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It doesn’t take long for Tyrese Maxey’s signature enthusiasm to surface. Dribbling a basketball under his legs as we sit courtside in the Philadelphia 76ers Camden, New Jersey, practice facility, he speaks with exuberance about, well, nearly everything.
Maxey loves Game of Thrones and eagerly awaits the second season of its prequel, House of the Dragon. His allegiance? “I can't go against the Targaryens,” Maxey, clad in his Sixers practice gear, tells me with a grin. He’s become quite the fan of Wawa, the convenience store synonymous with the greater Philadelphia area. “‘Why am I going to the gas station or convenience store to get a sandwich?’” Maxey remembers thinking, puzzled by the allure. “But now I understand it's a big deal.” He’s a self-described “big boxing guy” who watched Terence “Bud” Crawford pummel Errol Spence live in Vegas last summer and wants to see both Shakur Stevenson and Devin Haney fight Gervonta “Tank” Davis next.
Today, he’s excited about the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament. On this early December afternoon, he’d rather be back in Vegas preparing to play in the event, which he describes as a hit because of the way the $500,000-per-player cash prize inspired a degree of competitiveness typically reserved for later in the season. The Sixers were eliminated in group play, but the more time you spend around Maxey, the more clear it becomes that his cheerful straightforwardness is matched by what has become his signature attribute during his NBA career: a score-from-anywhere confidence.
Soon, Maxey is launching half-court shots with childhood friend Chris Harris Jr. When Harris, who played at Oklahoma State, launches an airball, the competitive Maxey roasts him: “You ain’t wanna hit the rim today?” That’s typical Maxey: ferociously competitive, but playful, too. During a win over the Washington Wizards the night before, he caught a pass from Sixers forward Nic Batum, heaved the ball from just over half-court, and banked it at the halftime buzzer before laughing at the sequence with his teammates. Maxey, who had 26 points and seven assists in the victory, says the shot felt good leaving his hands. “I had missed three, four wide open threes—shots I don't normally miss,” he explains. “And as soon as it left, I'm like, ‘Bro, this is going in.’”
In his fourth season, that confidence is paying dividends for both Maxey and the Sixers. Roughly halfway through the 2023-24 season, the Sixers currently sit at third place in the Eastern Conference, having gotten off to their best 30-game start since they went to the NBA Finals in 2001. Center Joel Embiid, the reigning MVP, could very well win the award again this season, but Maxey has shouldered a larger burden as well. An end-to-end blur, Maxey is averaging career highs in points (26.1), rebounds (3.7), and assists (6.7) per game while playing on the ball full-time for the first time as a pro. In fact, this season Maxey hit the 50-point mark before Embiid, the NBA’s leader in points per game, in a win over the Indiana Pacers and fellow 2020 first-rounder Tyrese Haliburton.
Every downhill foray to the basket, deep pull-up three, and ear-to-ear smile have endeared Maxey to a fanbase that’s as willing to voice its disgust as its love. “They push you,” Maxey says of Philly sports fans, wisely but sincerely singling out Sixers supporters as “the best in the NBA.” Why, exactly? “Because they're going to let you know if you're not performing the way you should be.”
For years, the Sixers have tried to surround Embiid with the right pieces—particularly a reliable, long-term second option. Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, and James Harden have all come and gone. Maxey, meanwhile, has been here since 2020—the auspicious rookie on a team led by Embiid and Simmons, and then the third option on a team led by Embiid and Harden. All the while, it seemed like he was capable of more—now, he’s the guy next to Embiid trying to propel the Sixers to a championship. (Or at least past the second round of the playoffs—a place they haven’t been since the 2000-01 season, which kicked off mere days before the 23-year-old was born.) Maxey, a buoyant presence with an assassin’s stare, relishes his role.
And people are noticing. “When you watch Maxey, you see a guy playing with a great amount of joy, but he’s competitive,” says ESPN analyst Doc Rivers, who coached Maxey during his first three seasons. “Isiah Thomas was a little like that. He smiled and laughed—and then he tried to kill you. Tyrese has that same DNA.”
The smirk on Maxey’s face is a tell: he knows the question about his Dallas Cowboys fandom is coming. It’s similar to Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith being a Boston Celtics fan—a beloved local athlete no less beloved despite his affinity for a bitter Philly rival. His explanation, however, is rather simple. “I'm from Dallas,” Maxey says with a laugh.
Garland, Texas is where Maxey’s love of basketball blossomed. His father, Tyrone (who played at Washington State in the early 1990s), coached him up, teaching him how to use his speed, seal defenders off with his body, and create at the rim. Dwyane Wade was Maxey’s favorite player growing up—he was drawn to the Hall of Famer’s body control and fearlessness when attacking the basket. As a fellow small guard, he took note of Kyrie Irving’s creativity and Allen Iverson’s relentlessness. And after watching Derrick Rose shine for Memphis in the 2008 NCAA title game, he knew he wanted to play for John Calipari.
