How 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey became the perfect co-star to Joel Embiid

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Wednesday, November 15, 2023

JOEL EMBIID PUT his hands on his head in disbelief the moment the shot fell through the net.

On Sunday night inside the Wells Fargo Center, Tyrese Maxeyburied his seventh and final 3-pointer, a 32-foot step-back with just over a minute remaining that put the finishing touch on the first 50-point game of his rapidly ascending career -- and delivered the dagger in the Philadelphia 76ers' eighth straight victory.

But Maxey's night -- he and Embiid combined for 87 points in a 137-126 home win over the Indiana Pacers -- was also a breakthrough moment for the league's reigning Most Valuable Player and a franchise that has been feverishly searching for Embiid's perfect sidekick.

Embiid's partnership with Ben Simmons showed promise before unraveling, leading to Simmons' trade request. His partnership with former No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz never materialized, with Fultz's shoulder and shooting issues derailing his time in Philly, before he was unceremoniously traded to the Orlando Magic. Then there was Embiid's 18-month pairing with James Harden, who asked out of town after leading the league in assists and helping Embiid win MVP.

Through a combination of injuries, poor play or plain bad luck, none provided the kind of long-term partner for Embiid the way the 76ers envisioned. As a result, questions loomed over whether the big man's long-term future would reside in Philadelphia, a simmer that had risen to a boil as Harden's summer of discontent turned to fall.

But in the two weeks since Harden was dealt to theLA Clippers, Maxey has emerged, and suddenly the 76ers may have found the perfect partner for Embiid.

"I think [Maxey] has an even brighter future," Embiid said from his locker, leaving the postgame podium to Maxey after his career night. "Philadelphia's got a good one. He's gonna be here for a long time...

"And, like I said, he's the franchise," Embiid said with a grin, referring to his postgame tweet celebrating his 23-year-old co-star.

The 76ers are, and will remain, Embiid's team. But throughout his career, he's bemoaned never having a consistent co-star, specifically someone capable of having the kind of offensive outburst Maxey did.

No wonder he looked so happy celebrating Maxey's accomplishment.

"I think Joel wanted me to get 50 more than [I] did," Maxey said after Sunday's game. "He was going to grab the ball, and he was like, 'You are going to shoot this basketball.'

"I appreciate my teammates. I appreciate the fans, appreciate the coaching staff. It was a great night. We got the win ... that's what matters the most."

THE LAST TIME Maxey and Philadelphia were in this type of situation -- August 2021 when Simmons demanded a trade -- Maxey was told by then-coach Doc Rivers he was the team's starting point guard.

There were flashes of Maxey's potential even before getting thrust into lead guard duties. He scored 39 points as a rookie against the Denver Nuggets in January 2021, when Philadelphia's roster was depleted by COVID-19 absences that included Embiid and Simmons.

In his second season, Maxey scored 31 and 33 points in back-to-back games against the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors early in the 2021-22 season.

"It's a lot more fun on this side of it," said 76ers coach Nick Nurse, referring to his time of leading the Raptors.

These days, handing over the keys to the offense to anyone else couldn't be farther from anyone's mind in Philadelphia.

For good reason. Maxey has initiated one of the best starts in the NBA this season: 28.4 points, 7.0 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game -- all career highs -- while shooting 49.3% from the field, 42.9% from 3-point range and 94% from the foul line. In 10 games, he's fundamentally changed the Sixers' style. After they ranked in the bottom five in the league in pace each of the past two seasons, the 76ers sit 10th. Their offense ranks fourth.

And while Maxey's scoring stole the show Sunday, what's been more important has been his rapid improvement as a playmaker, one of the team's biggest non-Harden question marks entering training camp.

Maxey has answered. His 5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is easily a career best, as he's doubled his 3.5 assists per game last season while essentially keeping his turnover rate in the same range.

"He's running a pretty good floor game right now," Nurse said before last week's win over the Boston Celtics. "He's going to what's open.

"And I think that was everybody's question: Can he create for somebody else?"

By successfully answering that question in the affirmative, the 76ers can enter this year's trade deadline -- along with the offseason -- with the knowledge they have not one, but two stars to build around.

MAXEY'S IMPACT ON the 76ers is also being felt away from his All-Star level play.

Take his postgame on-court interview on Sunday night. Immediately after the greatest game of his career, Maxey dedicated the win to injured teammate Kelly Oubre Jr.

With a water bath from Patrick Beverley in between questions, Maxey spoke about Oubre's health after the forward suffered a fractured rib after being hit by a motor vehicle near his home in downtown Philadelphia on Saturday night.

"Man, this had nothing to do with me," Maxey said. "This is all about Kelly Oubre, man. We're praying for him."

And while Embiid had plenty of praise for Maxey's play Sunday, he also pointed out how his infectious energy and enthusiasm has permeated the franchise.

"He's something else," Embiid said of Maxey. "It starts with people like that. When you've got people in the building always smiling. It's rare. I don't think I've ever seen him mad.

"But it's always the same energy. Good games, bad games, always the same. When you've got people around like that. ... It sets the tone for everyone else."

Drama and chaos has surrounded the 76ers for years. "The Process" saw the franchise endure seasons of losing before drafting Embiid and Simmons, and the two began their careers by missing a combined three seasons to injury. Fultz never got his career in Philadelphia off the ground due to thoracic outlet syndrome in his right shooting shoulder after the 76ers made him the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft.

There was the public resignation of Bryan Colangelo, the 76ers' then-president of basketball operations who was involved in a Twitter burner account scandal in 2018. There was Kawhi Leonard's series-winning jumper in Toronto in the 2019 playoffs that's seemingly still bouncing on the rim inside Scotiabank Arena -- one of five times in six years Philly has reached but failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs. Then came extended trade sagas surrounding Simmons and Harden.

Through it all, the 76ers might finally escape with the makings of the superstar pairing The Process was designed to create. And as Maxey keeps hitting step-back 3s and pushing himself into the hearts of even the most hardened Philadelphia fans, it appears the 76ers have found Embiid a suitable co-star.

"It's literally like, big brother-little brother," Maxey said of Embiid.

"That's the MVP ... for him to have the trust in us as a team, him to have the trust in myself, I just appreciate it. I just go out there and try to be my best for him."

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