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Stacking day after day, Nurse helps nudge Maxey to stardom and beyond

Stacking day after day, Nurse helps nudge Maxey to stardom and beyond originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Nick Nurse used to spend his summers searching for a team — any team — to coach.

This past summer, he was the rare NBA head coach to lead his team at summer league, working with Sixers youngsters like Ricky Council IV and Terquavion Smith in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tyrese Maxey has graduated from summer league, but he’s long appreciated that time of year — no team-mandated off days, no losses that need to be flushed down the drain before another game in another city. In his first year with Nurse, Maxey rode his “one percent better every day” motto to a first NBA All-Star appearance and the Most Improved Player award.

How did he make his latest leap? Partnering with a coach also driven to squeeze every drop out of his summers surely didn’t hurt.

Summer day after summer day 

Nurse’s pre-NBA coaching travels are well-chronicled.

As he notes in his book “Rapture,” he was happy to freelance during his offseasons as well.

“Back in that time, I was just trying to get better as a coach,” Nurse told NBC Sports Philadelphia in a recent interview. “It ties into what I believe about player development. My high school coach used to tell us all the time: ‘Summertime is when you become a better player.’ That’s the time you’ve really got day after day after day to stack. Day after day after day of getting better on your skills.

“And that’s all I was trying to do back then. Any team you would give me for a week or two weeks or a month, I would coach. I was just trying to study the game. And really, what I was working on was trying to figure out how to develop chemistry fast and how to get guys to play harder.”

It’s no coincidence that the leader of the Sixers’ player development staff is assistant coach Rico Hines, who’s famous around the NBA for the summer runs he orchestrates.

Hines joined the Sixers from Nurse’s Raptors staff. He emanates a pure enthusiasm for basketball that players respect and has seen just about every side of the sport — playing at UCLA, training stars, coaching in college, the G League and the NBA.

“First of all, he’s got an incredible love of the game, an incredible love of being in the gym,” Nurse said of Hines. “He really will be in here all day. So it’s a work ethic, it’s a mindset. I think that’s what we both believe in. Developing skills or becoming a better player is a 12-month-a-year job, right? And it is a hard-working job. It’s time in the gym, it’s studying film, it’s teaching them how to win along with the skills.

“I lean on him a lot for sure. Him and his crew, they’re unbelievable. He’s certainly as good as it gets in this league.”

High-effort, growth-focused summers are right up Hines’ alley.

“I believe in routine, man,” Hines told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I believe in creating a great routine and riding that, and stacking great days over and over and over. Some days are better than others, but all you do is show up every day and grind it out. For me, I don’t have an offseason. … It’s 365 days (a year) for me, and I love it. I love that grind and I love the fact that Coach Nurse believes in that grind. He really believes in summer work and development. He’s big on development.

“So it’s a perfect fit, because I believe in grinding and I believe in working all summer — being in the hot gym with a whole lot of guys all summer. You’ve got to just do it day to day, man. Every day you’ve got to show up with a great routine, great habits and a vivid imagination to want to be a little bit better than you were the day before. … We do it every day and Coach Nurse is amazing with that. It’s a credit to him for believing in it, and he’s had great success with a lot of his guys always getting better.”

Taking stock of development daily

No coach can claim to have an impeccable developmental track record, but Nurse certainly has some sparkling hits. They include two Most Improved Players in Pascal Siakam and Maxey, undrafted Fred VanVleet’s journey to NBA All-Star, D League call-ups galore, and even British Basketball League accolades back in the day.

After starting out as a player-coach in the BBL, Nurse has a large staff to help with everything from Council’s jumper to Maxey’s pick-and-roll reads. Fabulous Flournoy, Toure’ Murry and Terrel Harris once played for Nurse and are now part of the Sixers’ player development crew.

“Most of my coaching career, it was me and another guy doing everything from washing jerseys to coaching the game to developing players,” Nurse said. “Now, we’ve got a big group headed up by Rico and they organize all the stuff.

“But we always have a meeting daily with him and all the player development coaches about where we’re going and what we see as the short-term picture — like, ‘What do these guys need to do to get ready for next game?’ — and then where they’re heading for the medium or longer term as well.”

Hines called those meetings “very thorough.”

