Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey may have been a victim of the lack of NCAA tournament, and he could make teams regret passing on him due to the unceremonious canceling of his biggest exposure.
COVID-19 robbed us of a lot of things in 2020. One of the first casualties was the NCAA tournament, a staple of the sports calendar and the grand litmus test for draft prospects.
One unofficial tradition of March Madness is John Calipari’s Kentucky teams. Seemingly every season Coach Cal has a roster filled with one-and-done freshmen, and every March one of those freshmen step up their game in the postseason. Shai Gilegeous-Alexander, John Wall, Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, De’Aaron Fox; this list goes on.
Had the tournament gone on as normal, Tyrese Maxey would have been a prime candidate to join that esteemed group and vaulted up draft boards in the process. Maxey remains a lottery pick, but if he comes off the board at his current projection, outside the top 10, whichever team drafts him could be getting the steal of the lottery.
To properly gauge Maxey you have to look between the box score. A lot of the good he did at Kentucky did not reflect on a relatively mundane stat line.
Maxey averaged 14.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game. He shot 42.7% from the field, 29.2% from three and 83.3% from the free throw line. Nothing about those averages and percentages scream “steal,” but when you watch Maxey play, you see the talent.
The high end of Maxey’s potential would look something similar to Kyle Lowry or Jrue Holiday: a two-way guard with the ability to be the second or third scorer willing to take on the tough assignment on defense. A lot of Maxey’s destiny relies on where teams see him, playing off-ball or lead guard.
At Kentucky he played off the ball, sharing the floor with Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley. Hagans was the lead guard with Quickley and Maxey flanking. Maxey acknowledged the learning curve in shifting off-ball but was confident he could thrive in either role.
Maxey is currently projected to go at the tail end of the lottery. Depending if and how far the New York Knicks fall in the actual lottery, the Kentucky guard could emerge as an intriguing option.
Let’s find out why.
How ironic is it that one of the concerns with Maxey is his three-point shooting potential, yet his most memorable moment at Kentucky was this bomb against Michigan State early in the season.
TYRESE MAXEY. CLUTCH ? pic.twitter.com/IAmhmTOB2A
— ESPN (@espn) November 6, 2019
The fact this happened in the Garden is an added bonus for Knicks fans. Clutch moments aside—and Maxey had his fair share—he shot poorly from deep, at 29.2%. The reason for that is his release. As well as Maxey shoots from the free throw line (83.3% this season), he is a different shooter the farther out he strays.
When shooting from deep, his release starts much lower, resulting in contested shots at best and blocked shots at worst.
Many people have brought up Tyrese Maxey's low release point and how it needs to be raised. In addition to it blocking his eyes very often, it also makes it easy for DEFs to block his shots. Although only 2 3s were blocked, many were heavily contested because of the release point pic.twitter.com/XvrIQS9lLt
— Spencer (@SKPearlman) June 20, 2020
As the season waned, Maxey shot a tad better than his numbers suggest because he had a cold spell after that opening game at the Garden. Over that stretch, Maxey shot 38.2% from the field and 22.0% from deep. In his last 20 games he bumped that up to 43.9% and 32.3%, respectively.
There is reason for optimism his shooting can improve further. Couple his strong shooting from the line and an adjustment to playing off the ball, and it’s pretty easy to talk yourself into Maxey being a better shooter in the NBA.
His 27-point performance in the middle of the season is a good peek at what he could be.
Kentucky freshman guard Tyrese Maxey showed off his scoring instincts from all 3 levels during Kentucky's OT win over Louisville: 27 PTS on just 14 shots. Deep range on his 3 ball, lethal out of quick actions, and plays with great energy on both ends. Potential top-10 pick. pic.twitter.com/znedbza80m
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) December 29, 2019
When he forces you to close out at the three-point line he becomes extremely lethal. Against Louisville, Maxey showed no hesitation shooting off the catch—and that unlocked everything else. He was able to put the ball on the floor and pull-up in the midrange or get downhill, where he causes the most damage.
Soft Touch at the Rim
Maxey’s signature shot is his floater. If he is able to get that shot off he can really start cooking. Maxey had that floater in his arsenal prior to arriving at Kentucky, and it remained a go-to move.
Maxey might have a Joe Johnson level floater in 10 years. pic.twitter.com/mQ3TFg0LtS
— Ross Homan (@Ross_homan1) July 23, 2019
Every Monday for the next few weeks, I'm gonna look at a player who could be available in the late lottery. First up: Tyrese Maxey and his funky floater package. https://t.co/pxdN1ghYg0 pic.twitter.com/b9vFSza7n4
— Christian Clark (@cclark3000) April 20, 2020
It’s a further testament to his tremendous touch—and another reason I am a big believer in him becoming an average jump shooter at the minimum. It will be a useful shot to have at the next level, where he is sure to have the size disadvantage a lot of nights, particularly if he is playing at the 2.
