There is going to be a lot learned about this Philadelphia 76ers team during the month-long absence of James Harden. The Beard has been the most significant bright spot during the slow start to the season and he has answered the questions about if he still had high-level production left in the tank. Through the opening nine games of the season, Harden has averaged 22.0 points, 10.0 assists, and 7.0 rebounds per game. He leaves some massive shoes to fill and Harden’s absence impacts Tyrese Maxey more than anyone.
Maxey’s Growth Alongside Harden
Before the trade for Harden last season, Maxey fully emerged onto the NBA scene. Prior to Harden’s arrival, Maxey averaged 16.9 points, 4.6 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game. He connected on 46.9% of his shots from the field and 39% of his three-point attempts.
Some were concerned Maxey would see his role regress following Harden’s arrival. This did not prove to be the case as the 22-year-old took another stride forward next to the superstar. Once Harden took the court with the Sixers, Maxey saw his numbers grow to 18.7 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.7 rebounds per game. His efficiency took the most significant leap forward as his field-goal percentage rose to 52.3% from the field and 48% on three-point attempts.
Maxey continued his progression and in last year’s playoffs averaged 20.8 points, 3.9 assists, and 3.5 rebounds. While his efficiency took a slight dip, 48.4% from the field and 37.7% on three-point attempts, his continued scoring growth has been necessary to the Sixers.
This has continued to be the case at the start of this season as Maxey has averaged 23.6 points, 4.0 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game. The Kentucky product is shooting 46.5% from the field and 41.8% from beyond the three-point arc while launching an increased number of shots across the board.
Maxey’s Role Without Harden
A major storyline to watch while Harden recovers from the right foot tendon sprain will be how Maxey’s role changes. One of the biggest questions surrounding Maxey when making his NBA leap was what his best positional fit would be. This was a major reason why he slipped to the Sixers at the 21st pick in the draft. At 6’2″, he appears a more natural fit as a point guard. However, he is at his best when scoring the basketball and has not shown an advanced grasp of being able to create for others.
Doc Rivers has made it clear he wants Maxey to remain aggressive above everything else. As he stated, “This is where you got to be so careful with young players, and he watches the film and he sees all these guys open. I thought he played an entire game predetermining trying to come off to be a passer and I thought he got stuck in that and so it’s not a big change…We got to get him back to being a scorer. Be a scorer and let us complain about you missing guys, but you got to be an attacker. I thought he tried to turn it on, but we’ll get him back in the right place,” per Ky Carlin of SixersWire.
While the Sixers surely will not reach their potential until Harden returns, this is an excellent chance to evaluate Maxey’s long-term future- in terms of his role within the team. Shake Milton and De’Anthony Melton are the lone other ball-handling options which means Maxey will have the ball in his hands’ plenty.
If he can show growth as a playmaker, which he has spoken about putting in work of making live passing reads this offseason, Maxey may prove to be capable as the primary ball-handler in the future. Or it could be proven that Maxey cannot be further optimized as a playmaker and the Sixers should lean into his scoring abilities. It is clear that Maxey is a terrific talent, but not quite as evident in what his future role is. Having a chance to evaluate this will help the Sixers find the missing ingredients to surround this team and optimize Maxey in the future.
For the time being, Maxey will keep going out and playing to the best of his ability. However, the takeaways from this stretch of play will have long-term implications for the Sixers from a roster construction standpoint. It will now be up to the young guard to put on display exactly what he is capable of being moving forward.