The case for Tyrese Maxey as the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft

LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 04: Tyrese Maxey #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats brings the ball up court during the game against the Missouri Tigers at Rupp Arena on January 4, 2020 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 04: Tyrese Maxey #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats brings the ball up court during the game against the Missouri Tigers at Rupp Arena on January 4, 2020 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /

Tyrese Maxey doesn’t fit the typical profile of a No. 1 overall pick but he might turn out to be the best player in the 2020 NBA Draft.

The top of the 2020 NBA draft is as contentious a topic as any draft-related one in recent memory. In a class lacking a true alpha, multiple contenders have risen to the top of different draft boards. Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball, two flawed initiator prospects, occupy the top of most boards at this point. But those two prospects have enough red flags to open the door for others to take the top spot in this class.

Enter Kentucky freshman guard Tyrese Maxey, the 10th ranked recruit in the 2019 high school class. The case against Maxey at the top of the draft is simple: the first picks in the draft should go to legitimate primary initiators, players who can act as the fulcrum of a high-octane offense. In this class, none of those are really available. Anthony Edwards has the requisite tools and theoretical shotmaking, but his decision-making warts are serious enough to consider someone else. LaMelo Ball is a passing savant, but his frame and athletic tools bring serious doubt about his scoring potential.

At a cursory glance, Tyrese Maxey doesn’t pop off of the stat sheet as a lotto pick, let alone a top pick. Averages of 16.7 points, 3.7 assists, and 2.6 turnovers per game, 28.1 percent from 3, 1.1 steal percentage and 52.5 true shooting percentage is far from jaw-dropping. Taking a closer look at the film and the numbers reveal an uber-talented guard prospect: not a primary initiator, but a projectable secondary and an impact guard defender.

Despite his uninspiring 3-point clip, Tyrese Maxey possesses the upside of a high-level shooter, key for his projection as a secondary combo-guard. It starts with Maxey’s feathery touch on runners, around the basket and on his jumpers. That touch, evident on film and buoyed by his free-throw percentage (80.3 percent this season, 83.3 percent in 19 EYBL games), is the foundation for a great NBA shooter. Most evident on his floaters, Maxey flutters in shots from 8-10 feet, no matter the defensive pressure:

Aside from a low release, Maxey’s shot passes the eye test. Maxey pulls up with excellent balance, showcasing a quick trigger, NBA range and even some versatility shooting off of movement. There’s more evidence then there isn’t to be confident in Maxey’s future as a shooter. At his peak, he should be able to hit 36-37 percent on high volume and degree of difficulty:

While Maxey lacks the top tier burst of a prospect like Anthony Edwards or Kira Lewis, his slashing package is one of the strongest in the class. Bursty enough to win off of the dribble, he’s a powerful, decisive driver, his sudden movements beating defenses. Maxey’s athletic package is well rounded, adding elite balance, strength and body control to his burst. All of his slashing tools operating in unison create a devastating penetrator. He’s finishing well as a whole, shooting 55.8 percent in the half-court (61st percentile).

Squaring up with a strong defender in Dwayne Sutton, Maxey dusts him baseline, his silky touch allowing for him to finish softly at high speed:

Though he only places in the 45th percentile on runners, deferring to the film shows a prospect with elite floater upside. Without top-tier burst, the runner will be a lethal weapon for Maxey throughout his NBA career, adding self-creation value on drives if he can’t consistently generate layups.

