Sixers

'I call him my son': Cassell, Spencer Rivers all in on Maxey's growth

Sixers

Asked in January about Sam Cassell’s impact on his vocal leadership, Tyrese Maxey lit up and flashed his signature grin.

“Oh, he’s vocal,” Maxey began. “He’s very vocal.”

Indeed, the Sixers’ 52-year-old assistant coach never seems to struggle matching Maxey energy. When Cassell and Sixers skill development coach Spencer Rivers run the 21-year-old through his pregame routine, Cassell’s jokes look like they tend to land. There’s zero dead air. 

“He’s very quick-witted,” Rivers, the youngest son of Sixers head coach Doc Rivers, told NBC Sports Philadelphia in a phone interview this month. “And he’ll call you out, too. If you mess up or BS it a little bit, he’ll call it out. And the way he calls it out, it’s funny; he’s just very straightforward. For whatever reason, when he’s straightforward it just resonates, because everybody respects him as a player so much — and also as a coach so much — that it just sounds different coming from him.”

Rivers celebrated the Celtics’ 2008 NBA title as a kid in Boston’s locker room, watched Cassell’s work with his brother Austin Rivers, and now calls the three-time champion “like an uncle, almost, to me.” 

Cassell feels the same way, describing himself as “close to the whole (Rivers) family. Not just Spencer, but also Austin and Doc and Callie — all of them. I’m like an uncle to all of them. Doc’s like a big brother to me.”

 

His job now requires tons of time alongside Spencer — they’ve been holding workouts this summer with Maxey and James Harden in Los Angeles — and he clearly doesn’t mind that at all. 

“Spence is like a sponge, man,” Cassell told NBC Sports Philadelphia in a phone interview Tuesday. “He picks up everything I show him. We talk frequently about how we’ve got to make not just Max better, but other guys on our team better. I think Spence enjoys my vision. He enjoys how I approach player development. He enjoys me being, like they say these days, just very, very real with these guys.”

Has Cassell ever worried that realness is too harsh for Maxey? 

“No, I’m not that hard on guys,” he said with a chuckle. “Dealing with a guy like Tyrese Maxey, it’s like … a workout guru or ‘this is how you should work out.’ If every player in the league had his intensity and his work ethic — wow. This league is already great. If a team had 15 Tyrese Maxeys on their team — with his work ethic — that’d be a great team. Not a good team, but a great team.”

No surprises here 

Already, it’s a familiar, fun story.

After Maxey slipped to 21st in the 2020 draft, he showed promise as an irregularly used rookie, assumed point guard duties to start the next season when Ben Simmons held out of training camp, and made tremendous improvements in Year 2. 

Even for many fervent believers in Maxey, 17.5 points per game and 42.7 percent from three-point range (an increase of nearly 13 percent) surely exceeded expectations. 

Not Cassell’s, apparently. 

“Who didn’t expect that? Every guy I work with takes huge leaps every year they play,” he said. “I understand the concept of the game of basketball. I understand how to be successful in a basketball game. Tyrese wasn’t a top-15 pick, top-10, lottery pick. When we got him, we were shocked that we got him. And I was happy; I was delighted when we drafted him. And I said, ‘Wow. This kid is an undeveloped talent, and once he knows how passionate I am with him and he (starts) to learn’ — I’m like his big uncle. I call him my son. I call every guy I work with my son. 

“Once they get to where they need as far as the game of basketball, all of them always contact me, from John Wall to Bradley Beal to Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander), Austin Rivers — guys that I put time into. … I believe in being on time. I don’t believe in having two-hour workouts as far as basketball. I don’t believe in that. I believe in having an hour or less — sometimes I go for 45 minutes, sometimes it’s 55 minutes. That’s how I get down. We get right into the details of basketball: ‘This is what I see you need. If you get this down, it’s over.’ 

