It’s easy to lose sight of the good in the throes of losing six of eight games. I suppose that’s probably because mostly everything has to be bad for there to be such a losing trend to begin with. But this one catalyst, who helped the Sixers stay within distance of victory in five of those six losses, has caught eyes around the NBA community. This one force has seemingly taken a jump big enough to introduce the possibility that the Sixers could reach a ceiling without Ben Simmons similar to the one they stalled at with the All-Star. There’s just one question — is Tyrese Maxey’s rapid ascension on offense real?
That question’s validity is backed by how absurdly well Maxey has played over the Sixers last eight games. We’re talking about shooting efficiency measured by an effective field goal percentage of 55.6 (82nd percentile) and scoring efficiency measured by a true shooting percentage of 60.5. Maxey’s 24.3 points per game have paced the Sixers over their last eight contests. His usage of 25.9 percent is second highest on the team over that span.
So, will that shine subside once the MVP runner-up returns? Is this stretch just a flash in the pan, or is it indicative that Maxey’s foot has found a sturdy enough step for the rest of his body to move forward to higher grounds?
Here’s what the numbers say.
Maxey’s usage prior to Embiid’s absence was 19.4 percent. Neither that figure nor the previously-mentioned usage is that high (23rd and 42nd percentiles, respectively). It’s not a negligible disparity. However, context always matters. Before Embiid’s absence, much of the offense was his two-man game with Seth Curry, him kicking out of double-teams to abandoned shooters, and Harris post-ups. Since Embiid has been sidelined, Maxey’s involvement in the offense has logically risen. It’s what he’s done with that spotlight that matters most, and it figures into the calculus behind the Sixers’ offensive attack when Embiid returns.
Within that role, Maxey has carved a shot profile that largely involves getting to the rim and hitting from the midrange. The tables below illustrate shot distributions from both before Embiid entered the health and safety protocol and the period of games during which he’s been in the protocol:
|October 20 – November 7|
|Rim||40% (89th percentile)|
|Midrange||40% (66th percentile)|
|Three-Point||20% (6th percentile)|
|November 7 – November 23|
|Rim||34% (79th percentile)|
|Midrange||42% (76th percentile)|
|Three-Point||24% (15th percentile)|
Some basketball minds who lean heavily into analytics will tell you that midrange jumpers yield minimal value and that offense should strictly be about getting to the rim or maximizing point potential by camping out at the three-point line. This writer believes in shot value relative to the player. In other words, if you’re connecting on midrange jumpers with above-average efficiency, don’t abandon them to fit an analytical mold.
Maxey’s midrange game is more efficient than that of 80 percent of the players in the NBA this season, according to Cleaning The Glass. So, the lack of balance between his midrange and three-point games is sensible. Even with the three-point volume falling below par (overall, 22 percent of his field goal attempts are threes this season — ranking in the 10th percentile of the league), he’s made a jump in that department relative to his rookie campaign:
|Rim||35% (86th percentile)|
|Midrange||44% (90th percentile)|
|Three-Point||21% (5th percentile)|
Evidently, Maxey isn’t taking a ton of threes. But there’s a positive trend in his comfort level as a three-point shooter. That’s the first step in the right direction.
Shooting And Scoring Efficiency
The distribution of field goal attempts hardly matters if you’re not making shots, though. So, back to the tables!
|October 20 – November 7|
|Rim||74% (97th percentile)|
|Midrange||40% (45th percentile)|
|Three-Point||35% (39th percentile)|
|November 7 – November 23|
|Rim||58% (48th percentile)|
|Midrange||48% (82nd percentile)|
|Three-Point||43% (86th percentile)|
The variance at the rim in Embiid’s absence is explainable by spacing deficiency. Over the last 8 games, Maxey’s minutes have been largely tethered to Andre Drummond’s minutes. Drummond, who poses no outside threat, keeps a big man anchored to the rim to deter scoring in the paint. That rim protector always lurking around the goal has affected the second-year guard’s efficiency. With Embiid on the floor, the shooting gravity lifts the opposing big away from the cup. That allows Maxey to find and exploit angles to the rim with his speed.
Adjusting To A New Environment
But in Embiid’s absence, Maxey has adapted to his environment quite well. The frequency of shots at the rim has dropped, and the frequencies of midrange and three-point jumpers have ascended. I wouldn’t say that Maxey is perturbed by the forces standing between him and the rim when Drummond is on the floor. Rather, he’s trusting his other weapons just as any self-provisioning guard should do. The returns have been remarkable, to say the least. Instead of struggling to hit the mark as a jump-shooter when the volume spiked, which is what you expect from a prospect whose jumper raised concerns coming out of college and who was a low-volume jump-shooter his rookie year, Maxey’s efficiency in that department has risen dramatically with heightened volume.
