NEW YORK — Always, there is a star. Sometimes, we all know to anticipate his arrival (John Wall). Sometimes, we expect a lot and get even more (Karl-Anthony Towns). Sometimes, he comes entirely out of nowhere to excel in ways even his coaches did not foresee (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander). Always, though, Kentucky basketball finds or develops or conjures someone capable of carrying the Wildcats through the most difficult moments.
Did you know Tyrese Maxey would be that player for this Kentucky team? The Wildcats entered the 2019 Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden ranked No. 2 because they returned several contributors from last season’s 30-win, Elite Eight squad and because their deep freshman class included multiple players who appeared capable of contributing to another successful season.
Maxey surely was among them, but he’d given his coaches no reason during preseason practice to expect immediate excellence when the games began. He spent most of those months struggling to cope with the suffocating defense presented by sophomore teammate Ashton Hagans in drills and scrimmages. Of the nine Wildcats who appeared in Tuesday’s 69-62 victory over Michigan State, he was the last one off the bench.
“I didn’t start him because I told him, ‘I want you to come in firing. I want you to watch what’s happening, and you get in there and let it go,'” UK coach John Calipari told reporters. “Early on, he wasn’t, but then he got into it.”
Maxey scored 26 points in his Division I debut, more than any UK player had produced in an opener under Calipari. So yeah, that’s more than Wall, more than Towns, more than DeMarcus Cousins, more than Jamal Murray … we could do this for quite a while, so let’s assume you get the picture.
It wasn’t just about volume, though. It was about style: Maxey’s sizzling drives to the rim led to him attempting 10 free throws and making nine. His 3-point shooting included two off-the-catch beauties that suggested he will be comfortable and dangerous when playing off the ball, and one monstrous, 24-foot triple off the bounce when he was being guarded by MSU’s 6-7 Aaron Henry and the Wildcats held a 2-point lead with a minute left.
“Honestly, I just trusted my training,” Maxey said. “Coach Cal always tells me I put in the work, get up at 6 o’clock every morning, and I took that shot 1,000 times. I shot it 1,000 times in high school, shot it 1,000 times this summer and I have confidence in myself because I put in the work. I feel like, he dropped his back foot, and I knew I was going to knock it down.”
Maxey is a 6-3, 185-pound product of Garland, Texas, who often appears as though he is undaunted by anything he encounters on a basketball floor. Hagans, who started 30 games for UK last season at point guard, has a demonstrated ability for shutting down opposing point guards and aimed all of that toward his new teammate during the preseason.
Maxey failed plenty in the face of this challenge, and still he smiled through all of it. It drove Calipari a bit (more) bonkers to see this reaction, but shots like the one that clinched the MSU victory can be a product of this nonchalance.
“Ashton steals the ball from him, he smiles. What are you smiling about?” Calipari said to reporters. “Don’t smile. Be mad. Make a face. Do something. But he just smiles. ‘I’m good, coach.’ Great kid.”
Michigan State showed in this opener how damaging the injury to senior guard Joshua Langford will be to their near-term development. They started freshman Rocket Watts in his place, but Watts did not appear ready to handle the defensive challenge presented by Maxey’s devastating quickness. Sending in veterans Gabe Brown and Kyle Ahrens did little to mitigate this concern, and Henry spent the entire first half in foul trouble while Maxey was gaining confidence.
“What I saw today is what I saw in high school,” Calipari said. “I have not seen it to this point. I’m in practice: ‘Where’s the sniper that I recruited? You can’t make a jumpshot. You’re not even making free throws. You’re missing layups. You’re playing tentative. You’re sprinting when you should jog and jogging when you should sprint.’ A lot of it was based on him having to go against Ashton.
“But the two days prior to this, all I talked about was: ‘You be that sniper. Play. We need you to get baskets for us.’ I’m happy for him.”
Late in the game, with Hagans bothered a bit by a leg problem, Calipari allowed him to rest and trusted Maxey to bear the full responsibility of running the offense and defending All-American guard Cassius Winston. There were no apparent issues with either.
There is no assurance Maxey will continue to perform at this level. A year ago, when the Champions Classic was played in Indianapolis, Kansas freshman Quentin Grimes made six 3-pointers and looked like a first-team All-American and certain NBA lottery pick. He wound up averaging 8.4 points.
What happened at the Garden, though, showed what Maxey can do against elite NCAA competition, and the recent history of UK basketball has shown that what the best players can do they will do, almost without exception.
“Ashton was on me, and Nate was on me about my spirit: just being happy, being smiling, boosting up my teammates, and that’s one thing I thought I did,” Maxey said. “Rallying us, helping us getting rebounds, whatever my teammate needed to win.”
Maxey had begun his career against a Hall of Fame coach in Tom Izzo and an All-American in Winston, with Hall-of-Fame announcer Dick Vitale calling the game from courtside in the arena considered by most competitors to be the game’s modern mecca. He dealt with all of this so fearlessly, he might have been playing pickup hoops at the North Lexington Y.
He was asked what part of this memorable night would stick with him the longest.
“Looking up at the zeroes and seeing that we were ahead of the other team, and we won,” Maxey said. “And just being happy with my teammates. We grinded all summer. There was a lot of conditioning, a lot of stuff we didn’t like, that we didn’t agree with, but it paid off in the end.”
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