 

“This kid, he’s going to develop an 18-foot, mid-range game off the dribble. … It’s all about just him being comfortable with it. He shot 40-something percent from the three-point line. And we want to improve that stat. … The kid puts the work in, so his success doesn’t surprise me. It surprised all of y’all, but nothing he does on the basketball court surprises me. As a rookie, he had to just understand how to fit in. Where do I fit in on this good basketball team? And once he figured out how he had to fit in, it was over.”

Almost immediately, Maxey convinced Cassell and Rivers his jumper was far better than his 29.2 percent long-distance mark at Kentucky suggested. 

“I was expecting it, to be honest,” Rivers said of Maxey's dramatic shooting rise. “That was his whole thing coming out of the draft — that he’s not a great shooter, right? … He should’ve been at least a top-five, top-six pick, if you look at the other guys in the draft. But I remember his first or second workout, me and Sam looked at each other, and I was like, ‘This dude can shoot!’ He doesn’t miss a lot in workouts. And it got better, obviously, as the season progressed.

“I thought the biggest thing for him was shooting off-the-dribble threes, off pick-and-rolls, because teams were going under his first year a lot. And his biggest advantage is his speed, so when teams go under, it kind of takes away his speed a little bit. But if he was able to punish defenders when they went under, then they would start chasing over the top of screens. And you saw that last year. Teams stopped going under and they started chasing over the top, which (helped) him get going toward the basket more often because if you’re chasing him, you’re cooked.”

Nothing wrong with some trash talk 

Maxey’s first two professional seasons were packed with stretches that could have been dizzying and discouraging.

He missed the beginning of his rookie training camp after testing positive for COVID-19, dealt with life on the periphery of a rotation, and tried to do whatever his head coach wanted. Doc Rivers emphasized shooting fewer floaters and weaponizing his burst. 

A tenacious, well-tested coach’s son, Maxey never appeared to lose his joy. Behind closed doors, Spencer Rivers aimed to keep Maxey as engaged and competitive as usual. That sometimes meant riling him up. 

“I remember his rookie year, there was a good stretch where he didn’t play a lot,” Rivers said. “So he would always come back in at night after practice in the morning or shootaround in the morning, and it would just be me and him and we’d play 1-on-1. I’m a big trash talker — a really big trash talker. I think I just grew up around other trash talkers, so that makes me one. So I would bring it out of him, because I would just say wild things — trying to get him going, trying to make it as competitive as possible. And he eventually … if you get him a little angry, he’ll start trash talking.”

 

Is he any good at it? 

“Yeah, he’s good at it, because he beats you,” Rivers said with a laugh. “It’s always easy to be good at it when you’re winning.”

Given Maxey’s magnetic attraction to gyms at all hours of the day, Rivers said he's on call practically 24/7. 

“My job is to facilitate whatever he needs,” Rivers said. “If he needs me in Dallas, I’ll go to Dallas. If he needs me in Philly, I’ll go to Philly. If he needs me in L.A., I’ll go to L.A. I think he has a real shot of being a really good player in this league just because of his work ethic, so I don’t want to be the one that stops it or hinders it in any possible way. I’m pretty much willing to go wherever he wants me just to work him out.”

All of Maxey’s diligence when the spotlight is asleep justifies a deep self-belief — trusting your work, your instincts, your game. 

Reminders don’t hurt, though, and Rivers’ message after a preseason-opening loss to the Raptors last year amid the Simmons drama resonated. 

“I think the main lesson I’ll take from the beginning of this year is after we played our first preseason game, Spence told me, ‘I don’t ever want to see you play a game where you’re not being yourself. Today you went out there and you didn’t play like Tyrese Maxey. That’s not going to help our team,’” Maxey said in November.

“I think that’s one of the biggest things I took from the beginning of the season, is I’ve got to go out there and to help guys like Tobias (Harris) and Joel (Embiid) and Seth (Curry) and Danny (Green) ... I’ve got to be aggressive finding shots and getting downhill, and continue being myself.”

Mid-range mastery 

In Cassell’s eyes, the main missing piece of Maxey’s game happens to be an area of personal expertise. 

