For much of Thon Maker’s second NBA season, questions lingered in the face of his awkward performance. A starter on opening night, Maker quickly found himself relegated to a bench role, before falling completely out of the revolving rotations used by Jason Kidd, and his mid-season replacement Joe Prunty.
Entering the postseason, Maker’s sophomore season in the Association was an unquestioned disappointment. And yet, in a flash of six first quarter minutes in Game 3 of the Milwaukee Bucks’ playoff series against the Boston Celtics, Maker cast all doubt aside. He was amazing in Game 3; bursting into life as the small-ball center Milwaukee desperately craves. If only for a moment, Maker’s year spent wandering the NBA wilderness appeared like an afterthought.
Maker was, momentarily, a destructive force. He displayed a level of defensive decision-making and execution that has been lacking for most of his career. There was an antagonistic assertiveness that reinforced Maker’s potential; the commotion of those four blocks, that came within a three-minute flurry to end the first quarter of Game 3, spoke to his potential and place within the Bucks’ franchise.
Such promise isn’t a new phenomenon, either. Maker excited the masses as a breakout candidate in his playoff debut 12 months earlier. Expectations rose ahead of his second season and, as we know, these proved problematic.
Maker now faces a similar scenario heading into year three. Fresh off another promising playoff outing, expectations are rising once more, and there is one question on the lips of every Bucks fan: can Playoffs Thon become a regular season contributor for the Bucks? This is the version of Maker we all want to see in the NBA, but will he get the chance?
Mike Budenholzer has been hired as the Bucks’ head coach. His first offseason in charge saw Milwaukee devote resources to a front court upgrade, as Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova were both signed as free agents.
Lopez, who has played exclusively as a five man throughout his career, spent last season with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he averaged 13.0 points and 4.0 rebounds in 74 games. Ilyasova, a power forward with three-point range, finished last season with Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers, after starting the season playing for Budenholzer in Atlanta.
Lopez and Ilyasova's additions create a logjam within a Bucks front court that already included incumbents John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Maker. As training camp approaches, there are seemingly five men competing for minutes in Budenholzer’s opening night rotation.
It is difficult to predict how Budenholzer will structure his first games in charge, but it makes sense that Lopez will be tabbed as the starting centre. Lopez has started 599 of his 636 career NBA games and is currently the most proficient of the Bucks’ big men. His increased range from beyond the three-point arc – Lopez is a 34.6% three-point shooter over the past two seasons - presents an enticing alternative for Milwaukee. The franchise has struggled to create space for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lopez’s presence, in heavy minute starting units, could unlock further growth in the Greek superstar’s game.
It also figures that Ilyasova will be guaranteed regular minutes to start the season. Milwaukee clearly coveted Ilyasova’s services, as they agreed to a three-year pact in the very early moments of free agency in July. Budenholzer has prior experience with Ilyasova and his rotations in Atlanta frequently featured players of this mould.
The likes of Mike Scott, Mike Muscala, Pero Ancic and Ilyasova – all unauthentic floor spacing big men – routinely played regular roles in Atlanta teams that made the playoffs under Budenholzer. Given the decisive nature in which Milwaukee obtained Ilyasova, it appears he has been acquired to service a similar role this season. It also bears noting that Ilyasova has averaged between 20 to 27 minutes per game, every season of his NBA career. His shooting has long been a seductive force for NBA coaching staffs.
Assuming Ilyasova and Lopez fulfil roles in line with their historical production, that essentially leaves three players – Henson, Zeller and Maker – fighting for one role as the reserve five man. The thought of Maker playing alongside either Lopez and Ilyasova isn’t completely crazy, although there are much better options at Budenholzer’s disposal.
Before launching into how the battle for minutes inside will shake out, it must be said that prospects of Milwaukee playing smaller around Antetokounmpo are now increased.
Incumbent starters Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and Tony Snell are supplemented with an overabundance of solid, if not spectacular, players who can service minutes in the backcourt. Each of Malcolm Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova, Pat Connaughton and Sterling Brown are capable rotation players. This presents Budenholzer with an opportunity to play small around Antetokounmpo, with multiple ball handlers present, if he so desires. These units were often overlooked by Kidd and Prunty, serving as a “break in case of emergency” option when the Bucks faced trouble. A modern twist could, and arguably should, emphasise this look under Budenholzer.
A move to smaller line-ups in Milwaukee will further limit opportunities for Maker. At the same time, it could also offer the opportunity to unlock his potential. At his best, Maker is a prototypical small-ball center. Performances against Boston have reinforced the theory that a reliable, two-way player lives within Maker. It is just a question whether this can be harnessed with regularity.
If Lopez starts, Henson and Maker will very likely be battling to be his backup. Maker remains the high upside play, with Henson the steady veteran who will offer greater stability in performance. Zeller’s contract does not fully guarantee until January 10 next year, per Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This doesn’t bode well for the former North Carolina Tar Heel, as he can become an inexpensive roster casualty, should Milwaukee seek to alleviate the positional gridlock.
Maker’s potential will invariably ensure that he gets further opportunities to show his worth at the NBA level. Coming off the bench, in a reserve role behind Lopez, might actually be the best thing for his development. This is especially true, if Maker can harness the energy he showed against Boston to close out last season. Fewer minutes, but a greater impact is what the Bucks will require from Maker as they look to climb the Eastern Conference.
Budenholzer brings a level of coaching aptitude the Bucks have lacked of late, and it is fair to expect that greater stability on the sideline will translate on the court - both for Maker, and the Bucks team as a whole.