Instincts and overthought: A glimpse inside Thon Maker’s offensive struggles

Since being drafted in 2016, Thon Maker has frequently spoken of his immediate aims: consistently knocking down the three ball, and making plays off the dribble. These are the tangible talents he seeks. They are what everyone with a vested interest in his career wants to see.

Maker’s pursuit for these skills hardly make him unique, for they are the very aids needed from a modern day big man. His search for a competent shooting stroke and higher assist rate is to be expected, demanded actually, from someone in his position. There is one intangible expansion, however, that underpins development of each talent he seeks.

It comes in the form of adjusting to the mental battle of playing NBA basketball. This challenge applies to all young athletes, but it's especially pronounced for Maker, given his non-existent basketball history prior to the NBA.

Maker’s breakout performance in the 2017 playoffs got the NBA’s attention. Teams immediately made it their mission to deny him, and then use his weaknesses as a means of attacking the Milwaukee Bucks' offence. Opponents dared him to shoot from the outside, and when he couldn’t convert, Maker’s second NBA season snowballed out of control. On offence, he was routinely caught between two minds, overthinking things on the floor.

I’ve done that a lot of times,” Maker told The Pick and Roll, when speaking in Milwaukee earlier this season.

“Overthinking it. Should I drive it? Should I shoot it? Should I pass it because we haven’t been passing the ball as much?”

The root of Maker’s indecision comes from the inflection of his role and reputation. He started the season as Milwaukee’s starting centre, in a role that required floor spacing and minimal usage. As we covered in November, rival teams didn’t afford Maker the respect given to a reliable shooter. Opposition big men began roaming away from Maker and, unafraid of the consequences, they would clog the paint. With each passing miss from beyond the arc, the respect from opponents dropped correspondingly.

Maker’s personal shooting metrics were sufficient through his first 10 games this season - 37% on almost three three-point attempts per game - but it wasn’t enough. He couldn’t positively impact offence through means other than the occasional jump shot. He quickly became a liability, and it signalled a shift in philosophy.

Starting with Milwaukee’s game against the San Antonio Spurs on November 10th, Maker’s positioning was drastically altered. He remained the Bucks' starting five man – although, that wouldn’t last long, either – and took a step inside the arc. Threes were quickly banished, replaced by mid-range looks that fly in the face of pace-and-space basketball.

It resulted in offensive possessions that looked like something from a bygone era. And Maker, who entered the season with gaudy expectations, went back in time. He didn’t make another three-point field goal for five weeks.

“That was something me and coach Kidd talked about before I started shooting the midrange,” Maker said. “We spoke about that and taking a step inside.”

The merits of the approach were rightfully questioned at the time, although there is no argument over its origins. This was a conscious decision from Jason Kidd and the coaching staff.

“We spoke about how I am always going to be open no matter what,” Maker explained. “My man, usually the five man, is usually the man helping out so just stay spaced. You can take a step in and you’ll have plenty of space. That’s what he said.

“What it takes away now is that extra space for me to put the ball on the floor. As I am catching it, opposition teams are starting to see that I am making the midrange so they are starting to sprint out. It’s a little bit clogged up.”

Maker is certainly correct. The byproduct of his banishment from the three-point line resulted in even more body mass around the Bucks basket.

You just do not see archaic spacing like this anymore. Especially from a big man who, despite his slumping form, can only reach his ceiling from practicing the art of the long ball.

Things normalised somewhat once Joe Prunty replaced Kidd. Maker returned to shooting more threes over inefficient mid-range jumpers, although his conversion plateaued and he finished the season shooting 29.8% from three. Predictably, Maker gradually fell out of Prunty’s rotation.

The reasons for his drop in minutes were plentiful. They extend beyond a shaky shooting stroke. His defence, which we covered in detail back in March, was also found wanting by a ruthless NBA. To be fair, Maker’s 104 three-point attempts remain a very small sample. It’s too early to draw conclusions on what the future may look like. In order to reach his ceiling, Maker knows what must be done.

“I’ve got to get in the gym and get some reps up,” Maker said. “Get some shots up so they don’t leave me wide open. The defence leaving me wide open, and my man collapsing down, takes away the strong side action of our offence.”

Maker described a need to work on three options: catch-and-shoot; catch-and-drive; and catch-and-pass, as he puts it. He is searching for instinctual basketball. The type that only comes from a lifetime spent around the game, something Maker lacks.

“You can always catch and shoot,” Maker noted. “But sometimes it’s about making that extra decision. That extra smart decision. Realising you haven’t had a good shot in a while or realising someone is wide open when their man rotates to me.

“Sometimes I over think like that, but some days when I just don’t think it, when I just play in the flow, I play really well.”

There have been fleeting moments when Maker plays in the flow. These are glorious explosions of talent. Game 3 against Boston was just the latest example. On that night, his defensive execution ignited the Bucks. Improved defence will keep Maker on the floor. Just as we witnessed against the Celtics, it represents his quickest path to reliable minutes. Development on the offensive end however, could make him a star.

Maker has much to improve upon, that much is certain. His effective shooting percentage is among the worst in basketball. He only made 10 unassisted field goals all year. On the flip side, he only dished out 46 assists in his 1,238 minutes. He must get stronger at finishing inside: of all payers 6’6” or taller, Maker finished the season with the worst shooting percentage for field goals (minimum 100 attempts) taken within five feet of the basket, per the NBA’s shot tracking data.

The improvement areas are obvious. So too, are the missing ingredients on what ails Maker’s game: time and experience. Improved coaching would certainly better the situation, and that should arrive in a post-Kidd and Prunty world.

Maker may never deliver on the All-Star potential some hoped for around draft time, and that’s ok. But he will get better with more time. Maker's built a foundation of NBA-level experience, and as his basketball intellect grows, the hope is that Maker can start adding elements to his game, and flourish into a two-way player. Not only within the Milwaukee Bucks' system, but also one that can prosper with the Australian Boomers, as Tokyo beckons.