MILWAUKEE - The injury bug has hit the Milwaukee Bucks for the first time this season, with John Henson (wrist) and surprising rookie Donte DiVincenzo (quad) set for varying stints on the sideline. Both have played key roles in the Bucks' early season success and their absence will open up significant opportunities for the other members of the squad - none more so than Thon Maker.
According to a Milwaukee Bucks press release, the predominant back-up center Henson, has suffered a left wrist ligament injury, and will be scheduled for surgery in the near future. As an extension to that release, The Athletic provided further detail on the possible timeline for the setback.
After acquiring veteran big man Brook Lopez during free agency, Henson and Maker appeared locked in a battle for the back-up minutes at the five in Milwaukee. Early in the piece, it’s been the former who has taken the lead, playing in each of the Bucks 14 contests, averaging 13.4 minutes per game.
The key to Henson’s game has been the addition of a previously absent 3-point shot. Prior to this season, Henson was a 1-for-13 career shooter from deep over 391 regular season appearances for the Bucks. Through the season’s early weeks, he is 11-for-31, boasting an impressive percentage of 35.5 percent. This spike directly correlated to his once questionable fit with the Bucks new offensive scheme, as floor spacing and ability to hit the outside shot are paramount to its success.
With the path now appearing clear for Maker, let’s take a look at how this projects to effect the Bucks on both ends of the floor.
The prime question mark surrounding Maker’s ability to consistently become a factor will arise on the defensive end, where his game changing talents can both help and hinder the Bucks output.
After being thrown into the contest with the Bucks down by 15 points late in the third quarter against Memphis on Thursday morning, we witnessed the Bucks wavering from what has become their normal drop coverage in the pick and roll.
The Bucks have been content with coercing their opponents into mid-range jump shots by having the big man drop back to the paint on the pick and roll, which makes sense from an analytical and personnel standpoint for Milwaukee. Neither Lopez or Henson possess the agility and athleticism of Maker, who can provide a clear point of difference by jumping the ball handler and executing a switch, or conversely hedging and still having the ability to recover as we see in the GIF below.
It’s this type of wild activity from Maker that brings a tantalising feel for how he could transform the Bucks already stellar early season defense. The question will remain --as it always has with Maker-- if he will be able to stay out of foul trouble, with his eagerness to swat every shot into the stands hurting him at times.
That level of aggressiveness on the defensive end is in stark contrast to what we’ve seen from the Bucks, and while it presents a nice point of difference at times, it would appear he will need to find a way to be effective what has morphed into more stable defensive principles.
Offensively, the expectations become simplified for Maker, who will need to knock down outside shots, sure up his hands, and be committed to boxing out the opposition.
The Australian’s 3-point shot has shown signs of returning to his impressive rookie standards, with Maker currently holding a 35.7 percent mark from his 14 attempts. The Bucks offensive scheme is based around the analytically charged importance on shooting threes and lay-ups, giving Maker a green light that was evidentially not glowing under the tutelage of former coach, Jason Kidd.
Given the Bucks wealth of ball handling and ability to penetrate with outside threats spacing the defense, opportunities to cut to the basket for easy points become a viable scoring avenue. Maker found success with this against Toronto, where he cut baseline on multiple occasions for easy buckets. Prone to catching a case of the fumbles, Maker’s success will also hinge on solidifying those hands.
While largely being limited to garbage time minutes thus far, Maker has given us two intriguing performances to analyse when looking at what to expect.
Maker has played 32:42 of meaningful minutes across two games – against Toronto and Memphis. In that time on court, he's tallied 14 points, nine rebounds and three blocks, on 5-for-9 shooting from the field and 3-for-6 shooting from deep. Even more impressive is the fact that the Bucks have outscored their opponents by 23 points in that time.
Anytime Budenholzer has been questioned on Maker, he has remained steadfast in his praise of the precocious talent, having this to say after his breakout performance against Toronto.
“It was great for Thon. He had a little bit of a tough preseason with being banged up and not being able to practice, not being able to play,” Budenholzer said. “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.”
With a supportive coaching staff and a game plan that should suit his skill set, this next period certainly feels like a critical time in determining Maker's future in Milwaukee.
The Bucks are rolling on both sides of the floor, contributing to their best start to a season in over 20 years. It's now up to Maker to grab this opportunity with both hands, in the process avoiding a costly fumble at the worst possible time.