“The way his guards perform in the NBA,” he explains. “I wanted to know what it was.”
Calipari, by then coaching for Kentucky, was enamored with Maxey’s quick-twitch speed, shooting stroke, and ability to absorb contact. (He had a soft spot, too, for the picture Maxey drew of himself in a Kentucky uniform as a ninth grader during a recruiting visit.) Calipari was also very hard on him, demanding the five-star recruit be more aggressive on offense. Come on man, go score the ball! Take over! Why aren’t you?! Calipari remembers telling him. Maxey appreciated the hard coaching—and knew that it would pay off at the next level, even if his time at Kentucky was hit and miss. “I couldn't make a shot there,” Maxey says. “He pushed me so much to where now, when I shoot threes and miss, I have no conscience. I feel like I'm going to make the next five.”
Pro teams weren’t quite as certain: when the pandemic-delayed 2020 NBA Draft took place, Maxey fell out of the lottery, all the way down to the Sixers at the 21st pick. Calipari was furious at the time, and to this day believes it’s because Maxey didn’t shoot well in his final collegiate game—1-for-11 in a win over Florida, the last look scouts got at him. Maxey thinks more talent evaluators would’ve gotten the opportunity to see what he was capable of had he been able to play in the NCAA tournament, which Covid had canceled. But they both agree it was for the best: by dropping in the draft, Maxey wound up on a better team.
Maxey had no winter coat when he finally arrived in Philadelphia in December 2020, waiting an extra two weeks after he caught Covid. By the time he was finally able to practice with the team, he felt even more out of place because he was new and behind. “Doc was making jokes the first day like, ‘Hey, this is our rook, guys. Don't touch him, though—because he got Covid,’” Maxey recalls. “Everybody's laughing. And I'm like, ‘Damn, how am I going to fit in?’”
He found his niche while running a pick-and-roll drill with the team’s third-stringers: Maxey impressed former Sixers assistant coach Sam Cassell so much that he was playing with the second unit the next day. The day after that, he was with the starters. “Then I got thrown right out there,” Maxey says. He credits Cassell with helping him to adjust to the league and expand his offensive repertoire. “Sam taught me how to get to my spots, how to get to middies, how to get to my shot,” Maxey says. “He was someone who believed in me from day one.”
Maxey’s breakthrough came in January 2021. Struggling to find consistent playing time, he got his first start because the Sixers could only dress eight players against the Denver Nuggets after losing five to Covid quarantine and four more, including Embiid and Simmons, to injury and personal reasons. Everything had to run through Maxey, who received unexpected counsel from Embiid. “The day before the game, he's like, ‘Look, can you go out there and show the world you can get 40?’” he remembers.
Maxey was taken aback. A rookie fighting for minutes putting up 40 in his first-ever start? No way, he told Embiid. Not yet, at least. “He's like, ‘Bro, trust me. You can go get 40 tonight.’ And when the game started, I'm like, ‘Whoa, I may actually get 40.’” He almost did, finishing with 39. Maxey came away from the game with additional confidence in himself—and a better understanding of Embiid’s confidence in him. “He was one of the people that really believed in me and my scoring ability from day one,’” Maxey says of his teammate.
His playing time fluctuated for the remainder of his rookie season, but that glimpse of potential convinced Rivers that Maxey would eventually help the Sixers in the postseason. And he did: “He went into Atlanta and won Game 6 for us,” Rivers says of the 2021 Eastern Conference Semifinals. “He has this intangible—this shooter’s courage. To be a great player in the playoffs, you have to have that, and he does.”
At the time, Ben Simmons’s status with the team was uncertain; long thought to be a foundational Sixer, he flamed out in remarkable fashion in the same playoff series that showed Maxey’s promise. Rivers now says Maxey had to start the next year, regardless of whether Simmons returned to the Sixers. “It was so obvious watching him play that he was going to be a star,” he says. Eventually, Simmons was traded away as part of a package for James Harden, who quickly became Maxey’s new one-on-one mentor. And while Harden, one of the modern NBA’s most prolific offensive players, was impressed with Maxey, he still saw myriad ways for him to unlock his game.
“‘If you ever find out how to change pace and go from slow to fast, then fast to slow, then slow to fast, you'll be one of the hardest people to guard in the league,’” he remembers the future Hall of Famer telling him. Maxey isn’t as methodical as Harden, but you can spot the latter’s influence when the former freezes defenders in pick-and-roll situations, drains 25-footers off stepbacks, or tosses lobs to Embiid.
