Aggressive Thon Maker attempting to find his place on new-look Milwaukee Bucks

MILWAUKEE – It's year three. Thon Maker remains a curious case of uncertainty, as the big man continues to find his identity in the Milwaukee Bucks' rotation.

In many respects, Maker is trying to figure out his place in the NBA, which may seem strange for a player in his third year - until you think back to the up-and-down nature of his short career. In year one, Maker started 34 games, despite only averaging 9.6 minutes per game. As a sophomore, Maker only made starter for 12 games, but averaged a career-high 16.7 minutes per game.

Since his rookie season, Maker has never shied from the limelight, especially in the postseason. This season was thought to be the one, when the 7-foot-1 Australian would be ready to make his mark. But Milwaukee signed veteran big-man Brook Lopez to a one-year, $3.4 million deal, and Lopez was pencilled in as the starting center before the ink was dried.

Long-time Milwaukee center John Henson would soak up early back-up minutes at the five and before you knew it, Maker was once again relegated to the bench, the third banana on a deep roster.

Speaking with Maker, he constantly reiterates the fact you have to stay ready in the NBA, with your shot potentially right around the corner. This rang true, as Henson was sidelined with a left wrist ligament injury. All of a sudden, Maker’s shot had arrived.

Maker has found himself in the rotation for 16 games now. With a solid sample size in hand, The Pick and Roll caught up with the towering Australian, and got his assessment on his recent play.

“There’s always room for improvement, but I just got to continue to get better,” Maker shared. “The minutes aren’t there but it’s nothing I’m going to complain about, I’m just going to focus on getting better personally.”

The comment on playing time is interesting in itself, as Maker has seen the floor in every one of the last 16 games and averaging 12.3 minutes, compared with his inactive status in eight of the Bucks' first 13 games.

“I just need to stay focused on what’s being asked of me on the offensive end and defensive end as well,” he continued.

As is often the case with Maker, his hyperactive movements can present poor optics, but the numbers paint a positive picture thus far.

Advanced metrics show the Bucks have been utterly dominant on the defensive end with Maker on the floor, holding a 96.6 defensive rating (197 minutes) and a 104.4 defensive rating (576 minutes) when he is on the bench. This is a particularly encouraging sign for Maker, who projects to have his impact felt most on that end of the floor.

Milwaukee has rolled out a defensive scheme this season that's relatively conservative, when compared to the Kidd-era's aggressive , which has produced a significant uptick across the board. The Bucks are currently ranked fifth in defensive efficiency, well up from their 18th placed ranking last season.

With conservatism comes simplicity, though that hasn’t necessarily been an easy transition for Maker to apply.

“It’s funny because it’s actually tough,” Maker admitted. “There are times where coach will say we are going to switch up the defence and either be in a blitz or push, which is like a trap. If I’m in the rotation and we move to that, I’m so alert, I love that.”

You question why Maker would be struggling to adapt to a system that actually asks less of him on the floor, but in doing so you realise that in his mind, it takes away his best asset on that end - the frenetic energy that powers his disruptiveness and versatility.

“Getting aggressive is something I really like doing because defensively you want to be disruptive, get them out of their comfort zone, but you need to be smart. I understand it from a coaching position because the aggressiveness can get guys in foul trouble. For me, I’ve got to find a way to fit in and challenge shots late with the guards getting to the rim. It’s something I’ve been adjusting to.”

Per 36 minutes, Maker has witnessed his foul rate drop from 5.4 in his rookie season, to 4.7 last season, to 4.4 through the seasons early going. Despite this, he still visibly struggles to hold back from wild hacks in search of a blocked shot, but it’s a process, and one that Coach Mike Budenholzer is enjoying working through.

“Thon’s had several really good games, maybe while John [Henson] was still playing he had a couple where he really positively impacted us,” Budenholzer said.

“Thon and I have had several conversations about just him prioritising being really great defensively and how he can change games defensively and I think he’s trying to do that.”

While defense is a priority, an absolute must in the Bucks' blistering offence is floor spacing, an area that Maker is proving valuable on. Maker is shooting 35 percent from beyond the arc this season, in a welcome return to form from his disappointing 29 percent mark last year. The ability to help structurally on the scoring end of the floor has not been lost on Budenholzer.

"Offensively he can stretch the floor and I have a lot of confidence, we [all] have a lot a lot of confidence when he’s shooting threes and spaced. I think he’s understanding [the] second and third actions and playing with a similar type of energy and activity that we just want from him in general."

Though Maker's place in the rotation appears set for now, Christian Wood continues to lurk in the background, putting up enormous numbers with the Bucks G League affiliate, the Wisconsin Herd.

Is Maker feeling the heat from Wood's impressive stretch of form?

"Nah, I’m not looking at it like that," Maker revealed. "I’m proud of him for putting up numbers and for staying ready. I’m more worried about getting better myself and helping us win, that’s the biggest thing for me, stay focused."

The Bucks are indeed winning. In fact, they just reached 12 games over .500 for the first time since 2002, when they clinched a win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Even if it's not yet at the level he desires, Maker is contributing, and in the process finds himself enjoying the healthy competition among one of the league's deepest squads.

"Coach Bud likes us to compete as a unit. We like the competition but when we go head-to-head at practice, don’t get it twisted, we go at each other and it’s real competition," Maker said with a smile.

Don't they say that competition breeds excellence?

Maker and the Bucks certainly hope that's the case.