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Making their mark: How the NBA is breaking Thon Maker down
They don't happen often enough, but there are moments when Thon Maker explodes into action.
Even within an NBA setting, one where Maker has struggled to find consistency, there are flashes. Waves of athletic extravagance are infused with cerebral nuance; they leave you wanting more.
This nine-second clip, from a November contest against the Dallas Mavericks, illustrates Maker’s maximum potential as a defensive player.
In those brief moments, Maker identifies and tags the threat of a rolling Harrison Barnes (checkpoint #1); switches off and does likewise on a free-wheeling Dwight Powell (checkpoint #2). He then retreats out to, and runs Harrison Barnes off the three point line, with a low stance that emphasises his gaudy wingspan (checkpoint #3), and finally collapses to offer 216cm of rim protection on Barnes’ running floater (checkpoint #4).
Constant movement is present, as is fluid decision making and an adaptability to the diverse skills of a modern-day wing. This is the seductive tease, a budding versatile defender offers.
Maker profiles as an NBA chameleon; someone who can outmanoeuvre big men on one play, and athletically curtails smaller opponents out on the perimeter moments later.
His ceiling as a defensive player is the theoretical foundation of NBA defence in 2018. Think Kevin Garnett, equipped with the new age sensibilities of a millennial Kevin Love dancing with Stephen Curry to close out the 2016 NBA Finals.
Whether Maker can consistently reach these levels is a significant proposition. That’s not to say elite defence is beyond him. When he cobbles together the tools within his arsenal, the results form a beautiful symphony; fluid rotations punctuated by staccato bursts of hard closeouts.
“Defence is starting to get easier,” Maker said to The Pick and Roll in January. “You go through each play and you realise another team runs the same exact play, they just call it something different. As you see it, you notice it and let your teammates know right away.”
While defence may be getting easier for Maker, that doesn’t mean it is easy. Not yet, anyway. Right now, he remains a liability, when it comes to defensive impact. Milwaukee’s defensive rating drops 6.6 points per 100 possessions with Maker on the court, per Cleaning The Glass. A singular statistic alone isn’t conclusive evidence of Maker’s impact (or lack thereof), although it forebodes his current predicament.
Maker’s role has completely eroded. After beginning the season within Jason Kidd’s starting line-up, Maker has incrementally slipped to the end of Joe Prunty’s bench. With Milwaukee in the midst of a play-off push, Prunty has scrapped developmental minutes in favour of the solidly average combination of John Henson and Tyler Zeller. Maker has played just 100 minutes during Milwaukee’s 12 games since the All-Star break.
What is going on with Maker?
The short and skinny it is that he is currently a bad NBA player. Momentary flashes aside, Maker is a floundering prospect with minimal basketball experience. He isn’t able to consistently contribute within the NBA game.
“He hasn’t been playing in the league a long time,” Prunty told The Pick and Roll. “Last year, it wasn’t until later in the season and into the playoffs that he was out there competing.
“He works extremely hard, but it’s not easy. He’s played very few games so he needs the experience of going through this.”
The experience Prunty references is a collective target placed on Maker by a ruthless NBA. The league has identified Maker’s shortcomings, and these are rightfully celebrated as an opportunity to attack.
Maker has logged virtually all of his minutes this season at the center position; he has played just five minutes next to another recognised five man. This is problematic, as Maker doesn’t yet have the physical tools required to play the position. The center spot is Maker’s path to a successful NBA career. The position will, in time, unlock his ceiling. There is a steep learning curve on the path from athletic prospect to skilled defender, and Maker is paying his dues through severe growing pains.
It's evident, that right now, opponents do not respect Maker. Skilled big men look at him the same way Shaquille O’Neal calls out BBQ chicken on the low block - they see a feast.
When Milwaukee visited San Antonio earlier this season, Maker entered the game midway through the first quarter and was immediately set upon by the combination of LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. Here are Maker’s first three defensive possessions upon entering the game.
Aldridge immediately took Maker into the post, duping him with a series of pump fakes and up-and-under moves. A lack of core strength compromises Maker’s defensive stance; note how wide his legs are as he attempts to prevent being backed down. In the space of three possessions, Maker was moved away from Aldridge, although a switch over to Gasol brought similarly grim results.
The hefty size of a Aldridge-Gasol combination make San Antonio a difficult match-up for Maker, although their achievement is hardly unique. A slew of other big men - Kevin Love, Al Horford and Steven Adams are three damaging examples - have enjoyed similar successes this season. Maker works hard on defence, but effort and application will only get you so far. He remains a robust liability against competent post players.
Maker acknowledges defending the center spot is a tough challenge, especially considering his unconventional path to the NBA.
“In high school, I didn’t really play much five against big guys,” Maker said. “Here, in the NBA, there is a lot of it and teams try to attack me using that spot.
“I’ve got to be able to use my feet, use my quickness and use my speed. Fight around. Fronting them so they don’t get the ball. So I do my job early. That way, I’m not caught behind and having my team have to help, as that can leave a wide open shooter.”
Fronting is Maker’s best chance of preventing damage in the post; his length foils penetration at the initial point of attack. In an October game against Charlotte, Maker deployed the tactic with aplomb, utilising his long arms to cut off numerous entry passes into Dwight Howard.
“When opponents see that happen, it’s an automatic read,” Maker said. “When they see me front, they send somebody from the weak side to flash and they pass it to that person to make that pass to the big I am fronting.”
“You’ve got to have the trust factor,” Maker added. “The trust of the guys that are behind you on the weak side; to see that guy flashing and to help you out. So really, a lot of it is about trust.”
