Is Thon Maker the modern day remix of Lamar Odom?

Finding a comparison for Thon Maker is a difficult exercise. In an NBA landscape where every draft prospect is overanalysed, questions about Maker’s ability, age and fit made it difficult to gauge his value heading into June’s NBA Draft.

After becoming an Internet celebrity in 2014, Maker was shrouded in secrecy and quickly became the mystery man of the 2016 NBA Draft. But in a heightened irony, the secrecy surrounding Maker likely elevated his draft stock. A full season in college would have provided openings for the collective to pick apart his game, something that could have hurt his pre-draft ranking. The NBA presented a guaranteed opportunity, and the chance to become a millionaire overnight. Mission accomplished.

This is just the nature of the NBA. The longer we see you play, the more we focus on your weaknesses. Russell Westbrook is still criticised for the five percent of things he can’t do. Skal Labissiere had a difficult freshman year at Kentucky and fell from the top of draft boards into the bottom of the first round. If Maker went to a big time college, there is every chance he would have struggled to adapt in a similar fashion.

But the promise of the unknown, this is so much harder to dispute - nobody can definitively argue against it. It is also why finding a comparison for Maker is so problematic. There are just so many questions, the first of which is age.

In the days before the draft, rumours that followed Maker for years threatened to derail his chances of being selected in the first round. Rumblings surfaced that Maker was not 19 years of age as he claimed to be, with some scuttlebutt that he could be as old as 23. Concerns about a prospect’s age are nothing new, some people still think Serge Ibaka is years older than he claims to be.

Assuming Maker is indeed 19, who is a good comparison from the annals of NBA history? Let’s start by going over what we do know.

  • Maker measures in at 7’0.25” in shoes, with a 7’3” wingspan and 9’2.5” standing reach.

  • Maker believes he's a shooter, and a very good one at that.

During an interview with DraftExpress in April, Maker was asked about the type of shooter he is. “That is a strength of mine. My mindset is that everything is going in. I look at Kristaps Porzingis and I think about how he is used in the NBA. I can do that. He is a mobile big.”

Maker added, “If you put me in a wide pin down, Iverson cut, stagger double, horns action, or any pinch post action I can score or help my team score. I can hit the trailing three or pick and pop off the ball reversal. I shot a little over 90% from the line over the past two seasons. That's with going to the line about 8 times per game. Making shots consistently in the future won't be a problem. If you consistently work at something with a purpose, you can perfect it.”

Making any judgments from NBA Summer League is a dangerous exercise, but early returns indicate Maker is more than comfortable letting it fly from the outside.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lr7EYlTuBhg

  • Despite his physical profile, Maker plays like a guard.

This may be sound like a generalisation, especially given the lack of available information on record, but Maker doesn’t appear comfortable playing inside. It is clear Maker is more comfortable playing on the perimeter and it seems he wants to be a backcourt mainstay.

This makes the comparison to players like Draymond Green inappropriate. Green operated exclusively in the front-court during his time at Michigan State. Maker is entering the league without such experience.

The ‘Thon Maker is a point guard stuck in a center’s body’ headlines have flooded the Internet since 2014 and there may be some truth here.

Almost every highlight on YouTube is a swished three-point jumper or drive from the perimeter ending in a dunk. The challenge is replicating this in the NBA.

Many will point to Maker’s new teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo as an example of what he could become. But connotations of such a match speak more to similarities in pre-draft questions as opposed to anything else. Antetokounmpo, who was selected with the 15th pick in the 2013 draft, was an unknown teenager from Greece with Go Go Gadget extremities just like Maker.

Antetokounmpo has blossomed into the centrepiece of the Bucks’ rebuilding roster, and is on the verge of becoming an NBA superstar. His path is one that Maker must follow, but their games aren’t entirely analogous.

A better comparison for Aussie Thon is Lamar Odom. Before he was a punch line in the Kardashian spin cycle, Odom put together a great NBA career built around the premise of being a big man with guard skills, the prototypical point forward.

