PHILADELPHIA — In a jovial mood after another 76ers’ win, Joel Embiid had to interject when he overheard a teammate praise Tyrese Maxey.
“Tyrese is a leader? That’s the first time I ever heard that,” Embiid said, laughing.
“You don’t think I’m a leader,” a smiling Maxey called out from his nearby locker.
The reigning NBA MVP, Embiid wasn’t even trying to keep a straight face as he teased Maxey. Yes, Tyrese Maxey, at just 23 and coming off his first 50-point game, might be more than Philadelphia’s leader. Maxey has smashed expectations on his way to the short list of top guards in the NBA — a max contract and possible All-Star berth loom ahead — and has all the talent needed to be the homegrown star that forms a durable 1-2 punch with Embiid.
Unlike, say, previous disgruntled guards.
Ben Simmons wanted out.
Jimmy Butler and the 76ers had unfulfilled potential.
James Harden, who went 4 of 12 for 11 points for the Clippers the night Maxey dropped 50, sure wasn’t the solution.
All signs point to Maxey — the 21st overall pick of the 2020 draft, who landed in Philly thanks to fortuitous circumstances — as the thriving tag-team partner Embiid needed, and he was here all along.
Case in point: Maxey played the game of his career in Sunday’s 137-126 victory over Indiana.
Maxey shot 20 of 32 overall and hit seven 3s in 39 minutes. He added seven rebounds, five assists and even had three blocked shots. Allen Iverson was the only younger Sixers player to score 50. Maxey, Anthony Davis and Kobe Bryant are the only 23-and-under players to produce the 50-point, five rebound, five assist and three block stat line.
Maxey became the ninth Sixers player to score 50, joining the likes of Embiid, Iverson, Moses Malone and Wilt Chamberlain.
“It comes with great responsibility, having that freedom, being able to shoot and being able to kind of get up shots when you want to,” Maxey said. “I’m still trying to get guys open, still trying to get guys great shots.”
On Maxey’s defining play, he blocked Bennedict Mathurin in the paint, then blasted toward the basket and used a Eurostep around Tyrese Haliburton to score the bucket.
“The jump he’s made year after year, and the growth that he’s made, I mean James leaving, and now they give him the ball and give him the freedom to show what he can do and he’s not disappointing,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s a great, great guard.”
The teams meet again Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center in the NBA In-Season Tournament.
The 76ers have won eight straight and are 8-1 for the first time since 2000-01, going 6-0 at home. Embiid had 37 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists in 33 minutes against the Pacers, super stats that became a footnote to Maxey’s night.
“I’ve had a bunch of 50s,” Embiid said, “but it’s fun to watch someone else do it.”
And yes, Philly fans gleefully note the Clippers are 0-4 since they acquired Harden.
The Sixers have functioned as a true team, and without any messy locker room drama, in coach Nick Nurse’s first season.
They suffered a blow Saturday night when guard Kelly Oubre Jr. broke a rib when he was struck by a vehicle that authorities say fled the scene. With Oubre sidelined indefinitely, Nicolas Batum got the start against Indiana and had nine points and seven rebounds.
Maxey’s relationship with Embiid is a central component to his fast start.
Embiid might have tired of trying to incorporate yet another sidekick — throw Al Horford and Markelle Fultz into the list of failed experiments — into his game. Maxey, though, compared Embiid to a big brother who is “on me every single day” to get better. If Maxey doesn’t shoot the ball or create a play once he gets the ball from the big man, he said, “I know I’m going to get an earful from Joel Embiid.”
Embiid gave his stamp of approval on social media, writing under a photo of Maxey, “ THE FRANCHISE!!! “
With Simmons and Harden out of his way, Maxey has blossomed in the final season of a rookie deal that pays him $4.3 million. Maxey is set to become a restricted free agent next summer, though the 76ers can match the terms of any offer sheet and could sign him to a maximum-level contract this summer. That’s a potential massive payday ahead for the guard out of Kentucky who almost didn’t get drafted by the Sixers.
Maxey gave a shoutout Sunday to former Sixers and Thunder and current Wizards center Mike Muscala. Muscala hit a winning 3-pointer for Oklahoma City in a fairly meaningless game against Miami in 2020, the pandemic season. Per terms of a previous trade, the 76ers had the Thunder’s first-round pick unless it was in the top 20. But the Thunder’s win in the NBA bubble meant the Sixers earned possession of the first-round selection, which was pick No. 21.
Maxey joked he’s often reminded of Muscala’s shot and how draft-night luck broke Philly’s way.
That’s cool with the Sixers — and Maxey for the foreseeable long-term future.
“I like being here,” he said.
AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA