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Don’t Let Tyrese Maxey’s Smile Fool You

The Sixers’ young guard is seemingly always beaming, but few know a burning fire rages behind his boyish grin. “He will smile at you and try to kill you,” says his father, Tyrone.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tyrese Maxey watches a stepback 3 clang off the rim before a late-April regular-season game and tilts his head to the side in disappointment. But it doesn’t take long for him to laugh it off.

He daps up Jason Love, the Philadelphia 76ers’ tallest development coach, who guards him at the end of his pregame routine so the speedy 6-foot-2 guard can practice attacking big men on pick-and-roll switches. Maxey gets five chances to create a 3-pointer, but only three seconds per try. “Late-clock situations,” Sixers development coach Spencer Rivers says, like the ones Maxey finds himself in while playing alongside his future Hall of Fame teammates, Joel Embiid and James Harden.

Maxey bumps fists with Rivers, too, before bouncing around the court and dapping up everyone else—teammates, trainers, and ball boys—and jogging to the sideline with a boyish grin on his face as he approaches a crowd of children. Maxey, 22, crouches to their level, makes eye contact, chats, and snaps selfies.

One day, if all goes according to plan, his star will shine too brightly for him to accommodate every autograph request. For now, he obliges with childlike enthusiasm. Then he runs back to the locker room, where he channels a surprising maturity befitting a more veteran player that’s been helpful while navigating the tertiary role he’s carved out alongside two superstars.

A Sixers staffer once stopped Maxey’s coach at Kentucky, John Calipari, to offer a familiar refrain: I love Tyrese Maxey. Why? “Because he makes time for me and he doesn’t even know who I am,” recalls Calipari.

“I’ve never seen somebody as happy as him,” veteran P.J. Tucker said last year during a press conference.

“Every. Single. Day,” added Harden, in faux-frustration. “Sometimes, I’ll be mad. On purpose. And he won’t let me. You need somebody like that.” Harden’s voice softens. “He’s perfect.” Not a lot of things can get the famously flat-faced Beard to swoon, but this is the power of Maxey, a wholeheartedly benevolent and energetic burst for the NBA’s third-oldest and fourth-slowest team.

When the Sixers traded for Harden in 2022, Maxey, like most of his teammates, was initially unsure where he’d fit. But during their first practice together, Harden pulled Maxey to the side and told him he was going to push him to be more aggressive, not less, offering insight on how to think about the game and find scoring edges beyond his speed.

The lessons are paying off. In the absence of Embiid during the Sixers’ Game 1 victory against the Celtics, Maxey became Harden’s de facto wingman, scoring 26 points to assist Harden’s historic 45-point night. The role shift is emblematic of what the Sixers have asked Maxey to do for the past three years: toggle seamlessly between playing on and off the ball, starting and coming off the bench, and effecting the affable deference of a role player and the unbridled confidence of a star scorer.

It hasn’t always been easy. The hardest thing about the NBA, Maxey says, is “finding your niche. Everybody has to play a role and then no matter what your role is, you never know what your role can be.”

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Early in his rookie season, Maxey told his mom he was upset about being on the edge of head coach Doc Rivers’s rotation. Maxey’s mom, Denyse, aches to see her son get the best of everything. But here, she offered a reality check: “Look, dude. Nobody’s really going to feel sorry for you because you’re a 20-year-old rookie and you’re not playing as many minutes as you want to play. You just have to suck it up.”

Sucking it up drove Maxey to the last place the Sixers wanted him going: the gym.

In the wee hours of a February morning in 2021, the Sixers landed back at home after a 1-3 West Coast road trip, during which Maxey averaged just 11.8 minutes per game. The team instituted a blackout day, meaning the practice facility would be closed to players. On a team full of veterans, it was a directive intended mostly for Maxey, who had yet to understand the importance of rest and recovery.