Against quick on-ball defenders, Maxey occasionally lacks the burst to turn the corner and maneuver all the way to the basket. On switches, however, Maxey eats slower defenders alive. Many guards probe too much with switches, allowing for the defender to set up and offer a strong contest. Maxey rarely deliberates here; he toasts Rayshaun Hammonds baseline, shielding the ball and finishing with the sweet reverse:

Listed at 6-foot-3, 198 pounds, Tyrese Maxey is a brute. Strength is one of the most underrated traits in basketball scouting and Maxey is a semi-truck. That strength not only allows him to stonewall attackers on defense, but allows for him to get to the rim undeterred by flying bodies in the lane. With a head of steam, Maxey is difficult to stop; he plows through 6-foot-9, 240 pound Galin Smith and finishes with his left:

Finishing ambidexterity is a real bonus with Maxey, as his touch extends to both hands. Knifing into the lane, Maxey takes two sweeping steps to stop short of the charge, showing off the body control and soft touch with the off-hand:

Maxey’s ball-handling accentuates his natural jolt attacking the hoop, slicing up defenses with shifting speeds and directions. Not the twitchiest handler, Maxey explodes out of single, controlled moves. Maxey’s stop-start ability discombobulates defenders; the hesitation freezes Hammonds and he finishes with another circus reverse:

Explosive changing directions, Maxey plants before exploding with a lateral move and working to the basket:

Tyrese Maxey’s passing has underwhelmed this season, especially compared to his EYBL sample. Though he was never a hyper-aggressive or creative passer, he showed off more ingenuity than he has at Kentucky. He’s still a solid decision-maker (1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio) and doesn’t make a ton of mistakes, which is a skill in itself.

Maxey does flash passing competency and has improved there as the season has progressed. Most effective passing off of his drives, Maxey hangs lob passes above the rim to bigs when defenses commit. His deadliest scoring weapon, his floater, compliments his lob passing beautifully. Defenses worry about his runner and often tread in no man’s land, vacating a window for Maxey to fit high passes to his bigs:

Despite the inherent challenges guard defenders face in the modern NBA, Tyrese Maxey projects as a potential plus defender with his combination of physical tools and IQ. Maxey’s stocks are one of the most curious statistics of the season: 1.3 stocks per 40 minutes is a bad indicator of team defense and overall feel, but his tape shows otherwise. While he does make quite a few mistakes off of the ball — all freshmen do — he’s a smart team defender, making timely rotations, showcasing good awareness. He’s particularly good at contesting vertically without fouling, this trait and his strength making him an occasional deterrent at the rim, something most guards are not.

At the point of attack Maxey’s strength, lateral agility and foot quickness help him mirror quick guards and bigger wings alike, closing off driving lanes:

Regarding Maxey’s steals and blocks, he popped there on the stat sheet pre-college: 2.4 steals and 0.9 blocks per game in 19 EYBL games and 1.8 steals in four FIBA games. The playmaking instincts were apparent in that sample and should develop given time and translation to the NBA:

There’s still one more major caveat to point out regarding Tyrese Maxey and that is the nature of Kentucky prospects in the past consistently outperforming their projections. John Calipari has an uncanny eye for talent and just as uncanny an inability to maximize that talent. Throughout the last decade and change, Kentucky prospects have showcased skills in the NBA that were nowhere to be found in college.

Bam Adebayo posted a 0.5 assist-to-turnover ratio in college and is a passing hub in year three. Devin Booker was an off-screen shooter and has transformed into a legitimate offensive playmaker. This fact alone should add some optimism to Tyrese Maxey’s case, added to the passing, shooting and overall dominance he displayed in EYBL.

Though Tyrese Maxey isn’t the archetype generally worthy of a top pick, in this draft, it might be worth betting on a better basketball player in a different archetype. That’s not to say Maxey doesn’t have upside: if he’s an elite shooter with the wicked floater game and capable secondary playmaking and plus defense, that’s a strong secondary or tertiary piece on a contending team.

Being a small, Maxey’s defense will have a tougher time translating up to the playoffs, but he should still be competitive there at worst. He’ll have a lower threshold to hit on offense to be truly valuable than other small guards and he could still hit a high offensive threshold with shooting, slashing and decision making. In a draft class lacking a true alpha, it could be worth betting on a player with the floor and ceiling of Tyrese Maxey as the best player in the draft.

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