Tyrese Maxey Is A One-Cut Running Back

Let’s start with the obvious caveat: it’s been three games. Nothing we’ve seen remotely approximates a significant sample size. But it’s also long enough that it’s hard to resist the dangers of extrapolation. Where is the line between optimism and fantasy?

I was not particularly excited about the 76ers before the season started (and I’m usually excited about everything). The James Harden situation had sapped my hope for Philly, and while they made some clever moves on the margins, it felt like Boston and Milwaukee had surged ahead in the East with their splashy summer acquisitions. Without Harden, the Sixers seemed destined to glumly shuffle their way through the season with an eye-and-a-half on free agency.

But as of today, the 76ers are one of the teams I’ve enjoyed watching the most this season. They went toe-to-toe with revamped Milwaukee in the first game despite an off night from Embiid, beat a bad Toronto team, and blew out an inexperienced and overwhelmed Portland. The schedule hasn’t been brutal, but the Sixers’ play has been encouraging.

Best of all? The Harden saga is over far quicker than most imagined, and Philly got a nice haul: a bunch of draft picks (including a tasty unprotected 2028 from the Clippers) and a hodgepodge of potentially useful forwards, including Robert Covington, Nic Batum, Marcus Morris, and dunk machine KJ Martin.

Embiid has been a monster in his last two games, looking the part of a scoring champ while distributing at career-best levels and playing cacophonous defense. Kelly Oubre has been shockingly effective (don’t hold your breath). Jaden Springer only plays a handful of minutes per game, but he has some of the best guard blocks I’ve seen in a long time. Tobias Harris has been his usual underappreciated self but even more efficient.

And yet, my optimism for Philly is primarily piqued thanks to the efforts of Tyrese Maxey. In three games, Maxey is averaging 30 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 6.3 assists while shooting 50% from the field and 56% from deep on high volume. He’s handling more, passing more, shooting more, and turning it over less.

It’s too early to talk about Most Improved Player awards (or is it?), but Maxey’s name would undoubtedly be in the conversation.

Maxey averaged more 25/5/4 in 13 games without Harden last year, but this is a substantial leap even over that. So what’s causing this surge? 

Perhaps the biggest change is in Maxey’s usage. With Harden on the team, just over a quarter of Maxey’s possessions were categorized as “spot up” by Synergy Sports. That’s down to fewer than 10% of his possessions in 2023-24, and it’s been replaced by a massive uptick in plays designed to get Maxey the ball on the move, mostly via handoffs:

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As you can see above, new coach Nick Nurse has implemented some fun guard-guard screens and handoffs using Patrick Beverley as the initial screener, designed to get Maxey onto the weakest perimeter defender.

The Sixers have also tried to spring him way up high. If Maxey is given the slightest bit of runway, he brings devastation and ruin:

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Maxey isn’t some ballhandling genius or finishing wizard; instead, he’s like a one-cut running back in the NFL. He is patient but explosive, decisive, and efficient in his movements. Maxey’s bag isn’t the deepest, but he doesn’t need a Mary Poppins purse when the moves and finishes he does have work so well. You don’t put unnecessary accoutrements on a bullet train. (In fact, that is perhaps the biggest reason for optimism that he can sustain this production level: it’s easy to see him developing more craft and getting even better.)

Maxey has shown new aggressiveness in seeking and finishing through contact, just like a one-cut running back:

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After averaging just 3.6 free throw attempts as a junior, Maxey has 23 in three games so far. Maxey is slightly built, but he’s so quick that defenders are rarely in legal guarding position, and when he initiates contact, the refs are forced to blow a whistle.

He’s also become much better at extending the ball in front of him while he drives and shooting when he feels contact, a move amplified by his strong floater game. It’s a positively Harden-esque technique:

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And while nobody can replace Harden as a traditional point guard, Maxey’s playmaking numbers have improved with his on-ball opportunities. He’s become far more patient in the pick-and-roll with Embiid:

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Through three games, Maxey has 10 dimes to Embiid. That 3.3 assists per game rate is almost triple last year’s 1.3, despite the team running far fewer pick-and-rolls than the previous season. Anecdotally, it feels like Embiid is popping more with Maxey as opposed to the short roll he mastered with Harden, but when you can shoot like Embiid can, there are no bad options.

Overall, Maxey has assisted on 29% of his teammates’ buckets. That’s a far cry from the number that Harden and other pure point guards put up, but it’s nearly half-again as high as Maxey’s previous best mark. He’s a capable passer who never makes mistakes: he has 19 assists on the season versus just three turnovers!

In most cases, having so few turnovers is a bad thing because it means that the passer isn’t being aggressive enough, but I’m not sure that’s the case here: Maxey’s 12.3 potential assists per game are 14th in the league as of the time of this writing. That’s an excellent mark (if somewhat inflated by Maxey’s high minutes totals — Nick Nurse plays his favorites hard) considering how much of the offense flows through Embiid.

Speaking of playing hard, Maxey’s improved defense effort down the stretch last season has carried over into this year. While he’ll never be even an average defender, he’s at least trying. As a short, skinny guard without kangaroo hops or orangutan arms, his upside here is limited, but he’s hardly Trae Young from two seasons ago (even current Trae Young isn’t that guy, thankfully).

One positive defensive note: Maxey’s rebounding numbers have been off the charts for someone his size. While I don’t think they’ll stay anywhere near that level, the Sixers should be encouraging this behavior. Every defensive rebound he grabs has the opportunity to turn into the fastest of breaks, and Maxey looks to push the pace whenever he can:

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I’ve saved the best for last: Maxey is currently 14-for-25 from deep. While that won’t hold forever, this is the third straight season of Maxey hitting over 40% from three while increasing his volume dramatically. His combination of deadeye shooting and Sonic speed is what makes his entire game work: defenders either have to close out hard, opening up the lane, or they respect his speed too much and give up the deep ball.

Put it all together, and Maxey looks on track for an All-Star campaign.

Philadelphia is likely still a significant player short of true title contention, but Maxey’s ascent changes the measurements of the piece they’re missing. If he can be the primary perimeter scoring threat, perhaps Philly will look for a two-way wing instead of a guard? Maybe they look for table-setters, not scorers? Morey has all these new shiny new picks to play with, and he won’t be sitting on them past the deadline.

The 76ers won’t be the favorite to emerge from the East, but they aren’t the never-wases people sneeringly dismissed before the season, either. This iteration of Maxey is a far more dynamic scorer than Philly Harden ever was, and we’ve never been fortunate enough to see a healthy Embiid in the playoffs. Add in a true third banana (or orange, or pineapple — whatever shape they take), and the line between reasonable optimism and fantasy gets blurry quickly.

The 76ers’ season felt over before it began, but this is why they play the games. Maxey’s incandescence has sparked the light of hope. 

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.