The jump in three-point efficiency really pops off the page when you compare the figures to those of Maxey’s rookie year.
|Rim||58% (47th percentile)|
|Midrange||47% (82nd percentile)|
|Three-Point||29% (10th percentile)|
Even with the improved accuracy from deep, the frequency percentile rankings tell us that the success is not backed by significant sample size. For now, the shot distribution and efficiency tables say that the scoring skills that are concrete are Maxey’s touch around the rim and midrange game.
Factoring Three-Point Shooting And Free Throw Volume Into Efficiency
The advanced metrics portraying shooting efficiency and scoring efficiency support that conclusion, too.
|Advanced Efficiency Metrics||October 20 – November 7||November 7 – November 23|
|eFG%||56.2% (86th percentile)||55.6% (82nd percentile)|
|TS%||59.4% (4.4% above league average)||60.5% (5.6% above league average)|
|Shooting Fouled Percentage||12.2% (94th percentile)||11% (76th percentile)|
Effective field goal percentage (eFG%) is a metric that portrays shooting efficiency by accounting for the difference in point value between a two-point field goal and a three-point field goal. In other words, it serves the same purpose as basic field goal percentage while simultaneously applying heavier weights to made threes than it does to made twos. The negligible drop in effective field goal percentage in Embiid’s absence reflects that Maxey is largely maintaining efficiency across shooting levels on a slightly higher volume of shots.
True shooting percentage (TS%) portrays scoring efficiency by accounting for free throw attempts. In a sense, it somewhat goes hand-in-hand with shooting fouled percentage, which quantifies the percentage of a player’s shots on which he is fouled. It makes sense that a player who often has the ball in his hands would take a lot of shots. If you take enough shots, you’re inevitably going to get to the charity stripe from time to time. Oddly enough, Maxey’s shooting fouled percentage actually declined over the same period of time in which his true shooting percentage rose. It’s up to you whether or not the differences are negligible. But, how do we explain that inverse relationship?
Explaining The Inverse Relationship Between Two Directly-Related Variables
Maxey has attempted 9 more free throw over the last 8 games than he did across all of the games before Embiid entered the health and safety protocol. Yet, he’s attempted 37 more field goals over the last 8 games than he did across all of the games before Embiid entered the protocol.
So, it makes sense that the shooting fouled percentage is lower despite the rise in true shooting percentage. In Maxey’s case, the heightened true shooting percentage simply reflects that he has scored a larger number of points on a higher volume of shots from both the free throw line and field than he did before Embiid entered the protocol.
Explaining The Negative Variance In Shooting Fouled Percentage
As for the negative variance in shooting fouled percentage, it isn’t a flawless metric. It doesn’t account for the free throw attempts derived from fouls on the floor when a team is in the bonus. The eye test says Maxey has gotten to the line significantly more because of shooting fouls than because of fouls on the floor. But, there is only a marginal difference between the free throw attempt splits over the two segments of the season I have defined.
So, the way to explain the variance in shooting fouled percentage is that Maxey is attempting fewer shots at the rim with Embiid out for reasons discussed already. Jump-shooting isn’t his foundational skill, so he’s not taking heavily-contested jumpers. That means he’s seldom going to get whistles on those attempts. As long as that is the case, his free throw volume will largely vacillate as a function of his volume of shots at the rim.
Maybe that will ascend again when Embiid returns, since the big man’s shooting prowess should open up more opportunities for Maxey to get to the cup. Or, perhaps the success with the jumper will make Maxey more comfortable with relying upon that. In that case, unless Maxey suddenly transforms into Lou Williams in his capacity to sense contact at the midrange level and beyond, it’s anyone’s best guess. You might conclude that Embiid’s return will take the ball out of Maxey’s hands and, thus, lower his free throw volume. The higher shooting fouled percentage on a lighter volume of shots before Embiid went out validates that possibility.
Perhaps most encouraging of all, a cross-reference to his rookie campaign shows that Maxey’s advanced numbers have improved season-over-season. That’s an important consideration because it demonstrates Maxey’s progression regardless of the context involving Embiid this season.
|Advanced Efficiency Metrics||2020-21|
|eFG%||49.6% (33rd percentile)|
|TS%||53.1% (4.1% below league average)|
|Shooting Fouled Percentage||8.2% (60th percentile)|
Maxey has demonstrated encouraging progression in his shot profile and efficiency across three scoring levels. But, the context of his shots matters, too. Shooting must be broken down even further to account for the ways in which the player is used and gets his shots. You know what that means — another table!