The Sixers have never finished worse than fourth in the East during Maxey’s career, but they’ve also never been beyond the conference semifinals. In 2022, Butler (driven by the permanent chip on his shoulder) and the Miami Heat dispatched them in six games. Last year, Maxey scored 30 in a Game 5 win over the Celtics to give the Sixers a 3-2 advantage, but they blew a fourth-quarter lead during a Game 6 closeout opportunity and got blown out in Boston in Game 7. Rivers was fired in the offseason and Harden demanded a trade after his longstanding relationship with Morey, the Sixers president of basketball ops, soured.
Maxey (who, in true little brother fashion, once called Harden “old” in jest during a post-game presser), still texts Harden, now a Los Angeles Clipper, for insight periodically. “If there's something a defense does to me that they probably did to him back while he was in Houston, I ask him about it,” he says, adding that Harden “wants [him] to be great.”
For all of the thrilling kinetic energy in Maxey’s game, he’s also excelled because of his patience. It, along with sharp focus, has helped Maxey weather the dysfunction of having his college career abruptly shut down and pro career delayed by a global health crisis. Although Maxey thrives at high speed, he’s also adept at playing within the rhythm of the game. That comes from sharing the court with so much talent at Kentucky, which Calipari reloads with four and five-star recruits each season, then spending almost half of his time in the NBA alongside Embiid and Harden.
But Maxey wasn’t merely deferring. He was learning how to pick his moments. Now that he’s running the show, he’s decisive about when to facilitate and when to get buckets. “My main goal at the beginning of the game is always to try to get Joel going—him and Tobias [Harris], honestly,” he says. “And I have the ball so much, I don't have to force shots. Everybody believes in me so much that they're allowing me the freedom to break out of plays and score the ball.”
Be it in transition or half-court sets, Maxey shreds defenses via quick bursts and a honed shiftiness. He’s almost mischievous in his approach now, knowing precisely how and when to wreak havoc with off-balance floaters, pocket threes, and crafty passes—and delights in it. But Maxey’s also well-versed in the tactical aspect of it all, so he keeps some fine points close to his chest. “I can't tell you all my secrets about how I try to break down the game,” he says with a Cheshire Cat grin.
All of this has fueled Maxey’s breakout season, but it’s not the first time he’s been the object of intrigue. He’s occasionally found himself the subject of trade rumors, first when Harden began trying to force his way out and then Damian Lillard asked the Portland Trail Blazers to move him. Maxey ignored the noise. “After that Denver game, when I was a rookie, there were rumors about me getting traded,” he says, nonchalantly. “I never take it personal, it's just business.”
Maxey, it would turn out, was always part of the Sixers’ long-term plans.
Nick Nurse was initially tasked with trying to stop Maxey. “We tried to come up with schemes to slow him down and we couldn’t do it,” Nurse, who was the Toronto Raptors’ head coach from 2018 until 2023, tells me. “That was year one. Then he comes back the next year and he’s shootin’ the hell out of the three-ball, too. So then it’s like, ‘Now what are we gonna do?’”
When the Sixers and Raptors faced off in the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs, Maxey scored a game-high 38 points in a 20-point Game 1 victory. Nurse says the Raptors never figured out how to contain him. Now, much to his relief, that responsibility’s off his plate.
Shortly after the Sixers hired Nurse as their next head coach last June, he was in Dallas meeting Maxey for lunch, intending to explain his grand vision for both the team and Maxey as a player. First and foremost, he challenged Maxey to be more aggressive. ”Extremely aggressive,” Maxey says. Nurse’s big question was about everything but scoring, which now came easy to his new point guard: “The hardest part, probably, was could he run the team, could he organize the team, and could he improve defensively?”
When he was coaching the Sixers, Rivers, who averaged nearly two steals per game during his 14-year NBA career, encouraged Maxey to pressure the ball and take away the shot clock to be an effective defender as a smaller guard. But Maxey, already a solid 6-foot-2, spent the summer getting stronger and watching film to improve his on and off-ball defense. Sixers guard De’Anthony Melton, one of their best defenders and one of Maxey’s closest friends on the team, says Maxey has learned how to stay aggressive—particularly at the rim. “He doesn’t want to be that guy who they’re attacking on defense and now you can’t play him because he’s a liability,” Melton says. Maxey also worked with skills coach Drew Hanlen over the summer to improve his ball-handling, especially in iso situations, and utilizing his speed to accommodate the up-tempo pace Nurse prefers.