But Maxey, stewing with frustration, asked his uncle Brandon McKay to take him to the practice facility as soon as he picked him up from the airport.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” says McKay, who lives with Maxey. “This is just them coming off of telling me, ‘Hey, don’t let him work.’” They got to the gym around 4 a.m., and to Brandon’s relief, Maxey mostly shot free throws while the two chatted. “Tyrese loves the preparation. He loves practice almost just about the same amount as he loves the actual game, if not more. Anytime he’s practicing, that’s like a safe haven—get away and just clear your mind.”

A few months before the 2021 playoffs started, Rivers told Maxey to stay ready—that the coaches believed their young rookie would eventually win a future playoff game for Philadelphia. But after the Sixers’ impressive first-round series against the Wizards, Maxey had played a total of just 33 minutes in five games against the Hawks.

COVID-19 robbed Kentucky of a tournament run during Maxey’s time with the program, and the lottery hopeful dropped to the contending Sixers, who hadn’t even interviewed him, in the 2020 draft. The job of a young player in this situation—and by extension, everyone who believes in him—is to prevent their hope and hunger from curdling into frustration.

Maxey’s father, Tyrone, raised his son to be the consummate pro—to never complain about anything, from his role to bad referee calls to bad grades. But privately, he has also had moments of impatience. During the first quarter of Game 6 of the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals at State Farm Arena, Tyrone—anxious to see his son play—was getting restless.

“Babe,” he turned to his wife. “Book us a ticket home.”

“My husband,” Denyse laughs while retelling the story, splayed out with him on the couch of their home in South Garland, Texas, “is intense.”

Just as Tyrone was getting out of his seat halfway through the first quarter, Tyrese started walking toward the scorer’s table. “Wait,” he exclaimed, and sat back down. As their son started to heat up, Denyse and Tyrone went wild, while the Hawks fans surrounding them murmured in confusion. Who was this speedy young guard who was pouring in bucket after bucket on his way to 16 points in 29 minutes?

Denyse responded with what she calls her quiet noise. Like her son, Denyse is polite but prideful, conscientious but energetic. “You’re not going to see me in the stands cursing or using profanity or fighting. But I will let you know: That’s my son, calm it down.”

“She’s a mama bear,” says Tyrone. “Can’t say nothing about her little boy.” Tyrone knows this well, from the times her protectiveness pushed back against the hard lessons his father doled out in the boy’s youth. Tyrese, whose name is a combination of Denyse and Tyrone, is a carefree but regimented combination of the two.

The tears gushed down Tyrese’s chubby little cheeks as the child dashed from the basketball hoop outside his family’s home in South Garland into his mother’s arms. “Dad beat me,” he cried. It became a pattern until Denyse finally asked Tyrone why he wouldn’t let his son win just one game.

“He’ll never beat me,” said Tyrone, “because he needs to learn.”

“Dude, he’s 7,” Denyse jokes now. “What does he need to learn?”

Even then, Tyrese knew he wanted to be an NBA player. He drew a picture of himself in a Kentucky Wildcats jersey when he was in the ninth grade. He told everyone he was going to be a McDonald’s All American, go to college for one year, and then get drafted. Friends laughed. Teachers told him to have a plan B. A basketball camp director once even decided against giving Maxey a high ranking because he seemed too happy, too unserious. “He has so much fun playing the game,” says Kenny Payne, a former Kentucky assistant and now the head coach at Louisville. “You can get confused if he has a competitive nature.”

But Tyrone knew when he saw the tears pour down young Tyrese’s face that the boy had inherited his hatred for losing. “They take [his smile], I guess, for weakness or whatever, but he wasn’t weak at all,” says Tyrone. “He will smile at you and try to kill you.”

“People can test me,” says Maxey, matter-of-factly. “I grew up in a lifestyle where my dad tested me every day, so I wasn’t really worried about none of that.”

Tyrone, a former Division I player turned respected high school coach, only had to look at his own dashed hoop dreams to understand that the path the two were embarking on could be fragile, unforgiving.

