After more than a year of waiting, Georgia Tech’s Tristan Maxwell seizes chance

Georgia Tech guard Tristan Maxwell (shooting) attempts a 3-pointer against Boston College at Conte Forum Jan. 12, 2021. Maxwell scored a career-high 22  points for the Yellow Jackets. (Keith Swindell)

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Tech guard Tristan Maxwell (shooting) attempts a 3-pointer against Boston College at Conte Forum Jan. 12, 2021. Maxwell scored a career-high 22 points for the Yellow Jackets. (Keith Swindell)

Georgia Tech guard Tristan Maxwell’s 3-point barrage on Wednesday night was a year and a half in the making.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Yellow Jackets

Last year, as the Yellow Jackets made history with their first ACC championship since 1993, Maxwell mostly watched. He played in one game as a freshman last season, an eight-minute stint against Delaware State in the seventh game. Maxwell’s time was limited by injury (broken foot) and coach Josh Pastner deeming him not ready to play.

“I really just took it day by day,” Maxwell said this week. “Me and coach Pastner, we talked all the time last year. Just having those talks, meetings and all types of things, like just how I just need to buy into the system.”

Maxwell’s scenery didn’t change much at the start of this season. He wasn’t summoned into action through Tech’s first 10 games, in part because of dental issues and also because he hadn’t earned his opportunity yet from Pastner.

“He’s just taken some time, and he’s improved, and he’s gotten better,” Pastner said. “It’s just been one day at a time, and to his credit, he’s gotten better and better and better. It’s just taken a little time.”

Waiting was difficult for Maxwell, who was named the North Carolina state player of the year as a senior at North Mecklenburg High in Huntersville, N.C., just north of Charlotte. But he proved his readiness in full Wednesday, when he dropped seven 3-pointers on Boston College in the Jackets’ 81-76 road win.

It has considerably altered the dynamics for Maxwell’s return to his home state Saturday, as the Jackets (7-8 , 1-4 ACC) finish their home-and-home with North Carolina (11-4, 3-1).

“It would be nice if he hits another seven 3′s, too,” Pastner said. “That would help.”

Maxwell, the son of former NBA player Vernon Maxwell, joined rare company in knocking down the seven 3-pointers. In Tech history, only 15 players had done it before Maxwell, a list that is not easy to make. Dennis Scott, Mark Price, Kenny Anderson and B.J. Elder are among those who made seven 3-pointers in a game in their careers. Michael Devoe was the only Jackets player to have accomplished it in Pastner’s six-year tenure before Maxwell.

It is a standout achievement on its own, but made only more remarkable by the fact that, before Wednesday, Maxwell had only played in three games (two this season) and not made a single 3-pointer.

“I think it’s very hard to do what he did, and to do it in his third game this year,” Pastner said.

Maxwell’s play as a high schooler gave evidence of his prodigy. He set his school’s all-time scoring record and averaged 24 points as a senior. In 2020, though, he couldn’t take part in summer workouts because of COVID-19 protocols, and then suffered the foot injury in the preseason.

“That’s like six months of missing everything as a freshman,” Pastner said.

Maxwell began this season out of the rotation, as Pastner looked to freshmen such as Deebo Coleman and Miles Kelly before Maxwell. For Pastner, playing time invariably starts with work in practice.

“He just had to keep understanding the system and the speed to cut at and play at, and it’s just taken a little time, but he understands now,” Pastner said. “And he’s really practiced well as of late, and that’s why he’s played well. It’s a direct correlation.”

He played in his first game of the season against Georgia State on Dec. 21, hitting a critical basket in the Jackets’ comeback win.

After the Jackets returned from a COVID-19 pause on New Year’s Eve, Pastner said he started to see Maxwell’s readiness to contribute in the way he was practicing. His next chance was against Notre Dame on Saturday, when he scored four points in 13 minutes in the overtime loss. That opened the door for his breakthrough against Boston College. He took advantage of a gap created by Kelly cutting to the basket for his first 3, a wide-open jumper from near the top of the key.

Six more followed. His last helped seal the game. With about 1:20 left and Tech hanging onto a 73-72 lead, guard Michael Devoe twice shot and got his own rebound and spotted Maxwell in the left corner alone. Maxwell caught, released and scored for a four-point margin that held up as the Jackets earned their first ACC win of the season after four losses. Notably, in 26 minutes, Maxwell turned the ball over only once.

“We needed every single one of those (3-pointers),” Pastner said. “And he also did a really good job defensively. I thought he really played well overall.”

After the game, Maxwell said he was shocked by what had just happened.

“It’s just crazy,” he said.

It didn’t stop him from believing that he can continue to be a scoring threat, which is what the Jackets need. As Pastner committed to playing a smaller lineup, with 6-foot-7 forward Jordan Usher serving as the center in Tech’s Princeton offense, it will depend on 3-point scoring to keep defenses spread out and to compensate for the scoring advantage that opponents will have against Usher and forward Khalid Moore in the post.

“I feel real confident I can be that guy because it’ll take some of the pressure off Mike Devoe because you know how guys are guarding him, like real tight – face guarding him, basically,” Maxwell said. “I feel like that worked out for me (Wednesday). How tight they were playing Mike, it kind of got me open.”

At his videoconference media availability Friday, Pastner had yet to decide whether he would start the small lineup against the Tar Heels’ sizable lineup, including 6-10 Armando Bacot and 6-11 Dawson Garcia. But he’ll use it at least some of the time. And it will for sure include Maxwell.