“It jumps around,” Cassell said of his workouts with Maxey. “There’s some things we do every day that I need him to sharpen. Like, Tyrese Maxey is a great three-point shooter. I’ve got to put him in position and train him so now he can make all kind of threes — three-point shots off the dribble, three-point shots off pin-downs, spot-up threes. My goal is to have him become basically a three-level scorer — the mid-range game, the layup game and the three-point game.

 

“Once he becomes a legitimate three-level scorer, he’s special. He’s a two-level scorer right now. If he gets that third part, the mid-range game … which I mastered as a player, and I just tell him certain things he has to do to become a good mid-range shooter. Once he gets that, he’ll be real special.”

As for the specific focuses of his mid-range tutelage with Maxey, Cassell was amusingly reticent. 

“Actually, if I’d tell you, I’d have to kill you,” he said.

The available data supports Cassell’s reputation as an all-world mid-range player during his 993-game NBA career. As an All-Star for the 58-win Timberwolves in the 2003-04 season, Cassell shot 48.8 percent on two-pointers not at the rim, best among all point guards according to Cleaning the Glass.

While threes have surged in popularity since Cassell’s playing days, he feels mid-range skill remains vital in the postseason. 

“I’m not an analytics guy,” Cassell said. “If you watch the NBA playoffs and the championship game, (the mid-range is) the shot you can get. When everybody’s switching one through five, you’re going to get the mid-range shot. So we’ve got to enforce (Maxey) to just keep going and keep playing. Kyrie Irving, he’s a great mid-range shooter. You think he gives a damn what the analytics department says? Kevin Durant, he’s a great mid-range shooter. You think these guys give a damn about what the analytics say about that mid-range shot? 

“It’s all about moving the scoreboard late in the playoffs. My goal is to teach him to move the scoreboard. He’s going to shoot enough threes; he’s going to shoot six threes a game eventually, seven threes a game eventually, because he’s a great three-point shooter. But now, what are you going to get in the fourth quarter when everybody’s switching one through five? What shot do you think you’re going to get?”

The Maxey-Harden duo 

For each of his three consecutive scoring title seasons in Houston (2017-18 through 2019-20), Harden both attempted and made more free throws and threes than anyone in the league. His era is undoubtedly different than Cassell’s. 

Maxey’s adjusted free throw rate last season was league average, per Basketball Reference. Significant progress looks realistic for the 2022-23 season.

“I have a belief that you get more calls as you become more known throughout the league,” Rivers said. “So I think he’ll naturally get more calls next year. But also, he’s been working with James a lot this summer and that’s James’ bread and butter.

“We played 1-on-1 a lot the last couple of days and James is just so smart at using his body, and Tyrese is kind of picking up on it too now where if the defender’s in a certain position and you know you can get a foul … draw it, because that’s two free throws for your team at the end of the day. And he’s such a great free throw shooter, we want him at the line more. In the playoffs, I think he was (94) percent. During the year, he was at, like, 87. So we want him at the line as much as possible.”

 

Cassell sees Maxey absorbing all the nuances Harden has acquired and fine-tuned over 10 All-Star seasons. 

“He’s picking up everything,” Cassell said. “I’ll make this simple, man: Tyrese Maxey is a pro’s pro. That make sense to you? He’s a pro’s pro. If you find me somebody that works as hard as Tyrese Maxey in this game of basketball — and Tyrese is young, now — I’d like to see it.”

Of course, the Maxey-Harden workouts haven’t just been Maxey silently staring at his backcourt mate. 

Harden has a new contract, two former teammates rejoining him in P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr., and a full offseason to focus on basketball instead of rehabbing his hamstring. Time in the gym with Maxey is another very valid source of positivity. 

“The No. 1 thing I’d say I’ve noticed is mostly James’ attitude toward Tyrese,” Rivers said. “I think James respects Tyrese so much because of his work ethic. He calls him crazy all the time just because he’ll ask him, ‘What did you do today?’ And (Tyrese) will be like, ‘Well, I got up at 5 and worked out. And then I lifted weights and worked out again, and then I went to the beach and did a beach workout.’ And James, you can tell he just loves it.