In the early ’90s, Tyrone was a promising young prospect being recruited by Washington State. The Cougars already had a starting point guard, but the coaches told Tyrone he would be part of the second coming of “Lethal Weapon 3,” the trio of Kenny Anderson, Brian Oliver—two guards—and Dennis Scott, which had taken Georgia Tech to the NCAA Final Four in 1990. They “sold this dream,” recalls Tyrone. The reality: an undefined, inconsistent role, on and off the bench for two years.

“Life is full of challenges,” says Tyrone. “I’m just trying to raise him the best way that I can, try to not allow him to make the mistakes that I made in life.”

So whenever Tyrese slipped up, he was made aware of it. The family would cobble together money for out-of-state tournaments and overstuff their eight-seater for the long drives. Sometimes, they’d sleep in the car. When they’d get back home, Tyrone would make Tyrese pore over film. Maxey occasionally missed family gatherings and birthday parties, and rarely got to hang out with his cousins. Whenever an athlete got in trouble off the court, Tyrone would point it out to Maxey.

“He always held me accountable for everything, even other people’s mistakes,” says Maxey. “He would always make it about me and how I need to know who I’m playing with and put them in better situations. That really helped me as far as growing my game, my confidence, and how to be calm during those moments.”

“He was tough on him,” says Denyse. “It was, ‘No, you can’t do that. You need to study film, go do an extra workout, do strength-and-conditioning. He had no extra time. Everything was basketball focused.”

Tyrone wanted Tyrese to understand not only the ethic but the power of hard work. As a high school freshman, Maxey had a habit of leaning on his strengths, driving layups, while Tyrone—then his coach—wanted him to improve his in-between game. “I always tell him, ‘Man, you’ve got so much stuff in your toolbox,’” says Tyrone. “‘You’ve got to start using it.’”

Before one practice, Tyrone issued an edict: no layups today, only jumpers. Tyrese bristled but obliged. And then, one by one, he knocked down jumper after jumper. “I just had to make him do it,” says Tyrone. “I knew he could make it because we worked on it all the time.”

As his profile rose, Tyrese became as hard on himself as his dad was. Looking at his mistakes with a hard eye, he realized, could eradicate them. Now, if he struggled at those faraway tournaments, he’d insist on going to the gym, while his oft-fatigued father would sigh and agree.

Glued to the bench because of foul trouble at the 2017 EYBL Peach Jam, where the best high school talent across the country was concentrated, Maxey looked across the gym and saw Calipari, in the flesh, for the first time. The legendary coach had left by the time Maxey got back into the game, but his appearance was enough to stoke Maxey’s confidence. As it turns out, Maxey had no reason to be worried. Cal texted Maxey after the game and told him that UK wanted to give him an offer.

But they already had Ashton Hagans, a Naismith Defensive Player of the Year finalist, playing Maxey’s position and another point guard, in future New York Knick Immanuel Quickley.

“It was a huge gamble for him, but he was hellbent on going there,” says Tyrone, who didn’t want history to repeat itself, but also saw the logic in Tyrese going to Kentucky, where Calipari had a history of cultivating future lottery picks. Tyrone didn’t want to stand in the way of his son’s dreams, but also didn’t want him going into the college experience unaware, like Tyrone did.

The coaching staff made two visits to the Maxey home. They got a sense of just how tight-knit Tyrese’s family was. Kenny Payne immediately picked up on Tyrone’s discerning nature, describing him as the type of person who does his homework.

“That’s not easy for a father, to trust his son to just anybody, especially if you get the knowledge of what college basketball [really] is—the lies, the deceit, coaches saying things just to get the kids to sign,” says Payne.

Tyrone watched Kentucky games with Tyrese, training him to think like a coach, to understand the miscues that would get players tied to the bench. Tyrone also knew, from a career spent in coaching, that preparation could go only so far. He had to trust Tyrese to make his own decisions. “There is a balance, and OK, well, sometimes, you’ve got to allow your kid to bump their heads, to grow up. Right?”

