Why Tristan Maxwell could be a fortuitous find for Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech signee Tristan Maxwell was named Mr. Basketball for the state of North Carolina April 11, 2020. He led North Mecklenburg to the 4A state championship game this season before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the championship. (Photo courtesy Jeff Siner, The Charlotte Observer)
Georgia Tech signee Tristan Maxwell was named Mr. Basketball for the state of North Carolina April 11, 2020. He led North Mecklenburg to the 4A state championship game this season before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the championship. (Photo courtesy Jeff Siner, The Charlotte Observer)

It was the spring of 2018, and Georgia Tech assistant coach Julian Swartz paid a visit to North Mecklenburg High outside of Charlotte, N.C. He was there to see rising senior Jae’Lyn Withers work out with his team. And that’s when Withers’ coach tipped Swartz off to a rising junior named Tristan Maxwell.

That began Tech’s recruitment of Maxwell. That serendipitous suggestion to keep an eye on Maxwell was actually preceded by another break. Swartz had another prospect that he wanted to see at a nearby school who was working out at the same time as North Mecklenburg. Forced to choose, Swartz went with Withers – and, ultimately, Maxwell.

“So just kind of lucked out,” Swartz told the AJC. “Really from there, I just kind of monitored Tristan.”

The most recent good fortune was crystallized Saturday, when Maxwell was named Mr. Basketball for the state of North Carolina, making him the first Tech signee to earn that honor in any state since Derrick Favors won it in Georgia in 2010. Maxwell won the honor even though his recruiting rankings and list of scholarship offers would not suggest the likelihood of doing so. It’s an indication that Tech has landed a player far better than most have perceived him.

“I don’t want to use the wrong term, but I think (Pastner) feels like he got a steal, because Tristan can play anywhere,” North Mecklenburg coach Duane Lewis said.

Only the unfolding of Maxwell’s Yellow Jackets career will spell out whose assessment of his potential was more accurate. But Maxwell’s accomplishments and the strengths of his game suggest that the odds lie on Tech and Lewis’ side.

“I’m a firm believer that he can make an impact and be a scorer and be a very good contributor,” said Patrick O’Brien of Phenom Hoops, a North Carolina-based scouting service. “

Maxwell earned the Mr. Basketball honor from The Charlotte Observer by leading North Mecklenburg to a 30-1 record and a berth in the Class 4A state championship game (the title game was canceled by the coronavirus pandemic). A 6-foot-3 shooting guard (and the son of former NBA veteran Vernon Maxwell), Maxwell averaged 24 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists for the Vikings.

In basketball-mad North Carolina, the player worthy of Mr. Basketball has also been an elite prospect in recent years. Before Maxwell, the past 12 winners were four- or five-star prospects ranked in the top 120 nationally, with 10 of the 12 in the top 30 (247Sports Composite). Four signed with North Carolina, three with Duke, two with N.C. State and one each with Kentucky, Florida State and Wake Forest.

Maxwell is ranked the No. 281 prospect nationally, No. 58 at his position and No. 11 in the state. The schools he picked Tech over – N.C. State, Georgetown and Temple – are hardly chumps, but N.C. State and Pittsburgh were his only other ACC offers.

“That was the mystery to all of us,” Lewis said.

Maxwell might have been recruited more if he were a little taller and more athletic. Lewis said that coaches from just about every ACC school and most SEC schools took a look at him. But, Lewis said, he saw Maxwell’s recruitment as a case of coaches looking for reasons to weed him out.

“They’re worried about what he can’t do instead of what he can do,” Lewis said.

Maxwell’s most dangerous asset is his scoring knack. He showed it at North Mecklenburg, but also perhaps more convincingly at the NBA players association’s top 100 camp at Virginia last June. Competing against a litany of four- and five-star prospects, Maxwell was the sixth-leading scorer at 14.6 points per game.

“He had a tremendous top-100 performance, if you look at all the stats,” Swartz said. “So that’s where it kind of got serious.”

Maxwell’s scoring touch has many facets. He has a quick release and long range. With the ball in his hands, he changes speeds effectively, creates space for his jump shot with his dribble and his strength and scores at the rim after contact.

Lewis said that “he’s learned a lot from us, but also he’s put some time in it somewhere else, and then some of it’s probably from being around his dad and being around the NBA. He just has the unique ability to get that shot off.”

To Pastner, Maxwell has a lot of similarities with guard Michael Devoe, whose scoring average jumped from 9.7 points per game as a freshman to 16.0 this past season, good for eighth in the ACC.

“Mike’s kind of deceptive in the same way,” Pastner said. “They’re deceptive where they can get to places (on the floor) and you think, ‘How did they get there?’”

Even better for Tech, Maxwell’s game has more layers. With the ball, he spots open teammates and is creative in his ability to get them the ball. When North Mecklenburg’s point guard and power forward went out at different points this past season, Maxwell willingly filled in for both, evidence of his competitiveness and a team-first attitude.

“Everybody is so focused on his scoring – and he can really score – but the thing is, I think people are going to be impressed with is his ability in transition to pass the ball,” Lewis said. “He snaps it off and he can put the ball where he wants to.”

An enduring Pastner maxim is that Tech needs to have some luck in recruiting – either in convincing a four- or five-star recruit to pick the Jackets over the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky or to sign a recruit who is undervalued. Forward Moses Wright personifies the latter, a late bloomer who was ignored by the ACC (except for Tech) but this past season recorded seven double-doubles.

Not only in who Maxwell could become but also in how Tech found him, Maxwell may prove another stroke of fortune.

“I definitely thought he was underrated and I think he’s going to go in there and he’s going to have a chance to do really good things,” Lewis said. “He understands that he was probably a little underrated. I’m sure that’s a little chip on his shoulder.”

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