Photos by Jeff Houchin
By LARRY VAUGHT
Just a few moments after Tyrese Maxey scored 26 points — the most points ever by a Kentucky freshman in his collegiate debut — against then No. 1 Michigan State at Madison Square Garden, one NBA draft analyst was already projecting Maxey as a top 10 pick in the 2020 NBA draft.
That set a high bar for the freshman guard that he had not quite reached with his play since then before hitting four 3-point shots in a 20-0 Kentucky run Sunday night in an 81-56 victory over Lamar when he finished with 21 points, five rebounds, three assists, one steal and even a blocked shot. He has now scored in double figures six times and had 11 points and a season-high five assists against Mount St. Mary’s on Friday.
Against Eastern Kentucky after his impressive collegiate debut, he had nine points, three rebounds and three assists in 26 minutes but his demeanor impressed SEC Network analyst Andy Kennedy, the former head coach at Mississippi.
“He came off that incredible game but then didn’t force anything against Eastern Kentucky. He played with great energy and didn’t let not having the same scoring opportunities bother him at all. That says a lot about him,” Kennedy said.
So does what he did Sunday night when a Lamar player got fouled, hit the floor and Maxey was the first player there to offer a hand to help him get up.
Chris Dortch is publisher of Big Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook and a contributor for NBA.com for the last 10 years. He says the quick rise in expectations for Maxey for the 2020 draft were premature.
“I love the kid. Don’t get me wrong about that but if you are thinking one game in Madison Square Garden where everybody is obviously fired up should affect where a guy is taken in the draft you are sadly mistaken,” Dortch said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
“You are not going to see NBA guys make a one-game hot take over everything a kid did before or after. There’s no question his work ethic is solid. I don’t doubt his ability but that take after one game was just not right.”
Dortch was also a bit confused why some seemed to be surprised by Maxey’s performance against Michigan State or the talent he has that he certainly put on full display again against Lamar.
“This kid didn’t come out from under a rock. This guy is the real deal,” Dortch said. “USA Basketball is a huge barometer of future success. They pick guys for those teams to win gold medals and if you look at what he did there, you should be impressed.
“He is a tough cover, maybe one of the toughest in college basketball. He is not afraid to pull up and shoot. He has confidence in his stroke but also the courage to take big shots. He can also get to the rim. If you don’t contest him, he can hit from outside. If you contest too closely, he drives around you and finishes or dumps the ball off.
“He can also board (rebound). That means if he is getting defensive rebounds, he can start the fast break and eliminate a pass to get the break going.”
Maxey is averaging a team-high 16 points per game is hitting 35.7 percent from 3-point range (10 of 28). He is 26 of 30 at the foul line, 86.7 percent, — second on the team in attempts, makes and percentage. He also has 16 assists, which is second on the team
“He has a big tool belt and can score at all three levels,” Dortch said. “A lot of that just comes from practicing and being able to contort his body and putting up shots to see what works and doesn’t. He’s a master at it near the basket and that makes him a lot of fun to watch play.
“It’s almost impossible for him to have an 0-for (from the field) game because he can score so many ways. He is not selfish, either. He’s not cocky or arrogant but he has the confidence to get the job done and it seems like Cal wants him to be the ‘man’ on this team. He’s already one of my favorite Cats in the Cal era.”
That’s high praise from a basketball junkie, especially considering the players Calipari has had at Kentucky.
Calipari likes the way Maxey has “trusted” him and how hard he has played even when Calipari seems to be on him more than any other player because of the expectations he has for him.
“Numbers don’t matter here. That’s the greatest thing. They only matter in an ego way to either the kid or the people around him. It’s only ego. Either you can do this, or you can’t. Numbers don’t matter at Kentucky. They don’t and he gets that,” Calipari said.
Even after his impressive play Sunday night the UK coach said his star freshman was still “learning” what to do in certain situations. Calipari especially noted issues Maxey was having off pick-and-rolls.
“He’s always hard on me, and I’m grateful for it,” Maxey said about Calipari’s coaching after Sunday’s win. “You know, at the time it doesn’t feel good, but he does love us all and he’s going to coach us really hard and he wants to win just like we do, so I’m thankful for it.”