Auburn v Kentucky Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

A few weeks after Tyrese committed to Kentucky, Tyrone accompanied him to the CP3 basketball camp in North Carolina. While Tyrese was at the gym, Denyse FaceTimed Maxey from South Garland. His father, she told him, had suffered a stroke. He was being rushed from the hotel to the hospital, where Tyrese met him.

Denyse remembers it as “one of the worst nights of my life. Just trying to get to [Tyrone], get him with Tyrese, and Tyrese having to make decisions.” When Tyrese arrived at the hospital, the doctors told him they could try an emergency surgery. Maxey was the only family member present to consent. “I didn’t have anyone to lean on,” recalls Maxey. “I didn’t have much time.”

Tyrese, affable and talkative to this point in the interview, often making eye contact, tightens up for the first time, and looks straight ahead. “Life,” he says, echoing his father, “is extremely hard.

“But you gotta push through it, find ways to channel your inner self while you are making a decision like that, because you never know what’s gonna happen, and you don’t want that weight on your shoulders.” Maxey found a quiet place to sit and process and pray on the decision, before telling the doctors to go ahead with the surgery.

“Tyrese had to grow up a little faster,” Brandon says.

The family pulled together even more as Tyrone embarked on what would be a full but extensive recovery. Brandon moved to Lexington to help Tyrese with day-to-day things. Everyone encouraged Tyrone when he became frustrated by the process of relearning how to read street signs and pronounce certain words.

“It was hard,” Tyrese, his voice going up a register, says of watching the man he called his hero be so vulnerable. Maxey had to learn how to navigate basketball, a journey they’d been on together, without him. The experience made him appreciate his dad even more, “because he just put me in a space where he made me be my own self.”

At Kentucky, Calipari’s hard-driving style echoed Tyrone’s. In a game against Texas A&M, Maxey drove the ball and kicked it to a non-shooter who turned the ball over. Calipari called a timeout and lectured Maxey.

“You’re selfish,” Calipari recalls telling him, “when you don’t make the plays you can make. Look, selfish is not just trying to shoot every ball. Selfish is, that’s your play to make and you give it up to someone that’s not as good as you.”

“At the time, you think, ‘Man, I didn’t do anything wrong. I just passed to an open man.’ But now I look back on it’s something that I really do appreciate because he’s coached me and he’s pushed me,” says Maxey. “Both of them have pushed me to be who I am today, and all you can do is appreciate it.”

Late at night inside the gym in Lexington, Payne—a legendary motivator himself—could be heard bellowing at the top of his lungs at Maxey. “The workout’s killing you!”

“There’s two different planes in life,” Payne would tell Maxey. “You’re either the predator or you’re the prey. Are you going to let the workout be the predator and you’re the prey?”

This was the education Maxey was looking for: to huff and puff until his lungs—and his capacity, on all fronts—expanded. “He would work you out so hard to where you couldn’t stand it,” says Maxey. “You would want to be quitting. I just appreciate that because he pushed me out of my comfort zone.”

Maxey, who eventually came to like the challenge, is described by Payne as a pleaser and a perfectionist. “You don’t have to get on him because he’s going to try to do everything the right way. When the bar is set and you get over that bar, a coach has to put another bar up there a little bit higher. That part was the adjustment for him, where the bar kept moving.”

Maxey, who now considers Quickley one of his best friends, had no qualms about potential rotational issues. “I had so much trust in policing myself that I was going to go there and compete every single day, that I’ll play myself into a role that I could be successful in.

“It actually was really good for me, because now, when I’m playing in the NBA, I can play with Harden off the ball. When he’s out the game, I can be on the ball and make plays for myself and Joel. And I can catch and shoot off Joel or James.”

