In the 2016 NBA Draft, the New York Knicks missed out on a big-time scoring guard from the University of Kentucky, the leading producer of NBA stars.
The Knicks’ lottery pick that year was earlier sent to the Denver Nuggets as part of the Carmelo Anthony blockbuster trade. The Nuggets used the Knicks’ original pick (seventh overall) to select former Wildcat Jamal Murray.
Murray, as it turned out, is the real deal and he quickly became one of the league’s rising stars. The Denver Nuggets guard’s sensational play in the NBA Bubble has left team executives who passed on him scratching their heads.
This year, another big-time scorer under John Calipari’s program has entered the NBA Draft. One-and-done freshman Tyrese Maxey could be the answer to the Knicks’ backcourt riddle with his dynamic scoring and moxie.
“I’m trying to tell everybody when you look at Tyrese, he’s a smaller version, but he’s still 6’2”, of Jamal Murray who is 6’5”. They both have that lower release. Everybody said Jamal would never get it off,” Calipari told Empire Sports Media during his Zoom call with select media on Monday.
Murray though came into the Draft as a projected top-five Lottery pick but somehow slipped a couple of notches down because of doubts whether he was athletic enough to thrive in the league.
He proved all the skeptics wrong as his game and his low released shot translated well in the NBA.
Maxey isn’t viewed as highly as Murray was. Most boards have Maxey as a late lottery pick in a Draft that has become as unpredictable as it hasn’t been in recent years. Aside from his apparent lack of size (6’1″ without shoes and with only 6’6″ wingspan), Maxey is facing the same questions Murray had in 2016.
“Jamal played with Tyler Ulis so [people] said, is he a point guard? They’re point guards. We’re teaching them to play with the ball and without the ball. And now it becomes: do they make game-winning shots? Are they that guy? Tyrese is,” said Calipari.
With the NBA heading into positionless basketball, Calipari believes Maxey’s switchability as a combo guard could work well to his advantage. He has the skills and speed to run the point and he has the moxie and court smarts to play off the ball.
Maxey proved early on that he has the chops of Calipari’s typical dynamic guard when he dropped 26 points in his college debut at the Madison Square Garden against Michigan State.
He went on to average 14.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game before the college season was cut short. He shot 42.7% from the field, 29.2% from three, and 83.3% from the stripes.
It wasn’t fancy particularly his shooting percentage from deep but the eye test suggests his impact on the game was way bigger than those numbers. Another reason for that, Calipari explained, is because Maxey played within the system just like the way Murray, and earlier, Devin Booker did that made them somewhat underrated ahead of the Draft.
While Maxey is two inches shorter than those two former Kentucky guards, he possesses the same characteristics that make him such an intriguing prospect with a high ceiling.
Calipari pointed those out but also acknowledged the area where Maxey should focus on to reach his ceiling.
“Tyrese, physically, athletically and you know he’s a guy who’s blocking shots, rebounding the ball, has played dribble-drive and a downhill runner his whole life,” Calipari said. “He has to be more consistent with his shooting so did Jamal. But they played similar (roles) here.”
While it’s a pity that Maxey was robbed of the opportunity to show more of his wares on the big stage when the SEC and NCAA were scrapped, his body of work from high school, AAU to Team USA would be enough to tell you he’s got a chance to be special.
Before he went to Kentucky, he teamed up with Draft classmate Cole Anthony in the Team USA that obliterated the 2018 FIBA U18 Americas Championship.
Maxey averaged 8.8 points, 2.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists against 0.5 turnovers, and 1.3 steals in 18 minutes. Anthony, who was named to the All-Tournament Team, averaged 14.3 points, 2.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists against 2.7 turnovers, and 1.2 steals in 21 minutes.
During his short-lived stay at Kentucky, Maxey was on a tear late in the season, scoring 20 or more points five times before the stoppage.
“There are gonna be people who’ll pass on Tyrese that will regret liked how they passed on PJ (Washington) like how they passed on Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander), Jamal (Murray) and we can keep going,” Calipari said. “He’s gonna be that (type of player).”
Mike Schmitz, ESPN’s resident NBA Draft Analyst, shared the same view with Calipari when he appeared on Sports Center with Scott Van Pelt last week.
Talking NBA Draft last night with SVP pic.twitter.com/WUMRDzDOUv
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) October 22, 2020
“He didn’t have eye-popping numbers at Kentucky. He was under 50 percent from 2, under 30 percent from 3, but you have to play a role there. You have to fit in. Coach Cal does a tremendous job of forcing these guys to buy into a role. It’s about winning for the team and you sacrifice there and that’s exactly what Maxey did,” Schmitz said.
But the one thing that stuck out on Schmitz is that Maxey is a big-time scorer.
“This kid is a bucket. I saw him at the high school level, I saw him with USA Basketball, and I think he’s a perfect fit in today’s NBA. You can try to poke holes in him. You can try to say, ‘He’s a 6-3 combo guard. He’s a scorer or he’s out of control.’ But it’s worked pretty well for Tyler Herro, for Jamal Murray, for Devin Booker.”
That type of dynamic scoring has been sorely lacking on the Knicks backcourt for the longest time now.
Calipari didn’t go into specifics about the Knicks’ interest in Maxey. But a highly-placed source in Kentucky said that Calipari has been constantly talking to the Knicks.
During the course of Calipari’s interview, the well-decorated coach revealed that his travel was limited by the pandemic but noted that his only out-of-town trip so far was to New Jersey.
Knicks’ team president Leon Rose is from Cherry Hills, New Jersey while his good friend and senior advisor William “World Wide Wes” Wesley hails from Camden, New Jersey.
Calipari has strong ties with the Knicks front office, and more so with his former top deputy and key recruiter Kenny Payne who is now one of Tom Thibodeau’s assistant coaches.
Maxey should be available by the time the Knicks would pick at No. 8 based on most Mock Drafts. But he’s also a trade-down candidate as reported by Marc Berman of the New York Post.
NBA Draft analyst Matt Babcock of Babcock Hoops, meanwhile, views Maxey in a different light.
“I see (Tyrese) Maxey being a solid complementary role player at the next level, whereas (Jamal) Murray is a dynamic player and one of the NBA’s rising young stars,” Babcock told Empire Sports Media. “Murray is just in an entirely different category altogether.”
Babcock Hoops has Maxey at No. 28 in their Mock Draft. It’s going to be a big surprise if Maxey gets picked inside the Top 10.
“I do not think the Knicks should consider Maxey with the 8th pick. It would be too high in the draft for him, in my opinion. I actually think Maxey would be a more appropriate option for the Knicks with the 27th pick, if he were there, of course,” Babcock said.
Maxey has shades of Murray in his game. But there are also glaring questions that he must address.
Only time will tell if Maxey can hold up to Murray’s comparisons.
But as Murray’s game became bigger and louder in the recent NBA Bubble, it’s hard to imagine that this new front office given their link to Kentucky and Calipari would pass up on the opportunity to get a player of the same caliber.
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