He is an adept finisher near the rim in general, replicating that same soft touch from the floaters with an ability to use the backboard as an ally.
Tyrese Maxey's finishing is SO good. Between the touch, his ability to dislodge players on drives and at the rim, smarts using the rim to protect against rim protectors, ability to finish with both hands, etc…he has it all in the paint.
Awesome finisher. pic.twitter.com/qill1Alq21
— Spencer (@SKPearlman) February 20, 2020
Maxey’s ability to finish with either hand would be a welcome sight in New York. It’s the best part of his game, and the part that reminds me most of Kyle Lowry. He has proven he can avoid contact but also absorb it and still finish. That type of aggressiveness can translate to a lot of free throw attempts, where he can rack up points.
His driving ability made him quite productive in the pick-and-roll, where he produced 1.0 points per possessions, placing him in the 93rd percentile, per Synergy.
Tyrese Maxey is scoring better than 92% of college basketball players as the Pick and Roll ball handler (3rd best in the nation among Power 5 teams, min 80 poss). In 84 possessions, he is accountable for 84 points. pic.twitter.com/isgBNJOxSE
— Kentucky Wildcats Breakdown (@GoCatsBreakdown) February 18, 2020
The area in most need of improvement of Maxey’s offensive game other than shot selection is his passing. As mentioned earlier, Hagans was the floor general for Kentucky. Maxey didn’t have to necessarily have to worry about setting others up, evidenced by his 3.2 assists per game, but when he did there were signs he could return to having the ball in his hands more often.
Tyrese Maxey attacks off the catch and threads a drop-off pass to the big for a dunk pic.twitter.com/HWGS4xIKm7
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) April 8, 2020
Big assist game from Tyrese Maxey playing on the ball more, but his assists to this point had disappointed (just perimeter swings, strong side kickouts). Finally, a decent one, Maxey coming off the handoff, pulling two defenders, and hooking the live dribble pass back to Brooks pic.twitter.com/NdA9vaqBDu
— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) March 9, 2020
If he were to step in as the lead guard—which would be likely should he come to New York—the pick-and-roll and transition are two areas where he would have to thrive. The Knicks need to run more and with R.J. Barrett and Mitchell Robinson easy buckets can be found in the open floor.
Simple reads like this don’t seem unattainable for him to master on a consistent basis:
One of the most improved aspects of Tyrese Maxey's game: playmaking in transition. pic.twitter.com/zdCo0B8OGb
— Will Morris (@w_a_morris) March 27, 2020
Maxey will make you a fan with his defense first. The greatest trait about Maxey is his relentless energy on the floor. That energy shines through on the defensive end, and it did not go unused in college.
One thing that was undisputed about Kentucky was Maxey being their top perimeter lockdown. He took on the tough assignment of Anthony Edwards twice, and more often than not was matched up on the opposing team’s greatest threat.
Point of Attack
Excuse my canine reference, but Maxey was Calipari’s bulldog this season. Maxey drew tough assignments and was fantastic when defending isolation plays, ranking in the 96th percentile, according to Synergy.
Just look at the ball pressure Maxey applies here, at halfcourt no less:
If there was an example of a winning play on Saturday, this is it. Tyrese Maxey hawks the ball then gets into the passing lane. He makes a great pass toward his bucket and hits Ashton Hagans in stride. @KentuckyRivals @RowlandRIVALS @Trav_Graf pic.twitter.com/bDvzmPAKVu
— David Sisk (@CoachDavidSisk) February 16, 2020
Maxey’s toughest assignment was probably future first-round pick Anthony Edwards. While Edwards did have his buckets, Maxey did a good job containing Edwards from exploding for big nights and did forcing Edwards to make tough shots.
Anthony Edwards draped by Maxey. Uses a quick jab and steps back for the jumper. Love the decisiveness here. pic.twitter.com/wBSyNNBcY4
— Gabe (@AllDaySportTalk) January 12, 2020
He didn’t get a ton of steals at Kentucky (27 in 31 games) but was a consistent nag on his opponent, with constantly active hands.
Here Maxey does a great job staying with his guy in a must-stop situation and is able to avoid fouling or giving up a bucket:
Maxey clutch isolation defense, sliding well and good hands for the strip pic.twitter.com/FGyU9F2OA8
— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) December 19, 2019
There is little doubt that if you are looking for the best point-of-attack defender at guard, Maxey is your guy. Size may be an issue, as it was at times with Edwards, but at 6’3” with a 6’6” wingspan it isn’t ambitious to assume that Maxey can guard shooting guards regularly if asked.