|Shot Contexts||October 20 – November 7||November 7 – November 23||2020-21|
|Assisted||42% (40th percentile)||36% (52nd percentile)||47% (66th percentile)|
|Catch-and-Shoot||23.1% (1.3 FGA per game)||50% (2.3 FGA per game)||31.9% (1.1 FGA per game)|
|Pull-Up||45.9% (3.7 FGA per game)||43.5% (7.8 FGA per game)||44.2% (2.7 FGA per game)|
|Two-Point||57.3% (97th percentile)||52.3% (71st percentile)||51.4% (67th percentile)|
|Three-Point||35% (39th percentile)||43.2% (71st percentile)||29% (10th percentile)|
The table demonstrates that there is significant improvement in Maxey’s efficiencies on higher volumes across most shot contexts from his rookie season to this season. That, in itself, is very encouraging.
But there are some causes for concern when considering the Embiid element. Regardless of Embiid’s availability, there is a decisive imbalance in Maxey’s percentages of assisted and unassisted field goals made. This season, his efficiency has been average at best when his shots are set up by teammates. The volume of catch-and-shoots is extremely small. So perhaps the trend of better efficiency on higher volume will translate here, as well.
But, Maxey’s volume of shots split across catch-and-shoots and pull-ups — and the accompanying splits across the assisted and unassisted field goal percentages — confirms what our eyes tell us every night: Maxey is far more comfortable creating shots for himself than he is having others create shots for him.
On one hand, the Sixers should take solace in knowing that they have an effective self-provisioning scorer. That’s something they’ve seldom had in this era. On the other hand, there’s a lot of sense in wanting better efficiency as an off-ball scorer because a player with that aptitude is a better fit next to Embiid. The bottom line is that you want more balance between the percentages of assisted and unassisted shots made and the volumes of catch-and shoot and pull-up attempts. Right now, there’s a significant imbalance that calls into question the ability of the Sixers’ offense to function at a maximal level without compromising the touches that either Maxey or Embiid get.
We can break down Maxey’s elevated shooting and scoring efficiencies as much as we want. The only thing that matters for the Sixers’ postseason upside is whether or not the jumps he’s made on both twos and threes are sustainable. You need an 8-Ball to be convicted in a steadfast belief that any athlete’s early season jump will be sustainable until they, you know, sustain it. But, there are some signs that should encourage both the Sixers and their fans that the steps forward are real.
Maxey is connecting on 40 percent of his 1.7 pull-up threes attempted per game this season. Again, volume matters. But, he’s making the theoretical hard ones. The other reason to buy the sustainability is that he’s not exactly toeing the three-point line on some of his makes:
Again, Maxey still isn’t attempting many threes by the league’s standard. But, he’s elevated his volume of attempts within his regular shot diet since Embiid entered the protocol. With that heightened volume, he’s enjoyed elevated efficiency, too. Beyond that, he’s not struggling to deposit pull-ups and he clearly has the range under his attempts off-the-catch. All of those factors indicate that the three-point jump is real.
As for the two-point jump, there is more concrete data to believe that that will stick. First, the shot profile table shows Maxey’s diet of midrange jumpers was richer than 89 percent of the league in his rookie year. He also cashed in on those attempts with greater efficiency than 81 percent of the league. So, the midrange game was there from the get-go.
This season, he dialed back the midrange volume a bit before Embiid went out, and then stepped it back up some in his absence. With that elevated frequency in Embiid’s absence, Maxey’s efficiency on those attempts has risen. So, higher volume has been accompanied by improved efficiency.
Even if the midrange game vacillates from time to time, his touch around the rim shouldn’t fail. And Maxey has the requisite burst to build space between himself and defenders as he pushes the rim.
Advancements In Playmaking
The most complete version of Tyrese Maxey has to be more than a speedy scorer. At his size, and more importantly, if he’s going to be a lead ball-handler, it’s imperative that he makes strides as a playmaker. You know the drill:
|Playmaking||October 20 – November 7||November 7 – November 23||2020-21|
|Assist Percentage||19.2% (17th percentile)||20% (9th percentile)||20.1% (56th percentile)|
|Turnover Percentage||11.8% (66th percentile)||2.4% (100th percentile)||7.6% (93rd percentile)|
On paper, the 9.0:1 assist-to-turnover ratio since Embiid entered the protocol is, uh, insane. A stand-out ratio for a guard is around 2.5:1. So, Maxey is blowing that out of the water. However, the assist and turnover percentages in that span tell the real story. Maxey is leading the Sixers in passes made per game over the team’s last 8 affairs. But, his passes aren’t necessarily generating (maximum) value. In other words, he can swing the rock around the perimeter all game long. He can hit teammates in transition when the Sixers have numbers. But, that just means he’s making the obvious reads and is sometimes getting the assist credit for not having tunnel vision.
