The Australian basketball scene has been buzzing ever since March 18, when it was announced that the Boomers will face the USA men's basketball team in Melbourne next year. The squads will face off in a two game set at Etihad Stadium, in preparation for the FIBA basketball World Cup, which will be held in China one month later.
Basketball Australia CEO Anthony Moore pulled no punches, when describing how big the event will be for Australian sport.
“This announcement is a landmark moment for Basketball Australia and all fans of our great game,’’ he said. “I believe this event will be long remembered in Australian sporting history.’’
With the number of Australians playing in the NBA at an all-time high, the tournament looms as the first of many potential medal opportunities for the team. Ben Simmons, Matthew Dellavedova, Joe Ingles, Dante Exum, Aron Baynes, Patty Mills and Thon Maker all figure to suit up for the Boomers, in what will be a star-studded lineup.
It has been a whirlwind 24 months for Milwaukee Bucks center Maker, who was somewhat surprisingly plucked 10th overall in the 2016 NBA draft. Through just 125 games in his NBA career, Maker is one of the more intriguing prospects in the NBA today.
Despite travelling with the team, Maker was sidelined with a minor groin strain on the Bucks' recent west coast road trip. At San Francisco, The Pick and Roll was able to speak with Maker, who took the time to discuss the recent announcement, ahead of the Bucks' game against the world champion Golden State Warriors later that evening.
On Team USA vs Boomers in Melbourne
When asked if he'd had time to think about the possibility of the series, and whether he and teammate Dellavedova had discussed the news, Maker was quick to express his excitement.
"We definitely spoke about it. It’s very exciting, to have a game like that. For basketball in Australia it’s beyond exciting, because that’s something we need to lift the basketball side of things. The other sports have always been up there, so we’ve got to get basketball up there as well. This is a major boost."
Maker brings up an interesting point. Basketball has always been a hugely popular sport in terms of participation in Australia, the latest figures from late 2017 (link) showing its standing to be firmly amongst powerhouse sports like the AFL and cricket. Despite that, it's only been in recent times that the presence of Australian basketball has been strongly felt on the world scene. With the rousing success of the recent NBL playoffs, the thirst for high quality basketball on home soil has never been higher amongst sports fans.
An astounding 55,000+ fans have already registered for general admission tickets to the game, and when made aware of the demand down under, Maker immediately sported a huge smile.
When asked if he had ever played in front of a crowd this large, he sat back in his chair, still smiling, and responded with a laugh.
"Never. I never thought I would play in front of a crowd like that, or even at that level. I don’t even think at the Olympic level it would get to that, like, if it gets sold out…"
When I interjected that it would most definitely be a sellout, it drew more laughter. "It will be crazy!" he excitedly added.
It was later revealed that Basketball Australia is attempting to bring the top European basketball nations to Australia, the pre-World Cup period looms bigger than ever, as what could possibly be a momentuous month in the history of Australian basketball. Publicity aside, it will also be an perfect opportunity for the Australian squad to fine tune their game ahead of the second biggest tournament (behind the Olympics) on the international scene.
On playing in June
Maker was strong in emphasising his longstanding goal to play for the Boomers, and revealed an exciting piece of news in the process.
"I’ll definitely play the June (qualifiers). I’m excited to play on the world stage. That’s my biggest aim - just being there, getting a shot and representing Australia. It’s something I really wanted to do from the beginning.
"Just to give back to Australia for helping me and my family out, but, on the basketball side of things, it will be fun. I’ll have Delly there, a lot of guys in the NBA, and a lot of guys in the NBL as well. It will be fun."
The June qualifiers that Thon declared his intentions to play in, will both be away fixtures, against Japan (June 29) and the Philippines (July 2).
Given the Milwaukee Bucks figure to feature in the NBA playoffs later this month and potentially beyond, it's a clear indication of Maker's desire to represent Australia, during a period where the bulk of NBA talent will be putting their feet up enjoying a well-earned break.
On Bogut rejoining the Boomers
The figurehead of Aussie hoops --especially in the NBA-- over the last decade or so, has been Andrew Bogut. The former number one overall pick recently announced via Twitter, that he would not be making a return to the NBA this season due to personal reasons.
Maker was quick to respond, when asked if he believes Bogut might have one last Boomer run left in him.
"I hope he does. But, he’s got reasons, family reasons, that he’s got to take care of in his life before, more important things. But if he decides to join, that would be great."
He then continued on to explain the impact Bogut has had on his personal development, and the vast experience and knowledge he would add to not only Maker himself, but the squad in totality.
"For myself, I feel like I can pick a lot of things off his brain, learn a lot from him. I'm always learning something about the game from Bogut, so somebody like him would be good, especially because he's seen it all at the basketball level in the NBA, and in national play. I definitely want to see him go one more time. And if he goes, I think we are going to do really well as a team, too."
The Boomers have made 25 combined appearances at the Olympics and World Cup tournaments, without a medal to show for their efforts. It is undoubtedly a burning desire of Maker's, and he is well aware of the opportunity in front of this new wave of talent, whilst understanding the pioneers that blazed the path before them in years gone by.
"Us guys really want to get one of those medals up there, so, its something I want to do as well, and speaking with a guy like Luc Longley, knowing how badly he wanted it, to finally get it, that would be awesome."
The FIBA World Cup is still 17 months away, but rest assured, Thon Maker has his eyes firmly set on the prize in front of these Boomers.