Three years ago, Maxey was a spark-plug rookie proving that he belonged on the court with the NBA’s elite. Now, he’s a lead player on one of the best teams in the league. The resulting expectation is that Maxey will guide the Sixers to victory in the oft-injured Embiid’s absence. That means picking up the slack offensively: after scoring just 12 points on 4-for-20 shooting in a Christmas Day loss to the Heat, he responded with 23 and 42 in wins over Orlando and Houston—the Sixers first without Embiid this season. But it also means being vocal: “Telling guys where to go, what we're going to do, what we're going to run—and telling guys no,” Maxey says. The fact that his coworkers love him makes the job a little bit easier.
“He’s a way better person than a basketball player, which is crazy,” Melton says in earnest. Nurse calls him a connector. “When he boards the plane, he’ll go around and give everybody five as kind of a Tyrese thing to do,” he says with a laugh. Calipari is adamant about relaying the story of how a Sixers employee stopped him in the Wells Fargo Center to rave about how Maxey treats people. It seems like he’s got something to do with everyone: mimicking the Temptations, Temptation Walk and all, in the home of Motown; playing Call of Duty with Melton and Patrick Beverley; doing spot-on imitations of Embiid’s various moves; recapping the Sixers Halloween party on his podcast, Maxey on the Mic; even jokingly attempting to blend-in, despite the presence of cameras, at Philly’s Reading Terminal Market. People love being around Maxey because he simply makes things fun.
Rivers, who describes Maxey as “sunshine,” remembers how upbeat Maxey was even in the days after his house caught on fire on Christmas Eve 2021. “He’s on the train going to D.C. with the team,” Rivers tells me. “I walked into the back where they were playing cards and it looks like he’s having a grand old time. I’m like, ‘What the hell?’ It’s just who he is.”
Maxey’s ascent comes at a fascinating time in the NBA, with a new generation of players eager to snatch the reins from their predecessors. Think of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander trolling Stephen Curry, Tyrese Haliburton mocking Lillard’s Dame Time celebration, and Anthony Edwards refusing to take Draymond Green’s shit, just as a few recent examples. Maxey considers himself part of this group, noting that they play with an edge and joy. “The Tyreses, the Ants, the Lukas—they have their heads on right,” he says. “Those guys are competitors who want to win. And guys are doing it with smiles on their faces.”
Although Maxey has an edge to him (he wouldn’t have made it from blue chip to blue blood to borderline All-Star otherwise), he’s not abrasive or antagonistic. “You can have an edge without being a jerk,” Calipari says. "You can have the will to win without being an a-hole.”
It’s not all basketball, all the time for Maxey. He likes to slow his fast-paced life down whenever possible. “We live in the limelight: when we're on the road, we’re always in the city, we're always downtown, we’re always around other people,” he says. “When I'm here, I like to spend time with my family. I spend time with my uncle. My best friend's here. I like to spend time with my dog. Now I go bowling sometimes. Other times, I just sneak out. I go grab some dinner. But I'm really low-key. I really be chillin’, especially during the season.”
His weekend plans? He’ll watch Kentucky play Penn at the Wells Fargo Center with Harris Jr., Brandon McKay, his uncle, and former Kentucky teammate Immanuel Quickley. He’ll watch Haney fight Regis Prograis. And he’ll watch the Cowboys play the Eagles at Jerry World. Things, it seems, are coming up Maxey: all three win.
Still, Maxey’s basketball-related goals are always top of mind. The sour taste of last season’s postseason loss to the Celtics lingers. “Once you sign up to play here, it's a real thing,” he says of the Sixers-Celtics rivalry. His takeaway from that series—and honestly, every postseason experience—is cut and dry: “Single possessions matter.” Hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in triumph during a parade on Broad Street remains atop Maxey’s list. “The ultimate goal is to have one of those banners up there,” he tells me, pointing to the trio hanging from the rafters—the most recent of which is from the 1982-83 season.
Embiid turns 30 in March, and though he appears happy for now, NBA superstars can have a short fuse. Would-be Sixers saviors have fallen by the wayside: Butler has dragged the Heat to the Finals twice since he left Philly. Harden is back home in L.A. Back to back first overall picks Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz have found homes elsewhere, too. Right now, Maxey, who slipped out of the lottery and into a perfect home in Philadelphia, looks like the answer.
The Sixers believe so. The rest of the NBA is seeing it, as well. And Maxey? He has zero doubt in himself. “I'm always up for the challenge, whatever it is,” he says.
Lately, Nurse tells me, a funny thing has begun happening. He’s noticed that, when he gets off the bench to give Maxey a play to run, his budding superstar point guard already has one cued up. And the way Maxey’s been playing, Nurse explains with a chuckle, he’s earned the autonomy: “I let him roll with it.”
Originally Appeared on GQ