De’Anthony Melton, who was traded to Philadelphia last summer in an effort to bolster the team’s toughness, learned about the destroyer lurking behind Maxey’s carefree spirit the hard way last season.

The Sixers were facing Melton’s team at the time, the Grizzlies, without Embiid and Harden. Melton wanted to rough Maxey up on defense and see how well that smile would hold up. Maxey hung 33 points and eight assists on him, helping the Sixers win a nail-biter.

After Melton was traded to Philly, the Sixers assigned the duo to work together in the summer, under the direction of assistant coach Sam Cassell. There was plenty of opportunity for conflict. Melton and Maxey both played the same positions, and were hypothetically competing for the same minutes. Melton’s addition, in part, counteracted Maxey’s shaky defense. But the two became fast friends.

“He’s just always in a good mood,” says Melton. “He’s so positive. And he understands not everything is gonna be perfect, so you work through the good, bad, and ugly, and keep a smile on your face.”

While the two now engage in spirited trash talk and shooting competitions after every shootaround, their first argument was about scheduling. Maxey wanted to start at 6 a.m.—ungodly hours for Melton, who suggested something closer to 10. By the time Melton arrived at the gym, Maxey was drenched in sweat already going through his second workout.

Melton, despite being two years older than Maxey, has come to admire his teammate’s militant work ethic, jovial attitude, and drive—for example, the way he peppers Melton with questions about improving his defense. On the court, their collective speed has created a symbiotic relationship that provides a counterintuitive transition burst for a plodding, half-court-oriented team.

Maxey was in and out of the rotation in his rookie year, while the spectre of an impending Ben Simmons trade loomed over the team in his second year. Going into last offseason, Maxey could finally attack the summer with the focus of a player who knew, for the first time, what his role would be the next season.

Fifteen games into the season, including six without Harden, the work was paying off. Maxey was off to the best start of his career—averaging 22.9 points on 46.2 percent shooting and 4.4 assists. But he landed awkwardly during a 24-point first half against the Bucks and ended up missing the next 18 games to heal a fractured bone in his foot—the longest injury-induced stretch he’d spent away from the game.

In that time, the Sixers found success with Melton as a starter, so Doc Rivers moved Maxey to the bench. Maxey tried to stay undeterred, to keep smiling. He understood the logic: Melton gave the starting lineup balance on defense, and the bench needed a scoring burst.

But Maxey struggled to stomach the move. The first sign that something was amiss came before his first game off the bench. Spencer Rivers saw Maxey in the bathroom right before tipoff. “I was like, ‘What are you doing back here?’ He’s like, ‘I don’t know, I just feel weird. I usually start. I don’t know, I just feel off.’”

Maxey looked out of sorts. Rivers kept him out of the starting lineup for most of January and February and his scoring numbers dipped. Despite his best efforts, Maxey couldn’t hide his simmering frustration. His smile was replaced by a furrowed brow. He’d clap his hands in disappointment after missed shots, hang his head low after turnovers.

“It’s natural for a player to have goals and ambitions,” says Spencer Rivers. “And his was always, at first, to be a starter.”

“That’s the first time in his career that, at least from my perspective, that I saw some self-doubt,” says Spencer Rivers. Maxey’s teammates noticed too. “With him, it’s so noticeable because he’s always so fun-loving and happy. It sucks for a guy like him because everybody has bad days, especially when things are tough,” adds Rivers. “Everybody was coming up to him, ‘Are you all right? Are you all right?’ And that bothered him even more.”

Things came to a head after a disappointing game against the Celtics in early February. He checked in at the 3:14 mark of the first quarter and took his first shot two minutes later, forcing up an off-balance, one-legged 15-foot fadeaway as the shot clock expired. In the final possession of the quarter, he rushed up the floor and dribbled the ball off his foot. For the rest of the game, he leaned on a new habit: disappearing after a tough start, hardly touching the ball, and getting off it quickly when he did.

After the game, Maxey sat in the cramped Celtics visitors locker room after the first bus cleared out, looking upset.