Marco Belinelli flashes across the court like Maker predicted, albeit too late. Ersan Ilyasova dumps the ball down to Joel Embiid, rightfully knowing The Process has an advantage over Maker, regardless of positioning. And that is the correct way to view Maker’s fronting tactic. It helps the Australian control his opponent within initial actions, but remains a patchwork cover.
Once opponents scheme around Maker’s length, they are clear to dominate. Like any quick measure, there is an unintended consequence. Maker’s commitment to playing in front further compromises his already limited rebounding capabilities.
Opposition teams rebound 30.6% of their missed shots with Maker on the court, per Cleaning The Glass. Maker ranks in the first percentile for this measure, meaning he adversely impacts team defensive rebounding more than every other big man in the NBA. Milwaukee is already a bad rebounding team, ranking 27th in defensive rebounding percentage. Inserting Maker into the fray brands them as awful.
Maker ventures out further than traditional centers when curtailing pick-and-rolls, due in large part to his versatility on the perimeter. This was a point of emphasis with Kidd, who preached a frantic trapping scheme against opposition pick-and-rolls. Prunty has toned down the aggressiveness, although similar principles underscore the Bucks current defensive philosophy. Habits installed by Kidd are hard to break. This is especially true for Maker, who no longer has reliable rotation minutes as a means of adapting his style.
It must be acknowledged that Milwaukee force turnovers at a league leading rate with Maker on the floor. This is a glimpse into his potential as a defensive jack-of-all-trades. It’s a sure sign that Maker’s combination of size and intellect, when deployed correctly, has supreme value. A 221cm foot wingspan is his best defensive competency.
This skill in isolation, however, is just one piece of the puzzle. As Milwaukee relaxes the frequency at which it blitzes opponents on the perimeter in favour of a more conservative scheme, Maker must find new ways to impact the game defensively. He must develop the means to provide an interior presence. Ideally, this will come through an uptick in his personal rebounding rate, or at the very least, added strength to box his direct opponent successfully out.
Maker has the fourth worst rebounding percentage among the 60 centers with 400 rebounding chances this season, per Second Spectrum data provided to NBA.com. When you review film of Maker against leading big men, it isn’t hard to see why this is the case.
Maker is regularly forced into physical battles that are beyond his capabilities. This rings true even when he has equitable positioning.
Deliberately shifting defensive movements takes Maker further away from the basket; a sure-fire recipe for missed rebounds when combined with his lack of strength. In that same game where Maker successfully fronted Howard, the eight-time All-Star collected four offensive rebounds in the 15 minutes he and Maker shared the court. This isn’t an isolated incident.
Maker also has a nasty habit of trying to block everything he sees. This is largely a function of his hyper energetic desire to impact the game – something that, on the whole, is a strong positive – but it has become problematic.
By leaving his feet, Maker bails the opposition out. This is especially true against driving guards. Maker’s standing reach is daunting in itself, but he routinely ruins great defensive work by taking an unwarranted leap.
A fantastic defensive possession is torpedoed by two unnecessary lunges, the second of which is responsible for fouling Glenn Robinson. Maker must learn the difference between isolation defence and the benefits of adhering to schematic team principles.
Controlling habitual instincts is something every young big man must learn. It’s an issue that plagued Karl-Anthony Towns earlier in the season. The Timberwolves All-Star would regularly make the same mental mistakes shown by Maker. Towns improved as he adjusted to the speed of NBA basketball, and it’s fair to expect similar growth from the Australian. With more experience, Maker should improve.
“He’s been working hard,” Matthew Dellavedova said of Maker. “The season has been a little up and down for him, but he’s kept the same positive attitude. He just cares about the team and that’s what we all love about him here.”
Maker is quick to laud the Bucks culture, which as he puts it, allows everyone the equal opportunity to speak up.
A relaxed locker-room has helped Maker find comfort at the NBA level. Questions over his individual performances are warranted, but there is no debating his confidence. Maker recognises the vital role he pays within the Bucks defensive scheme. He openly accepts the pressure, and identifies the intangible skills needed to anchor a defensive unit.
“The defence really requires everybody to talk,” Maker said, “You have no choice but to talk.”
“If you see somebody mess up, go ahead and let them know because if they mess up you’re forced to rotate. You have to talk. You need to study the defence so that you know if somebody is messing up and you let them know.”
Like everything related to Maker’s development, there are pieces of anecdotal evidence littered within his brief NBA career. While Maker hasn’t shown the ability to consistently perform at the level required, there are flashes of the vocal stalwart he aspires to become.
“He’s always been pretty vocal,” Dellavedova said. “Understanding the system and with the more experience he gets, the more vocal he is and the earlier he can call out the coverages. I think he’s been doing a great job.”
Across two NBA seasons, Maker has just 1,697 minutes of experience. This represents the only organised basketball of his professional life. His development is taking longer than he wants and, that's actually fine. This NBA caper isn’t easy, it takes time to adapt. Another off-season spent in the gym will be of great benefit, especially when his physical frame catches up.
Between now and then, Milwaukee will return to the playoffs, where they could face off against the Toronto Raptors for the second year running. This is a match-up that Maker craves. Whether he returns to Prunty’s rotation this season is unknown. With less than a month of the regular season remaining, he is running out of time to prove his immediate value. Once again, that is perfectly fine.
Through all the challenges, this season has brought Maker’s limitations to the forefront. While it's uncomfortable in the now, it provides Maker – and those around him in Milwaukee – with a blueprint to follow. The improvement areas are obvious, and must be addressed, if Maker wants to live out the NBA career he dreams of.
But once again, this isn't anything new. Here's a young big man with plenty to learn - welcome to life in the NBA.