“Sometimes it’s just checking up on all the guys, too,” he said. “It’s not always about X’s and O’s. It’s about just how a person is doing mentally. He might not be playing as much he may want. As the head coach, sometimes you don’t know the pulse of each and every guy. But Coach Nurse always wants to know the pulse of each and every guy. … It also gives Coach a chance to catch up with a lot of the younger player development staff as well, which is huge.

“A lot of times those young player development coaches are with the guys a lot on the court. … It keeps everything really healthy and I think it’s unique. I don’t know if a lot of teams do it that way, but that’s the way we do it and it’s been very, very beneficial for us.”

Maxey’s sturdy foundation

Clearly, Maxey did not soar to an All-Star season just because Nurse became his coach.

Amid the trade sagas and constantly changing faces around him, he’s acted like a Most Improved Player.

“It means a lot to me just because it’s something that I preach, something that I live by,” Maxey said the day after the award was announced. “It’s not fake, not something that started last year. I’ve been saying that for a very long time. My pops has been on me about it. He always said, ‘Proper preparation prevents poor performance.’ For me, it really does mean a lot. It’s just a (testament) to the work.

“I appreciate everybody who’s helped me along this way — trainers, family members, this organization that believes in me. … When I got drafted, I said I would work extremely hard and I’d make sure (the Sixers) don’t regret it. I really meant those things. I just want to keep building and keep getting better every single day.”

Well before joining the Sixers, Hines heard of Maxey’s talent and dedication.

He recalled having conversations about the Kentucky product with current Celtics and former Sixers assistant coach Sam Cassell when Maxey was a rookie.

“He’s one of the hardest workers that I’ve ever been around,” Hines said. “Credit to him and his family. He comes from a great family of hard workers. I think his dad instilled in him hard work from the very beginning.

“He’s a coach’s son, so he understands film sessions, studying and three-a-days. …. He already had a work ethic before we even got here, so I think we’ve just embraced that and really nourished that. He has a will to be very, very good, and Coach has done a great job of putting him in positions to succeed.”

‘Let’s make that a part of who he is’

There’s nuance inherent to defensive development. Watch film, pile up reps, accumulate savviness, and anticipate plays a bit better than you did two or three year prior.

While that’s all benefited Maxey, Nurse has also wanted to stress a simple message to his 23-year-old guard: He’s not light on defensive ability.

“I think a lot of it is just convincing (players) how good they can be at it,” Nurse said. “He’s got amazing physical skills, right? He’s so fast and so quick that he should be able to bother people. He’s a lot stronger than people think he is, too. So he can fight through screens, get over screens, block people out and all those things.

“I just think he’s got all the tools to do it, and we’ve got to just keep chipping away at it. Let’s make that a part of who he is — a two-way player.”

Nurse coached a couple of exceptionally intelligent, game 6-foot defenders on the Raptors in Kyle Lowry and VanVleet.

Maxey is not identical to either player, but Nurse said his experiences with those two tough guards have come in handy.

“Yeah, for sure,” he said. “I think what Kyle and Fred have ... is a compete level that’s 10 out of 10, right? They just are competing to win all the time. Now, they probably have to a little bit, because neither one’s nearly as gifted as Tyrese.

“They’re just kind of born scrappers. Born’s probably not the right (word), but when they started playing basketball, they had to fight like hell to be out there. They’re both little and slow. They’re fighting like heck, and they had to do it with that. And I think Kyle’s been a great help to Tyrese. I think he’s pushing him along that line about how to compete.”

The Lowry effect

What are Maxey’s next steps to take?

Nurse has asked him to lead vocally, to be a true point guard, and to attack again and again. He also values taking care of the ball, which Maxey has kept doing at an extremely high level. Maxey’s 6.6 turnover percentage this regular season was lowest among all NBA point guards, according to Cleaning the Glass.

“We’re going to continue to push him to be more assertive, more aggressive,” Nurse said, “and just continue to be a little bit more greedy — and a little bit more pushing the pace. When you push the pace, the likelihood that you’re going to make a mistake is up there. But once you do that more and more, you’ll get those reps and you’ll be able to do that.

“But I think he’s got a pretty good balance. He doesn’t chuck it away very often. He seems to have one or two that bounce off his foot once in a while or something like that. But I swear if I was that fast, I’d have more than one or two bounce off my foot once in a while. He’s just almost too fast for the ball, you know?”

