Perhaps he shouldn’t have even been on the court at all, UK basketball commitment Tyrese Maxey said after his team’s second game at the Nike Peach Jam event last week.
Maxey — a 6-foot-3 point guard and an early pledge for the Cats’ 2019 class — injured his ankle during the USA Basketball U18 team’s gold medal run at the FIBA championships last month, and it still wasn’t fully recovered.
John Calipari texted Maxey at the beginning of the week and said he might want to sit out. The UK coach told his top recruit he had nothing more to prove. Maxey said his father also suggested he take a break and stay on the sidelines for Peach Jam, the summer’s top event.
Although obviously hobbled, Maxey wouldn’t hear of it.
“I’m just trying to tough it out,” he said. “Because I’m a pretty tough kid.”
Calipari might’ve grimaced at the sight of his future point guard limping up and down the court between big plays, but he surely loves the attitude.
Maxey’s outlook has already brought him a long way in his relatively short basketball career.
Before Peach Jam started, he was named a first-team, all-Nike performer for his showing during the regular season, when he averaged 21.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.7 steals per game. He was also named the league’s defensive MVP, quite a feat on what’s considered the most competitive circuit in grassroots basketball.
“It meant a lot,” Maxey said of that honor. “Because I know down the road — especially when I get to Kentucky — that’s going to be one of my main goals: stopping the other team’s best player. So it just means a lot to me that someone finally recognizes that I actually do take pride in my defense.”
Maxey said he’s always felt accomplished on that side of the court, but he started taking a special pride in it around his freshman year of high school. That’s when the national recruiting websites started coming out with their rankings of the top players in his class.
“Every guy who was in front of me, or even close to me, that’s who I wanted to guard,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how tall, how small. It didn’t really matter. … Whoever I need to guard — if my coach wants me to guard them, that’s what I’ll go try to do. I’ll never back down from a challenge.”
The challenge that morning had been Jaden McDaniels, a forward who’s listed at 6-10, possesses a long frame and is now ranked among the top five players in the country. And Maxey was working on “a bum ankle,” as he described it. “He’s 6-10 and I’m 6-3 — maybe, on a good day — but I can guard whoever I need to guard. I’ll try my best.”
Maxey’s team lost that game, however, and he wondered aloud if maybe he should just follow Calipari’s advice and sit out the rest of the Peach Jam. He said it was difficult to cut — his quickness is one of his strengths — and get to the spots he can normally get to. He was afraid his presence on the court might be hurting his teammates’ chances.
The future Wildcat said he’d think about shutting it down before that night’s game.
Of course, when it was time for tip-off a few hours later, Maxey was right back out there.
“Just the want-to to play, you know,” he said. “When you know you can do what you can do, and you really want to do it, it’s just hard to say, ‘I’m just going to chill out.’
“I really want to play and perform for my teammates and try to go win a Peach Jam title.”
The night before — in the Peach Jam opener — Maxey’s coach pulled him out of the game when Houston Hoops fell behind late to a PSA Cardinals team led by No. 1-ranked guard Cole Anthony.
Maxey thought his squad could come back, and he inserted himself back in the game.
“Coach Cal thought we lost. He thought it was over,” Maxey said. “He called me later that night, and he was in shock. He didn’t know we’d won.”
Houston Hoops were down 15 points with just a few minutes remaining the following night — in the game Maxey ultimately decided to play in — and they came back in that one, too.
Maxey scored 24 points, his highest total of the event, and made key plays down the stretch.
Rivals.com national analyst Eric Bossi praised him in his write-up of the game later that night, saying the UK commitment had earned his top-10 ranking in the 2019 class.
“He’s not going down without fully emptying the clip,” Bossi wrote.
Houston Hoops ultimately lost their final two games in pool play and didn’t qualify for the Peach Jam quarterfinals, bringing an end to their season on the Nike circuit.
Maxey, as Calipari told him, had nothing to prove last week. He had locked in his scholarship offer to Kentucky, earned the respect of his peers, and secured a spot near the top of the national rankings. Still, he played.
“I guess people say there’s no pressure or whatever. But, honestly, I just wanted to come out here and win. And perform. ... This stage, it makes you want to play so bad, and it makes you want to produce.”