Tyrese Maxey's historic Kentucky debut saved an otherwise lackluster Champions Classic
Tuesday night's unprecedented doubleheader didn't live up to the hype, but Maxey massively exceeded his
NEW YORK -- It's easy to provide perspective on just how ridiculous Kentucky freshman Tyrese Maxey's Wildcats debut was.
Yeah, our eyes told us mostly everything we need to know, but let's really set the table to establish the kind of player UK could have at its disposal for the next five months.
See, John Calipari has coached 38 Wildcats who became NBA picks over the previous decade. It's an outrageous number, but Calipari's the best recruiter in the history of the sport. So, 38 Kentucky studs who would go on to be drafted and 42 former Wildcats overall who've made the NBA after playing for Cal at UK.
None of them debuted with more points than Maxey's 26 on Tuesday night in No. 2 Kentucky's 69-62 win against the consensus preseason No. 1 team, Michigan State. In fact, no freshman in Kentucky history had more points in their first game than Maxey, who got to 26 on 12 shots, including three 3s. He also had five rebounds, a steal and was 9 of 10 from the foul line.
Let the record reflect that Maxey's first words to the media after a searing debut were: "I feel like I played OK."
All told, considering the stage and the opponent, it was easily the most impressive debut by any player Calipari's ever coached at Kentucky. Better than Eric Bledsoe and John Wall. Better than Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. Better than Jamal Murray and De'Aaron Fox. Better than Demarcus Cousins and Terrence Jones, the latter of whom held the record Maxey broke Tuesday night, back when Jones debuted with 25 points against East Tennessee State in 2010.
Maxey wasn't just the best player for Kentucky, he was the best player more than 19,000 paying patrons witnessed over the course of two games at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. The 19-year-old, one day removed from his birthday, saved the Champions Classic. In what was a first for the sport -- amounting to historic hype for a historic night -- the top four teams in the AP Top 25 played on the same day under the same roof to open the season. Duke slipped by Kansas in a sloppy undercard affair, followed by Kentucky toppling a Michigan State squad that weirdly didn't look prepared for its unveiling as an opening-day No. 1 team for the first time in school history.
Thank God for Maxey. He provided buzz and pizzazz on a night when college basketball really could have used it to crack the seal on the season. The indelible moment came late in the second half, well after he'd given us some wow five or six times already. Ball in his hands, shot clock working its way down and the game encroaching on just a minute to go with Kentucky's lead having shrunk to two. Maxey, patronizing out in Taliek Brown Land, opts to pull up like he owns the joint ... and jacks a 3 that clenched butts before effectively clinching the game and immediately placing him at the center of discussion and reaction to college basketball's opening night.
Even better about all of it: about 30 feet away, there was the first great Calipari Kentucky guard, John Wall.
"Well honestly, I just trusted [myself]," Maxey said. "I shot [that shot] a thousand times in high school, a thousand times this summer."
And on the next possession, when Michigan State's Kyle Ahrens was off on a 3, it was Maxey parked under the rim, waiting for the board.
What a fun night, a fun showing and a stark contrast from a season ago. At this time last year, it was megahype into overdrive about Duke and Zion Williamson after the Blue Devils beat Kentucky by what Calipari jokingly remembered as "68" points on Tuesday night, but was in reality merely half that, a 118-84 beatdown.
How about this: UK got its first win in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game since 1996. Who did it come against back then? UMass -- coached by a 37-year-old John Calipari.
Now it's Kentucky that gets to be the chatter of the sport after opening night thanks to looking like the best team with the best player. Maxey was as brilliant as he was steady. He's got so much go-go to his giddy-up, too. His style is perfect for in-person and television consumption. He sank these OK-young-fella floaters and runners, he's obviously comfortable handling the ball and running the offense when asked.
At times, he carried himself with the control and composure of a senior; just complete confidence and an air of responsibility when it was late in the second half and Calipari opted to run the offense through him instead of returning guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley.
Poised, eager, completely ready for the moment.
Which was a stunner for Calipari, who said afterward that Tuesday was the first time he saw Maxey look like the player he recruited. In practice, he's been inconsistent, a bad shooter, a lazy runner and not the fiery offensive producer he was as a high school and grassroots player. Going against Hagans, a top-five defender in America, will do that to a freshman's psyche.
What shouldn't be overlooked is that Maxey didn't even start, nor was he the first player off the bench in this game. Calipari told him he wanted him to sit, soak it in and then be ready to come out firing.
"What's made him better, I don't know if he said this, but he has to go against Ashton every day," Calipari said. "Like, it's ridiculously hard. Like, he gets demoralized at times and I have keep telling him, 'There's no defender like this kid.' ... He's laughing after. He said, 'Boy the game's a lot easier than our practice.'"
But on Tuesday night, he got to play alongside instead of in front of Hagans, and so he was freed. Freed to be himself, which is apparently top-10 NBA pick material. Can't wait to see what this season brings with a dynamo like Maxey on the loose. We could come to discover he's the most watchable, entertaining player in college basketball this season after losing the most watchable, entertaining player in a decade-plus. He's not Zion, but Maxey could make for a contagiously fun torchbearer.
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