At 38 years old, Lowry cannot relate to occasionally being too fast for the ball.

However, since signing with the Sixers in February, he’s been the latest veteran guard with tons of relevant knowledge to pass along to Maxey.

“It’s always a difficult task to try to be the top dog and also always helping everybody else,” Lowry said on Feb. 27. “It’s a fine line with figuring it out, but I think he’s smart enough, he’s talented enough and he works hard enough to figure that out.

“And he wants to, so that’s all that really matters. As long as he wants to, that’s the biggest, first step right there.”

Maxey’s not yet ordering everyone around in the way six-time All-Star Lowry does so comfortably. But in rewatching the Sixers’ Round 1, Game 3 playoff win over the Knicks, Nurse was struck by his progress.

“After watching the tape again this morning, Tyrese is starting to do some stuff now,” Nurse said Friday. “He’s really directing traffic. It kind of hit me today how much he was insisting on people getting into place.”

Nurse will at times endearingly describe Lowry with terms like ornery and surly.

That sure doesn’t match Maxey, who radiates joy and often can’t help but laugh. Nurse has seen a shift in his demeanor around teammates, though.

“He’s getting there,” Nurse said. “I guess the right word to use is maturing. He’s probably just maturing, getting older. I see him a lot more serious right now than I saw him early in the year. Everything was always a smile. He’s not surly yet, but he’s certainly more businesslike, right? So I think that’s good for him.”

Striving for more than stardom

Cassell drilled the mid-range during his years with Maxey, viewing three-level scoring as crucial for a player already so dangerous as a speedy driver and excellent outside shooter.

Hines has been on the same page.

“We talked about it early in the season,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Tyrese, there’s only so close you can get sometimes.’ A lot of times when you’re developing complementary players, it’s threes and to the basket. He’s becoming a star, so he’s growing out of the complementary role. So now the in-between shots, a lot of people don’t like them, but for stars, they’ve got to be able to take those and make ‘em. They’re scheming against you, so you can’t get all the way to the basket all the time. And he’s done a great job of now adding that little pull-up to the left, fading away.

“We’ve been working on those a lot, and he’s been working on ‘em — he’s a workaholic. … Sam was dead-on. And I still talk to him. When I talk to Tyrese, I’ll still mention him because Sam had a great mid-range game. I will still be like, ‘Think about Sam on those,’ or whatever the case may be. Like I said, his foundation has been great.

“He’s had some great coaches, starting with his dad, and a lot of people he’s worked with throughout the summer have done a great job with him. I think we’re just here to continue to enhance what’s already in him. … But the mid-range is definitely something we’ve been working on and talking about a lot.”

Reminders that Maxey is now a star — and the Sixers need him to approach the game as such — have still proven necessary here and there.

Nurse wasn’t thrilled with his 19-point, six-assist night in the Sixers’ play-in tournament victory against the Heat.

“We used ‘aggressive’ with him a lot all year long,” Nurse said. “I thought he got over that, we didn’t have to use it. Now this is a playoff or play-in or whatever you want to call it, and the mindset has to go up. I had to talk to him a lot tonight about attacking more, driving more. When guys are picking him up in the backcourt, going around them — and just keep on going.

“As great of a defender as Jimmy Butler is, I said, ‘He’s not as fast as you, man. Just turn on the jets and try to go around him a few times.’ I think he did midway through the third (quarter) on, but I thought he was a little passive for a good part of the game.”

Those moments reinforce the reality that Maxey is not done developing.

And if you listen to Nurse and Hines, he’s nowhere close to finished.

“I just think he’s growing and growing and growing,” Hines said. “And he’s built like a Mack truck, man. He’s strong as I don’t know what. He can take hits and he can get to his spots. He’s a better defender than people think. So he’s just continuing to grow. He’s very competitive. He wants to win. And when he’s done with this whole thing of NBA basketball, I know for a fact that he wants to say, ‘I did everything I possibly could. I gave the game everything I could give, and now it’s over.’

“I know he thinks that way. He’s talked with me about it. He articulates it to anybody that’ll listen — that he’s going to work his hardest. And when he’s done, man, hopefully he can go down as one of the greatest. I think he can. I think he has a chance to be a Hall of Famer. I really do. I think that he’s just scratching the surface of who he can be.”