Spencer Rivers offered up some tough love. “It’s not going to be given to you,” he told him. “People go through a lot worse in their career. You got 30 minutes; it’s up to you to do whatever you do with this. If you want your starting job back, go get it. No one’s going to give it to you.”

Maxey agreed. “I’ve got to get out of my own head.”

The conversation continued on the bus ride. Harden and Tobias Harris, Maxey remembered, were also accepting lesser roles to build a championship-level offense around Embiid, the league’s eventual MVP.

The next morning, he had a “heart-to-heart” over the phone with his parents. Maxey, who says he’s “been trained to not have those type of emotions,” didn’t want to be selfish, to allow feelings of self-doubt to boil to the surface.

But the abrupt role change undoubtedly affected his psyche. Denyse encouraged him to embrace his humanity. “It is OK to not be OK,” she told him. “You don’t have to try to prove to people that you’re inhuman and you’re this, ‘Oh, I’m happy 99.9 percent of the day.’ No, you have true emotions and you have to come to grips with those emotions.”

“When I was able to talk to them and talk to the coaches and talk to Spencer,” says Maxey, “people who I have in my corner, that really helped me to go out there and be myself again.”

Maxey describes himself as someone who doesn’t need the public’s affirmation. He has been molded by work, hardened by the exacting lessons of his coaches. But he does, indeed, care what they think. “You’ve got to be compassionate and care,” says Calipari. “But sometimes you can care too much. He cared too much sometimes about me, what I thought. ‘You care too much, don’t worry about what I’m coaching you. I love you. I believe in you. Just go.’”

Cal texted Maxey amid his slump, saying he believed in him, reminding him of his former coach’s old refrain: Declutter your mind, and go play.

The next game after the Celtics loss, Maxey ripped off 27 points and defended hard against the New York Knicks, the beginning of a stretch of hot shooting and reinvigorated play that would land him back in the starting lineup by the beginning of March.

When Maxey talked to the coaching staff, they clarified what they wanted from him: to attack consistently through the growing pains, regardless of how inconsistent his role might be.

There are nights when Maxey is asked to merely be a cog in a diverse Sixers offense. It features Harden isolations, Embiid post-ups, their combined pick-and-roll attack and the multivariate options it creates, and Tobias Harris, who needs a face-up opportunity every once in a while.

In the first round against the Nets, Game 3 seemed like one of those nights. Maxey picked up 15 points on spot-ups and catch-and-shoots. When Harden was ejected late in the third, it was time for his understudy to step into the starring role.

But Maxey stayed in the background, spotting up and throwing entry passes to a heavily covered Embiid.

With four minutes left in the game, the Sixers called a timeout. Cassell, Maxey told NBC Sports Philadelphia after the game, sat him down and expressed his dad’s old sentiment: Believe in the work. “Man, you worked so hard this summer,” Cassell said. “It’s winning time. I need you to go do it.”

In the huddle, Doc Rivers drew up a play for Maxey. “He wanted that shot,” Rivers said after the game, “and that was great to see.”

Maxey drove into the paint, unleashed his signature floater, and raised his tense, hopeful arms in the air, watching as the shot clanged off the left side of the rim. He grimaced while running back up the floor, but was undeterred on the next play. Driving left, he switched to his right hand midair and unfurled another floater. This time, it dropped through.

A few plays later, with Mikal Bridges switched onto him, Maxey nailed a pull-up 3 after dribbling to his left. A minute later, he followed it up with the game’s decisive shot: a stepback 3 over Spencer Dinwiddie, completing the Harden impression before falling back on defense, into the role that comes most naturally as the Sixers’ flexible energizer, bobbing up and down the floor, tongue hanging out of his wide, smiling mouth.

“All he has to do is trust,” says Kenny Payne. “Trust in himself and have faith in everything he’s doing, and whatever he does, he’s going to succeed.”

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