Maxey’s score-first wiring naturally curtails his turnover risk potential because he’s not trying to make home run passes on most possessions. That’s fine, for now. He’s catching some teams that haven’t been exposed to him off guard. Beyond that, the Sixers need a self-provisioning scorer while Embiid’s gone. As the shot context tables show, he’s doing that efficiently and on relatively high volume.
In that sense, Maxey isn’t playing outside of his comfort zone. He’s not testing his own boundaries as a playmaker. That begs the question — what will those currently-favorable playmaking metrics look like when Maxey has to deliver tricky passes? Will the sailing be as smooth in that department when teams have appropriate game plans to counter his scoring?
Those questions open up additional examinations, too. If Maxey doesn’t take that step as a playmaker, is he just an under-sized two-guard who needs the help of a primary ball-handler to be a high-level contributor on a contender? Is he then just playing with house money until the entire league gets the memo? Perhaps most important of all — since playmaking gravity goes hand-in-hand with scoring gravity, will his aptitude as an efficient three-level scorer dissipate if he never develops a knack for picking apart defenses as a passer? Taking it a step further, is Maxey one devastating lower body injury away from being zapped of his rising stardom?
I’m not going to go deeper on concerns that aren’t presently high on the list of priorities. After all, Maxey’s assist percentage rose with higher usage since Embiid was forced to sit. There is some progression there as a passer, and Maxey demonstrated a higher risk tolerance than previously observed with some of his passes in Monday’s win over the Kings. However, the point is that his development as a playmaker should not be neglected because that’s the path his career might travel if he never makes a tangible leap in that department.
Furthermore, the “Maxey needs to risk turnovers to be his best self” is a very similar argument in nature to the “Ben Simmons needs to take jumpers to be his best self” argument. The Maxey/turnovers argument cannot be gaslighted while the Simmons/jumpers argument is almost universally accepted.
The Most Important Improvement
In pinpointing which development in Maxey’s offensive game is most important, the critical consideration must be how that development impacts the Sixers’ offense in a postseason climate. With that, Maxey’s slightly-higher efficiency on a substantially higher volume of pull-up looks is the most important advancement he’s made — not just in Embiid’s absence, but over his rookie season, too.
In this phase of his career, Maxey is often getting the ‘under’ treatment on ball screens:
His designated defender is going under the screen because they don’t respect Maxey’s jumper. On the under, defenses are either switching the screener’s defender onto him or living with Maxey attempting pull-up jumpers. Right now, switching is a positive outcome for the Sixers. Maxey can blow by less mobile defenders and get to the rim.
But the more he takes and makes those pull-up looks, the more concerned defenses will be about giving Maxey that space to operate. So, the adjustment might then be to go over the screen with him. Maxey forcing defenses to respect his jumper enough to chase him around screens will afford him a runway to the lane upon clearing ball screens. If the screener’s defender hedges to stunt the drive, Maxey is quick enough to still be successful even if he has to hesitate until the hedging big recovers to the diving roller.
Not only will forcing defenses to go over or hedge screens open up Maxey’s lane to get downhill, but that ability to crack the interior defense will open up his playmaking. Eventually, helpers will acquiesce to the rim pressure and slide over to stop the ball. When that happens, Maxey will have cutters and shooters to whom he can make complex passes.
The Greatest Opportunity For Growth
No one is expecting Maxey to jump from a promising rookie to a superstar in one season, if ever. The level of his jump as an efficient scorer across multiple levels, in itself, is bordering on miraculous. Sure, the volumes underlying his shot profile could ideally be higher to give more validation to the leap in efficiency. But, he still has significant room to grow as a playmaker.
Maxey has no problem identifying and acting upon cutters and shooters on the strong side of the floor. In order to achieve his highest ceiling, Maxey must expand his risk tolerance for turnovers to include the second side of the court. Passes like this one must become a regularity instead of a noteworthy occurrence:
The Sixers’ offensive product, as a whole, has responded with Maxey’s heightened usage in Embiid’s absence. Philly is averaging 113.2 points per 100 possessions with Maxey on the court (and only 86.5 points per 100 with him off it) over the last 8 games. That would rank as the 5th best offense in the league over the same span.
Before Embiid’s absence, Maxey’s presence on the court produced 114.4 points per 100 possessions. Even with the variables surrounding Maxey on the court, that number would lead the league from opening night to the day after Embiid’s last game before entering the protocol.
There’s a lot of season left to play, and much more Maxey has to do to achieve greatness in his career. But, Maxey’s jump has caught everyone’s eyes. The early data not only provides credibility to the leap Maxey has made, but it also indicates that perhaps the second-year guard’s ceiling is higher than most thought it was.