minutes during the playoffs. He scored in double digits four times during the postseason, including a 16-point, seven-rebound effort in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

“At the end of the day, this is a job,” Maxey said. “And whatever the situation is, you have to be ready and be prepared for it. ... One thing I always told myself is, ‘I’m always gonna stay ready for the moment and do whatever I need to do to help this team win.’ ”

Maxey is now being tutored by two former successful NBA point guards in Rivers and assistant coach Sam Cassell. When asked about the most important lessons they’ve taught him so far, Maxey said there are “so many things I can’t even put a list together.”

Rivers is not sure if he is particularly hard on young point guards. But he does know that he gives them a lot of information about timing and how to set up a play, rather than simply run it.

“I’m one of the few guys like them,” Rivers said, “that can see what should happen and what’s next.”

Early in training camp, Rivers compared Maxey’s situation to when the coach worked with a young Rajon Rondo, who was charged with leading the Boston Celtics alongside stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Those players “were hot every play, in their minds,” Rivers said, and constantly demanded the ball. Any shot that Rondo took was a shot that one of the Big 3 did not take, Rivers said, a scenario one could apply to the present-day Sixers with Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris.

“So when you do take it, it better be a good one,” Rivers said about two weeks ago. “You have to kind of learn the feel of that. That’s a tough spot, because you gotta stay aggressive, but you also got to get everybody else involved. That’s why it’s a hard position.”

In recent days, though, Rivers has stressed to Maxey that he must consistently use his burst to get downhill toward the basket to create for himself and teammates. When Maxey entered the lane on his own off an action during Thursday’s practice, Green and other teammates started “clapping like, ‘That’s what we’re talking about!’ ” Rivers said.

“[I told him], ‘You’re a ballplayer. Just go play ball. I’ll tell you when you’re not doing something right, but I don’t need you in your head,’ ” Rivers said. “The more free and fast he can play, the better for our team.”

Maxey put that skill on display during Friday’s preseason finale against the Detroit Pistons, getting to the basket for an array of tough and crafty driving finishes while also finding big man Andre Drummond for an alley-oop dunk. Maxey made five of his first six shot attempts and finished with 16 points, five rebounds and three assists.

That was one sign that he was back to being Tyrese Maxey. Another came the day prior, when he sat in front of a media scrum and, when asked how he was doing, flashed his signature smile and said, “I’m livin.”

It was a callback to when Maxey was asked about his gregarious demeanor during summer league — or a callback to how he tackles every single day.

“I’ve been like this all my life,” Maxey said in August. “As soon as I came out the womb, I was happy. I get to do what I love every single day, and I have to thank God for it. Every single night and every single morning, I’m on my knees praying, because I really appreciate this opportunity and I won’t take it for granted.”