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With craft and persistence, Maxey shows why he's a worthy MIP candidate on career-high night

With craft and persistence, Maxey shows why he's a worthy MIP candidate on career-high night originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Following a stretch late last month in which Tyrese Maxey twice logged 44 minutes against the Clippers, Nick Nurse was firm in his stance.

Though the Sixers’ head coach didn’t think Maxey should play that volume of minutes “every night,” Nurse felt his 23-year-old guard was up for it.

“I think it’s just part of where he’s at right now,” Nurse said. “I think he can handle it. I think he needs to get ready to handle it. (Compared to) where he was a year ago, he’s in another place. Yeah, I like it. I think he’s handling it well and I think he needs to continue to handle it well. I think it’s just going to make him better.”

Maxey on Sunday night went a career-high 54 minutes and scored a career-best 52 points in the Sixers' double-overtime victory over the Spurs.

Yes, he is quite clearly in “another place” than at this time last year and a worthy candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.

Maxey’s always possessed a highlight-friendly game — elite open-floor speed, clever finishes over and around much larger players, can’t-miss joy in clutch moments. But he’s continued to refine skills and build new ones this season while playing with resolute aggression.

With Joel Embiid (left knee injury recovery) among the players out for the undermanned Sixers, the 6-foot-2 Maxey scored 32 points in the paint Sunday. That’s just four fewer than Embiid had during his 70-point Jan. 22 performance vs. San Antonio.

Along with deceptively changing gears, Maxey’s made meaningful progress at deviating from straight driving lines. If he doesn’t beat the defense to a spot downhill, that’s fine. Maxey is capable of turning to in-and-out moves, Euro steps, and layups off the “wrong” foot or with an unexpected hand.

Again and again, Maxey’s timely pauses troubled the Spurs. After he took a Paul Reed handoff and snaked back to his right hand early in the fourth quarter, Maxey slowed to a near-stop. Malaki Branham and Victor Wembanyama then seemed to momentarily relax, letting Maxey toss in a floater.

When Maxey sees big men in drop coverage, he’s appeared more and more eager to toy with their balance and dart to the rim.

He shot 12 for the 12 at the foul line, attempting at least 10 free throws for the ninth time this season. Maxey had zero such games last year.

Foul drawing still isn’t a reliable tool for Maxey, but he’s sensed that much of what works for him as a driver tends to help him earn trips to the line.

“I think for me, I’ve just got to mix it up with my speeds. … I’ve been working on that a lot,” Maxey said on Feb. 23. “You can’t always get fouls. Those guys down there are big and they’re great defensive players. But I’ve found little nuances with trying to get fouled, creating contact and doing different things like that. I’m just trying to work on finding different ways to expand my game and help us win.”

Embiid being sidelined for over two months also forced Maxey to develop his decision-making against multiple perimeter defenders. His turnover numbers sure didn’t skyrocket.

Maxey committed one turnover Sunday. Across the Sixers’ 3-0 road trip, he had 23 assists and two giveaways. For the season, his 6.6 turnover percentage is the lowest of any NBA point guard, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Maxey set Nicolas Batum up for two gigantic three-point shots against the Spurs. Late in the fourth quarter, he accepted Tre Jones sending him to his left hand and recognized Batum sliding into open space in the right slot. He threw a simple, smart bounce pass.

With under 10 seconds to go, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich demanded for his defenders to swarm Maxey. He took a poised dribble back, allowed Jones to leap out at his pass fake, and hit the open Batum.

On March 16, Maxey was asked what he’s learned offensively this season without Embiid.

“I’ll never say anything about Joel getting trapped and not being able to see — because he’s 7 foot and he can see,” Maxey said with a smile. “It’s hard for me to see sometimes. Just for me, being aggressive and finding ways to get my teammates going as well. I’ve got to do both. I’ve got to be able to keep (instilling) confidence in my teammates and telling them to keep shooting those shots they need to shoot.

“And just getting guys in the right spots and being aggressive … and sustaining that aggressiveness all four quarters. That’s what we need. … I’ve got to find ways to be the best I can be all 48 minutes.”

Fifty-four minutes got the job done Sunday for the Sixers’ constantly improving first-time All-Star.