“I think it’s given him new energy as well, just being around it. They’ve really built a pretty good relationship this summer, just from being around each other a little bit. I know Tyrese went to Houston for a couple of days to work out with James, and James is now out here to work out with us. So it’s been great.”

Tyrese Maxey, James Harden
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Cassell is enthusiastic about the Maxey-Harden pairing, to put it mildly. 

“Man, it’s awesome,” he said. “Their chemistry is getting ridiculous. … When we traded for (James), Max was not disappointed, but he didn’t know how this thing was going to transpire. I called him, thank God, and said, ‘Listen, I’ve been in this league a long time. No one will ever tell you this — not your friends, your agent; nobody will tell you this — but you’re going to have a ball playing with James Harden.’ I said, ‘You’re going to have a ball.’ And he did not understand, because he was the point guard before we got James; he had the ball in his hands. I said, ‘Now you’re really going to eat.’ 

 

“And after five or six games playing with James Harden, he looked at me and said, ‘OG, how’d you know that?’ I said, ‘Man, because James Harden’s an excellent passer. He’s an excellent passer. Now you can do some things that you hadn’t done with us. You can run the break; you can get the ball on the wing; you can get layups and open threes. No pressure’s going to be on you to handle the ball and get guys into this position and that position. That’s James’ job. You’ll have the opportunity to do that sometimes, but that’s James’ job.’ And look at his numbers … before and after James.”

Maxey did indeed score more and improve his efficiency once Harden came aboard. After Harden’s Sixers debut in February, Maxey posted 18.7 points per game on 52.3/48.0/85.3 shooting splits. 

Maxey muscle watch 

Maxey won’t have old-man strength anytime soon.

Still, he’s been eager to become a better defender and viewed adding muscle as essential.  

“I think fans and everybody will notice in the beginning of the year next year that he’s bigger,” Rivers said. “I would say he’s put on like five pounds of muscle. And he’s done it gradually, so he’s still fast; he hasn’t lost any of his speed. But he’s been really motivated. He keeps saying, ‘I’m blowing up picks next year. I’m getting through screens next year.’  

“And I think that comes with strength and it comes with just being more physical. … And when he gets that switch — so let’s say sometimes you’re scrambled. Teams start trying to find little guards. So he might get in a situation where he’s guarding someone 6-7. It’s going to help him, being stronger, and I think that was a big thing for him this summer. He already looks stronger and feels stronger, so I think that’s big for him.

“And then I think film — him just picking up more stuff as time goes on. He’ll get smarter as a weak-side defender, pulling in from the nail. I think he’ll get better at that ... but I think the No. 1 thing for him this summer was just to get stronger, and he’s definitely already done that.”

As Maxey accumulates reps, Cassell thinks he’s equipped to play through and brush off contact. 

“… He’s just figuring it out right now,” Cassell said. “The strength is good because he’s going to take a pounding going to the rack. He’s a small guy, so the added muscle is definitely going to help him in that capacity taking the punishment from bigger guys. That’s not going to be a problem for him. He’s a tough kid, tough-minded kid.

 

“I can coach him hard, I can get on him. And he knows I can get on him. … (I’m always telling him), ‘This ain’t for me, this is strictly for you. This is strictly for you. My history playing the game of basketball has been written; it ain’t going to get better. It is what it is. But yours hasn’t started yet.’ By Year 15, I want this kid to be a great player. Not a good player, a great player.”

Cassell's history, Maxey's future

Following Maxey’s 38-point performance in the Sixers’ Game 1 playoff win over Toronto last season, Doc Rivers lauded him for playing with “no anxiety.”

Back when Cassell was the young guard enjoying the postseason, Rivers was desperately wishing his clutch jumpers would miss.

