What Makes Sixers’ Tyrese Maxey The Early Favorite For NBA’s Most Improved Player

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One month into the 2023-24 NBA season, oddsmakers have tabbed Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey as the early favorite to win the league’s Most Improved Player award.

Maxey is a plus-100 to be named MIP, per FanDuel Sportsbook, while Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes (+500), Houston Rockets center Alperen Sengun (+700) and Brooklyn Nets guard Cam Thomas (+1400) round out the top four. The race isn’t over by any means, but Maxey’s leap to a no-brainer All-Star is putting him in the lead.

Some voters may take issue with that, as Maxey had hinted at having this type of potential in a more limited role in the past. With James Harden no longer in Philadelphia, Maxey now has full control of the Sixers’ offense, and he’s off and running with the opportunity.

The Sixers’ biggest non-Harden-related question heading into the season was how Maxey would fare as the full-time ball-handler. He had a half-season of that amidst Ben Simmons’ absence in 2021-22, but the Sixers ended that when they traded for Harden in February 2022.

Any concerns they might have had about Maxey’s capacity in that regard should be gone now.

Through 17 games, Maxey is averaging a career-high 26.6 points, 6.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 46.0% overall and 40.3% from three-point range. By becoming more of a facilitator, he’s amplifying the effect of his three-level scoring ability.

Not only has Maxey nearly doubled his number of assists per game from last season, but he’s gaining a far better understanding on how to manipulate a defense. The improvement he’s showing in that area likely stems from the offseason work he did with star center Joel Embiid and his trainer, Drew Hanlen.

According to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Taryn Hatcher, Maxey joined sessions with Embiid just to serve as a passer. He wanted to figure out how and where the big man liked to receive the ball since the two of them would be the Sixers’ offensive focal points until or unless Harden returned.

Those workouts are paying off in dividends, as Maxey and Embiid have developed some lethal two-man actions that the Sixers go to over and over again until the opponent figures out how to stop it.

Maxey’s willingness to move off the ball is the biggest differentiator between him and Harden. He’s nowhere near the passer that Harden is, although he recently attributed his growth in that area in the game to Harden’s tutelage over the past year-and-a-half. But he and Embiid have some dribble hand-off actions that resemble what the Sixers used to run with Embiid and Seth Curry or JJ Redick.

Harden and Embiid’s actions tended to be simple. The two of them would run a pick-and-roll, and Harden would decide whether to dump the ball down to him, kick it outside or take it himself. The decision matrix is more complicated for Maxey and Embiid because of Maxey’s speed and off-ball utility.

When Maxey comes flying off an Embiid screen and finds himself well defended, he’ll often kick it back to the big man and start sprinting again. The two of them typically clear out a full side and then go to work, testing the limits of a defense until they find a breaking point. That interplay is something they never had prior to this season.

Maxey is now learning the delicate balance between looking to set his teammates up and hunting for his own shot. He recently said that he typically spends the early part of the game aiming to get his teammates going, and then he takes over in the early second and fourth quarters while Embiid is resting.

Maxey’s lightning-quick first step always made him dangerous on drives to the basket, and the drastic improvement he’s demonstrated as a shooter since coming into the NBA has turned him into one of the league’s most promising young guards. Now, he’s turned the one major weakness he had on offense—his playmaking ability—into a clear strength.

Perhaps most impressively, Maxey’s increase in usage hasn’t resulted in a drastic spike in turnovers. He averaged 1.3 giveaways in 33.6 minutes per game last year, and he’s only up to 1.5 in 38.5 minutes per game this season. He has the lowest turnover percentage of any player with a usage rate and assist percentage above 25 since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, per Basketball Reference.

Heading into the season, it was unclear whether Maxey had this level of playmaking aptitude. If he keeps this up over the next few months, it will likely influence whom (if anyone) the Sixers pursue ahead of the Feb. 8 trade deadline. They don’t need a full-time playmaker unless Maxey collapses in that role over the coming weeks.

If he maintains this star turn—he had 31 points on 9-of-20 shooting, eight assists, three rebounds and a steal in Monday’s blowout win over the Los Angeles Lakers—he’s going to be in the conversation for an All-Star starter. It’s hard to argue any guard in the Eastern Conference other than Tyrese Haliburton of the Indiana Pacers has definitively been better than Maxey.

Barnes, Sengun and Thomas are all in the midst of their own impressive seasons, with Thomas’ breakout in particular coming as far more of a surprise. Any of them could still supplant Maxey in the Most Improved Player race, particularly if Maxey suffers an injury that causes him to miss extended time at some point this season.

But for now, Maxey’s monstrous first month of the campaign has vaulted him to the front of the MIP pack.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM. All odds via FanDuel Sportsbook.



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