The best thing about Maxey’s motor is it never stops. Sure, it’s easy to bear down when isolated, but being able to keep that same energy off the ball is important too. Smart defenders are always welcome to any team and a big reason to like other top prospects like Killian Hayes or Deni Avdija.
A large chunk of Maxey’s defensive highlights are isolation stops, but he is more than capable of defending with others.
Despite low stocks, Tyrese Maxey projects as a good team defender and it is little things like this that make his game. Stunts at Blackshear to take away the pnp pass, then crowds him, leading to a bad shot: pic.twitter.com/REWhvJjAqh
— Ben Pfeifer (@Ben_Pfeifer_) February 24, 2020
In the clip above, Maxey’s constant movement did not end with a turnover, but it did end with a poor shot. Maxey was this engaged on defense in every Kentucky game I watched this season, and in a lot of those games his shot was falling on offense.
Here is another strong example of Maxey’s activity off the ball. He waits for the opportunity to strip the ball from Isaac Okoro to present itself and pounces with little hesitation.
I'm a believer in Tyrese Maxey's team defense despite his low stocks this season and here's one of his best team D plays of the year, digging on the ball right when Okoro exposes it for a steal: pic.twitter.com/fRBTyr64mj
— Ben Pfeifer (@Ben_Pfeifer_) June 22, 2020
That is the type of motor you are getting every night from Maxey. Much like the appeal with Barrett last season, the security of knowing that Maxey is going all out is comforting. It’s the type of effort strong defensive units are built on.
How Does He Fit In?
Maxey is my favorite fit after the first crop of guys like LaMelo Ball, Killian Hayes, and Tyrese Haliburton. The reasons are pretty simple: he can defend either guard position and has a better shooting touch than his numbers suggest.
The first priority for New York is to find a lead guard who can also get a bucket. Maxey could turn into that guy, and his defensive prowess should sell any team on him.
A threesome of Maxey, Frank Ntilikina, and Barrett has serious appeal and could make someone like Tom Thibodeau pass out from the possibilities. Just thinking about Ntilikina and Maxey swarming someone for a trap would be nightmare fuel for opposing players. The interchangeability backcourt and the versatility of Ntilikina and Barrett on the wing, with Robinson lurking down low, would give the next head coach a group of young guys that could realistically develop into a top-end defense.
Maxey’s time off the ball at Kentucky makes him an easy fit on offense, too. He could become the type of guard Knicks fans dreamed Lowry would be if that trade would have gone down years ago. He could also play off the ball and allow Barrett to be a point-forward or allow Ntilikina to run the offense. In Robinson, Maxey would have a serious lob buddy and defensive anchor.
If Maxey were the selection in the lottery it could be ridiculed by some, but the team could be stepping out on the ledge, much like they were close to doing with Donovan Mitchell.
Pathway to NY
So, how would Maxey end up in New York? There are two answers. The first is straightforward: if the team drops in the lottery and misses out on the top tier guards and Avdija, Cole Anthony would be the main competition. Similar to Maxey, Anthony had a poor shooting season but has the professional pedigree bias Maxey does not.
Choosing between Anthony and Maxey could be dicey for the Knicks. Anthony and Maxey are close enough in projected talent that the narrative could steer the team towards the former, whose dad played in New York and has had the attention of the team for quite some time.
On the other hand, Maxey could get some help from Kentucky and John Calipari loyalist, William Wesley. The senior advisor to Leon Rose may be the voice of reason for the Klutch Sports client, which brings me to the final left field possibility.
Rich Paul has proven his word to be as strong as Vito Coreleone’s. If you do Paul a solid, he will return the favor (see, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in L.A.). Drafting Maxey would give the Knicks two Klutch clients (Robinson being the other) and reason for Paul to steer his ever growing list of the league’s star power towards the Garden.
The other route could be trading up or down for Maxey. A trade down in the lottery to grab an asset and still land Maxey would be a shrewd win for Rose in his first draft. Maxey is legitimately good and had the NCAA played its tournament, it wouldn’t be surprising if Maxey were a top-10 pick.
Any trade would hinge on what happens in the lottery. If the team were to go Avdija and Maxey slips into the early teens, could the Knicks use some of those extra picks to address two crucial needs, wing depth and lead guard help? If possible, the rebuild would get a much needed adrenaline shot.
The Knicks have not had much luck recently with two of Coach Cal’s guys, but I feel confident saying Maxey would become an immediate fan favorite.