Tyrese Maxey's Next Phase Starts Now
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The last couple days have been a coronation of sorts for Joel Embiid. It started Wednesday night, of course, with him shredding the Timberwolves -- best-team record-wise in the West, best defense by the numbers in the league, defensive player of the year frontrunner manning the pivot -- to the tune of 51 and 12 on 17-25 shooting, and ran through Thursday's release of the annual eight-week-mark ESPN straw poll showing him currently leading the MVP race by a decisive margin. It's clear that, for now at least, the shredded-lettuce taste he left in everyone's mouth with his Game 7 performance (and subsequent nonchalance) against the Celtics has been wiped out, and it's once again widely accepted that when it comes to 82-game basketball, it's Embiid and Jokic and then everyone else -- and this season, with Joel making history nightly and a few real clunkers on Jokic's resume, maybe it's just Embiid.
And yet, even with all the deserved praise being showered on our Jo, it's Tyrese Maxey I've been thinking the most about the last 24 hours. Because while Embiid simply dominated in the same fashion he has all month -- maybe a little moreso, though it also helps to be able to play all four quarters and have your main positional opponent in foul trouble the whole way -- I saw something new from Tyrese Maxey against Minnesota. Not necessarily in his play, though he was of course excellent, scoring 35 and leading the team's fourth-quarter breakaway. But his demeanor throughout was almost unrecognizable as the Maxey who's been voted the Sweetheart of Broad Street three Valentine's Days running. It felt like the end of something for Tyrese. It felt like the beginning of something else.
If you watched the game -- hell, if you just watched the fourth -- you probably know what I'm talking about. You saw his fury and incredulity at not getting that call when it looked like Jaden McDaniels clipped him on a three-point attempt, and then you saw him flexing for the crowd and hollering "AND FUCKING ONE!" when he got the three back the old-fashioned way a couple plays later. You saw him essentially end the game with a slicing drive around Karl-Anthony Towns to the basket, and then you saw him beckoning the crowd with zero subtlety or self-consciousness to let him and everyone else hear about it. You may have even seen him in the post-game conference, not exactly stoic or stone-faced, but a little unimpressed with the stats being thrown at him, a little impatient with having to do the interview in general, generally just wanting to get through it and get gone.
Not that any of this is necessarily entirely new for our Maxey. You could feel him seriousing up a little bit for a lot of this season, a little less grinny on the bench, a little less goofy with the celebrations. You could even -- although it's very likely this was just me -- maybe read a little irritation into his demeanor while Joel was going off for 40 nightly against the dregs of the NBA universe, while he was at times barely cracking double digits with the scant number of shots afforded him in his three quarters of play. You could tell he was starting to feel a little more of the weight this year, that the pressure of being the No. 2 option every night (if not the No. 1, in Embiid's absence and during his bench stints) was at least impressing on him, if not yet necessarily wearing on him.
But Wednesday night still seemed different. He seemed angry. He seemed unsatisfied. He seemed distinctly not just happy to be there. He seemed... not sloppy, exactly, but not his usually careful, responsible, Coach's Son self. He had five turnovers -- a standalone career high, if you can believe it, and just two fewer than he'd had in the prior seven games combined -- and most of them were pick-six types that left the team hopeless going back the other way. And he was also brilliant, scoring 35 points on lightning-clap drives and eye-jabbing pull-ups and six of six shooting from the line, all while still essentially being the supporting act for Embiid's NBA Jam-unstoppable 51-point headliner.
I think it all meant something for Tyrese. I think giving this kind of performance -- both in the statistical and the theatrical sense -- on one of the biggest regular-season stages of his career, a true showdown game on national TV against a formidable opponent in which his production was not an X factor but a core necessity, is a sort of career benchmark moment for him. I was going to call it his Bar Mitzvah, but I searched my article history and turns out I already used that for when he led that shorthanded home win against the Grizzlies a couple seasons ago. So maybe let's call this his college graduation, then -- the end of the mostly simple and responsibility-free times, leading him into a promising but less-certain future.
Now if you've read this far and are still not sure if I'm saying all this as a cheer or a lament, there's probably a reason for that. It's hard not to have pretty mixed feelings about knowing that the Tyrese of the last 3 1/3 seasons is gone, or at least on his way out. That's the Tyrese we knew, the Tyrese we grew up with. Floor-slapping Tyrese. Jumping on Joel's back Tyrese. Phillies broadcast booth Tyrese. Pissing James Harden and P.J. Tucker off with how delightful and perfect he is Tyrese. Smiling Tyrese. We love that Tyrese! We'll miss that Tyrese. My mom still may file official adoption papers for that Tyrese before it's too late.
But the fact of the matter is... it's just a lot easier to be that Tyrese as the over-performing prospect, the pleasant surprise, the third option. Being that Tyrese is simple when nothing is ever really your fault, when you're still so wildly outpacing what people expected or asked of you that it's almost impossible to truly disappoint. We got on Embiid and Harden immediately for their blasé demeanor after Game 7 in Boston, but Maxey could've done a set at Smileapalooza immediately after and no one would've questioned his toughness or will to win as a result. He was the quintessential youngest child, absolved from all blame as all the family sins were soaked up by his elder siblings.
Now he's grown, though. The demands of being a presumptive All-Star, an unquestioned No. 2 on a supposedly title-contending team, are as such that there is no more hiding from responsibility when shit goes south, no more playing it safe on the perimeter to keep that assist to turnover ratio pointed in the right direction. When Joel Embiid tells him to be more aggressive, as he has all season, the most obvious interpretation of that instruction is shoot more, attack the paint more. But I think he's also just telling Tyrese to play tougher, play meaner, play riskier. He's telling him to be a little more of a motherfucker. He knows that the battles they have ahead of them will provide no sanctuary for the smiley, and he knows very well what it's like to have a partner who isn't properly fortified for the fight. He wants Tyrese to be that guy. He needs Tyrese to be that guy. We all do. Wednesday night was good evidence that he actually can be.
It's bittersweet for sure -- but the end of youth always is, isn't it? Nothing is ever as safe, as uncomplicated, as low-stakes as being young, with time providing the greatest safety net anyone could ever ask for. It's the easiest phase of life to romanticize, to wax nostalgic about, to try to hold onto for as long as possible. But if you ever really want to accomplish anything in life, chances are you've got to put away those young person ways and get out there with the grown folk. It'll be less rosy, sometimes even less mom-approved. But hopefully it'll be the start of something a little more meaningful.