A look into Thon Maker’s early offensive struggles

Thon Maker’s second NBA season has gotten off to a rocky start.

Removed from the starting line-up after just two weeks, the young Australian is experiencing adversity for the first time as a professional. Opposition teams are attacking his weaknesses and there has been a noticeable struggle at the offensive end of the floor.

Maker’s offence remains a by-product of the Bucks system. He just doesn’t have the attacking repertoire create for himself. Only one of Maker’s 24 field goals this season have been unassisted, per the NBA’s shot tracking metrics, with the lone basket being a put back layup after an offensive rebound.

Every so often Maker will attempt to explore the outer limits of his offensive skill set. This hardly ends well. His dribble-drive game is not yet an effective NBA talent. Whenever Maker puts the ball on the floor, he is a prime target for help defenders because of his loose handle. His long and gangly body works against him within half court settings; he is lacking the body control required to weave through NBA defences.

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With Giannis Antetokounmpo – and now Eric Bledsoe – entrusted with leading the Milwaukee offence, Maker’s shot creation isn’t needed. Not yet. It would prove a welcome addition and is surely the end goal for both player and franchise, but seems a long way off. For the time being, the Bucks need Maker to excel within his role.

Activity and shooting: that is the mandate on offence. While the former can never be questioned, his ability to function as a knockdown shooter has been problematic during the season’s opening month.

Maker shot 37.8 percent on three point attempts as a rookie. This was reason for optimism. His ability to serve as a low usage floor spacer around Antetokounmpo was instrumental in Jason Kidd inserting him into the starting line-up.

The Bucks hoped to leverage Maker’s shooting stroke to create more space for their offence. Unfortunately this has not been the case, as opponents do not respect Maker’s jump shot. The Australian has not yet earnt the reputation of being a knockdown shooter.

The majority of Maker’s three point attempts this season have come above the break (ie not the corners). He is converting only 24 precent (6/25) on these opportunities, compared with 36 percent from the same region as a rookie.

The sample size at both ends remains small, although the NBA is paying attention. Maker’s perceived range may have caught defences off guard last season, but they are quickly adjusting to his struggles. Watch here as Dwight Howard completely ignores Maker.

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Rival teams may understand the threat Maker can (potentially) pose from beyond the arc, but they don’t afford him the respect given to a reliable shooter. With Antetokounmpo becoming a Greek God and attacking to the rim with unfair ease, Maker is a prime candidate to be overlooked in the pursuit of stopping Milwaukee’s MVP candidate.

Opposition big men are roaming away from Maker, unafraid of the consequences, and clogging the paint. This rings true even when Antetokounmpo isn’t on the floor. Watch here as Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams bracket Malcolm Brogdon at the expense of a wide open look for Maker.

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While the majority of Maker’s attempts are ‘good’ clean looks, they are rendered useless because he can’t convert. His ability to serve as a floor spacer is similarly neutered. The defence gets more comfortable adopting this strategy with each passing miss. Maker in short, becomes an offensive liability when his shot isn’t falling.

Milwaukee performs at the level of a top five offence with Maker on the bench. They deteriorate into a bottom ten unit when he is on the floor. The Bucks’ net rating drops 15.9 points with Maker in the game, per NBA.com. It’s no surprise Maker was benched in favour of John Henson seven games into the season.

Taking actual ability out of the equation, it’s the perception of being a good shooter that is critically important to Maker and the Bucks. If the opposition respect an outside shooter, they will game plan for it, regardless of recent results. There is clearly a feedback loop as shooting percentages dictate reputations, but opinions don’t change overnight. Maker must prove that he can reliably beat defences from the outside before his destiny as a floor spacing center is realised.

It’s definitely reasonable to suggest Maker’s shooting percentage will trend upward as the season goes along. As it currently stands, however, his ability to space the floor is compromised. This has forced the Bucks coaching staff to adjust. The first step was sending him to the bench. The second was subtly adjusting Maker’s role and positioning within the offence.

Maker is now spending more time inside the arc. He is working for easier, if less efficient, shots. Watch here as he spots up for a mid range attempt after an Antetokounmpo drive.

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Spacing out to 17 feet is a no-no for modern offences. Crucially, it’s in stark contrast to the role served by Maker early in his NBA career. He has routinely been forced to camp outside the arc and wait for the ball to arrive. Not anymore. The Bucks are now emphasising Maker’s confidence over analytics, and focusing on Maker taking the best shot for him.

Since Eric Bledsoe was acquired on November 7th, Maker has only attempted four three pointers in 106 minutes of playing time. He had been averaging 17 three point attempts in as many minutes before the trade. There has been a clear shift in philosophy.

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Knocking down shots from anywhere - whether it be from the paint, mid range or beyond the arc – is the easiest way for Maker to help the Bucks offence. His three ball isn’t working right now and that’s fine; Maker hasn’t even cracked 1,000 NBA minutes, so the struggles are to be expected. They could actually prove to be a blessing in disguise as it will force him to find other avenues of hitting the scoreboard.

Another clear improvement area lies with converting at the rim. He must get stronger at finishing inside. This has been a long held knock against Maker and questions will remain until he improves.

Of all payers 6’8” or taller, Maker currently has the fourth worst shooting percentage for attempts taken within 5 feet of the basket. He is often overpowered, displaced by the most benign of body contact. This makes any foray into the paint an arduous task. Opposition big men can body guard him with ease. Smaller defenders also enjoy success from simply getting into the correct position.

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Andre Roberson is a stout defender but he shouldn’t be deterring seven footers at the rim. Plays like this are all too common with Maker. Improving strength isn’t something that can happen overnight. It’s a multi year process and the Bucks have industrialised a rigorous strategy for Maker - as documented in Howard Beck’s article earlier this year. This requires a present day sacrifice with an eye toward long term gains.

Maker remains a developmental prospect. In that sense, he presents a pleasant dilemma for a Bucks franchise suddenly experiencing an uptick in expectations. Antetokounmpo transcending into a legitimate superstar means there is now less room for error. The recent trade for Bledsoe further accelerates prognostications.

Milwaukee rebounded well from a slow start and were riding a four game winning streak with Bledsoe, before getting slobberknockered in Dallas. For his part, Maker’s performance has improved since moving into a reserve role. His defence is better suited to reserve units that don’t contain dominant interior scorers. It’s now a case of waiting for the offence to turn around.

Maker’s feel for basketball at the highest level remains his biggest developmental piece. He needs the game to slow down, and this can only come through repetition and consistent playing time. Understanding the nuance of NBA basketball is his next step.

Kevin Garnett, who was recently in Milwaukee to mentor Maker, has assisted in providing this education. Maker’s comments on Garnett’s influence are pronounced.

"A lot of the stuff, now, is more — especially with myself — him [Garnett] telling me to slow down a little bit," Maker noted. "Saying, 'You have the speed, the quickness, so you can always go to it, but just slow it down a little bit, look at the defence, read it then attack.' "

That last comment is everything in a nutshell. Maker has all the physical gifts. He just needs the mental aptitude to harness the supreme athleticism.

Transition plays and chase down blocks can create extravagant highlights, but mastering the fundamentals of half court basketball would be Maker's greatest offensive accomplishment. He has already shown flashes of impacting NBA games without a reliable jump shot or handle. Developing one will makes him a threat, developing both would make him lethal.