From a physical standpoint, Thon Maker looks like he has barely changed. His laughter rings out in the locker room, and you see his smile as he chats with teammates and other familiar faces.
It says a lot about Maker's character, especially his resilience. Once again, he's hoping to build off an eye-catching playoff performance against Boston, but was struck down with knee soreness, right before the season started.
The injury sidelined Maker for the final two exhibition games, at the worst possible time. The Sudanese-Australian big man missed out on an opportunity to battle veteran John Henson for backup minutes, and found himself inactive for the season's first four games.
Despite the lack of opportunity, the smile remained bright. In a way, Maker's boundless optimism reminded me of fellow Sudanese-Australian Deng Adel.
"There’s no frustration. I can only control getting better on my own or asking somebody for help," Maker said after the Bucks' home opener against Indiana, in which he was inactive.
"Just getting in the gym, you can control that as a player. If you do have frustration you can let it out on the court. It’s the NBA, you’ve got to stay hungry and get in the gym.
"Right now? I’m starving."
It wasn't until the fifth game of the season in Minneapolis, that Maker received his first minutes and promptly knocked a 3-pointer down, to the delight of the healthy Bucks contingent.
Receiving garbage time minutes against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic was a step in the right direction. For a confidence player like Maker however, it posed its own challenges.
“It’s tough sometimes just to find that rhythm and slow the game down," Maker explained. "You don’t have that right away. Let’s say you play the full game and you come back in the second time, the game [feels] slower.
"But if you’re fresh and you’ve been watching the whole game, it’s not going to be slower when you first come in.”
Maker laughs as he talks about his high school basketball experiences, where he would intentionally foul a player or check himself out of the game, just to get a chance to sit and regain his composure.
Maker's indifferent start might have thrown up question marks around his future, but the Bucks showed significant faith in Maker by exercising the fourth-year option on his rookie scale contract earlier this week, ensuring he avoids free agency for another season.
The tantalising tease that has been Maker's past two playoff performances, is enough to keep Bucks fans hopeful. The young centre hardly needed reminding that both the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics would be on Milwaukee's schedule this week.
The Raptors series from 2017 still lingers in his memory, and it's not surprising that there is --in Maker's words-- "added motivation" anytime Milwaukee plays Toronto. Bucks fan envision Maker being an All-Star, were he to play the full 82-game NBA schedule with the same intensity, and they might be right. Maker averaged 8.6 points a game on 46.7 percent from deep across seven games against the Raptors, well up on his career marks of 4.5 points and 33.5 percent.
Perhaps it was the motivation, maybe it was simply opportunity, but either way Maker responded in his first meaningful minutes against Toronto. He played 23 minutes in Giannis Antetokounmpo's absence, tallying 11 points, while reeling in seven rebounds.
"[Thon] had a little bit of a tough preseason with being banged up and not being able to practice, not being able to play," Budenholzer explained post-game. "He wants to play so badly. He’s such a great worker, competitor, all those things. I thought he was huge in the first half. His minutes, his shot making - I thought it was a big part of the first half.”
In past games, Maker would quietly pack up his things and leave the arena with little fanfare, other than a particular lone Australian beat writer grabbing his thoughts. This time, he was confronted with a throng of media, peppering questions about his breakout night and the Bucks' undefeated start. Faced with the limelight, still profusely sweating from his exuberant play, Maker had to pause his answers briefly to ask for a towel.
Once he was done with his podium duties, I was once again able to grab the night's star for a quick second, to which he obliges - such is the man's polite nature.
Maker's first stint on the floor was significantly shakier than his second, and he reminded me of his earlier words about the game slowing down.
"That’s me finding my rhythm," he commented.
The opportunities he received against Toronto might shrink with Antetokounmpo's imminent return, but Maker remains excited for the challenge against the Celtics, in the exact venue the Bucks saw their season end just six months ago.
“It’s going to be big [playing Boston]. We just have to trust the system. Rely on one another as a unit, and continue to move the ball. They try to do a good job of that on their end. They are a great team and we have to go in their respecting them and also keep that playoff memory in the back of our minds.”
Frustrating start to the season? Sure. But Maker is going to keep on smiling, and perhaps, meeting these familiar foes is just the launchpad he needed as year three in the NBA gathers steam.