With Rivers sidelined after suffering a serious early-season knee injury, the rookie Cassell knocked down the go-ahead jumper in Game 3 of the 1994 NBA Finals against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

"I think he's courageous," Houston head coach Rudy Tomjanovich told reporters, per a Chicago Tribune story by Sam Smith. "He's amazing. The bigger the challenge, the more he steps up."

The Rockets ultimately overcame a 3-2 series deficit. John Starks shot 2 for 18 from the floor in the Knicks’ Game 7 loss. 

The next season, Rivers was healthy for his Spurs’ Western Conference Finals matchup with Houston. San Antonio won Games 3 and 4 to even the series, but Hakeem Olajuwon then totaled 81 points, 26 rebounds, 11 assists and 10 blocks over his next two outings. And Cassell scored 30 points and dished out 12 assists in Game 5. 

“My whole thing is when you prepare properly … no matter what stage of the game it’s in — making a big shot in the fourth quarter of a playoff game — it’s just like common sense,” Cassell said. “We’ve done it so many times. I push (Maxey) to the max physically. I try to fatigue him. So now, in a game when he’s fatigued, he still has the mental aspect to make a shot.”

Cassell knows what he’s talking about when he gives Maxey guidance on being assertive with star teammates, too. 

“It’s tough,” he said. “But how many people can say they had that experience and teach that part? I played with the MVP my rookie year in Hakeem Olajuwon. You know how hard it is to tell Hakeem Olajuwon, who’s the MVP of the league, ‘Give me the ball’? 

“‘Let me do my job. My job is to get you the ball, and to get these other guys the ball. Let me do my job.’ That was not easy. Telling that to a 12-time All-Star, (five-time) First Team Defensive player, that s--- ain’t easy. That s--- ain’t easy.”

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Comparison is tempting in basketball, but Embiid is not a clone of Olajuwon and Maxey is not destined to have Cassell's career.

 

Cassell’s history matters, though. One more example: He coached a sensational, speedy, one-and-done guard from Kentucky with the Wizards, helping Wall develop into an All-Star. 

“Absolutely,” Cassell said when asked whether Wall and Maxey were similar. “Those two guys you named, their great NBA skill is speed with the ball. And both of them have a great knack for making layups through traffic. John developed into a pretty good shooter. John Wall his first year was not considered a great outside shooter; he was considered a great layup-maker. But we worked and worked and worked, and now he’s accomplished making 15-foot shots, can go back to 23 feet, make threes off the dribble. I think John Wall is going to surprise a lot of people this year with his play. He missed two years of basketball, give or take, for silly reasons, but that’s (neither) here nor there. I think Maxey is right there. The kid works, man. He’s a great kid to teach. … He knows that there’s nothing I gain from this but seeing him being successful. 

“And I tell Spence this all the time: All we want from guys we deal with and we try to get better is their success. … We don’t want congratulations. I know I don’t need the accolades, because people know who really should know how I do things as far as developing guys.

“We get a player and Doc wants me to have them ready for the ball club. He’ll say, ‘Sam, have him right for me in November.’ And he doesn’t ask questions, he doesn’t question me. He knows, when the time comes and the season starts, that Sixers player is going to be all right.”

Nothing in the NBA is guaranteed, even for a player like Maxey who’s been known to sneak into the gym with Spencer Rivers on mandatory off days. 

All the optimism is logical, but it’s an unpredictable, grueling, often cruel league. Opponents will be determined to dim Maxey’s stardom. 

However, if you arrive two or so hours before tip-off at Wells Fargo Center, you know exactly what you’ll see. With Cassell and Rivers in his ear, Maxey will get ready for a ball game and love it.

He’s one of the most positive people I’ve ever been around,” Rivers said. “I think it just comes from his work ethic. He works so hard and I think you almost have to bring a good energy to do it. 

“He gets up at 5 a.m. every single morning throughout the whole entire summer and somehow he gets to the gym with that same energy. But yeah, that’s just him. That’s all the time. So whenever it’s not there, it’s strange.”