Standing at 6’10” and with the ball handling ability of a point guard, Odom was a can’t-miss prospect from the start of his playing days in Queens. Athleticism allowed Odom to dominate throughout a short college career and saw him selected with the fourth overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft.

How does this relate to Maker? First, it must be pointed out that nobody is really like Odom, that is what made him such as effective NBA player. He was a unique mix of big and small, being one of the first ‘tweeners’ to be a reliable option in the Association. And as far as Maker is concerned, Odom entered the league with much more fanfare and a resume that validated his standing at the top of his draft class.

But they have similar body types. Odom was long and lanky, Maker is similar but even more pronounced with his seven-foot frame. The length of both is (and was) undeniable, and this allows for the most pressing similarity between the two - positional flexibility.

Odom floated between forward positions, enabling him to take advantage of skills that are more classically evident in a perimeter player than traditional big man. Maker’s propensity to utilise his playmaking skills draw comparisons to Odom.

Highlights from this 2009 victory over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers – then the best team in basketball – illustrate what Odom brought to the table.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5ggep4cIqE

Watching these highlights from 2009 reinforce how much the NBA has changed in less than a decade. Odom is operating at the elbows and modern day spacing is abandoned as he attacks through the lane. In 2016, this wouldn’t happen. If Maker shows competency behind the three-point line, he will be spaced out when playing off the ball.

Maker, like any other big man with perimeter skills, will best be maximised by operating in space. Putting an approximately sized player against Maker and asking then to defend an offensively skilled athlete will not end well for the defence. The average NBA big man is getting better at defending in space but competency across the board is still a long way off. There is a reason why Serge Ibaka and Tristan Thompson get maximum contracts – they are the exception to the rule and don’t grow on trees.

Combine the advantages that come with drawing opposition big men away from the paint, and the intrinsic benefits to the entire offence will increase due to better spacing. Remember, Milwaukee ranked last in three point shots made throughout the 2015/16 season.

Now, a natural counter to that argument is to question the ball handling ability of Maker. Spacing the floor with shooting is valuable, but having a handle unlocks driving lanes and separates role players from stars.

Odom was very much a star in this regard. He was a brilliant, yet vastly underrated passer throughout his career.

While available evidence doesn’t paint Maker in the same light, the Bucks undoubtedly hope Maker can develop into an offensive threat who mirrors what Odom achieved at his peak.

Maker’s ball handling ability will be a relative skill measured by the position he plays in the Association. If we are viewing him through the prism of an NBA center, he has an above average handle, but it is by no means an asset that can allow him to regularly create offence. He has not yet shown the ability to be a primary ball handler.

This is where the comparison to Odom may be too much. Odom was an elite passer for someone of his size – he averaged 4 assists per 36 minutes during his career. In a bygone era where the concept of a playmaking four was infant, Odom did something unique in college and then the NBA.

Notwithstanding Ben Simmons’ recently completed season with LSU, Odom’s 1998-99 campaign for Rhode Island was the greatest passing season by a college freshman of his size. Odom averaged 3.8 assists per game, which, until this year, was the highest assists per game total by any Division I freshman 6-foot-10 or taller since assists became an official statistic in 1983-84.

Odom showed the passing gift at an early age and it translated to the NBA. Maker hasn’t yet evidenced this to the collective NBA universe.

Positional fit was an issue that plagued Odom at times during his career. He was an NBA tweener, a very effective one at that, and for this reason the term isn’t detrimental when describing Odom’s career. As Matt Moore so aptly put it when describing Odom and Julius Randle, tweeners who are effective become “combo forwards” while “combo forwards” who can’t produce in the NBA are tweeners. The results justify the means.

Draymond Green was a second round draft pick because he was a positionless tweener, but after 24 months of successful basketball he is now the most versatile big man in basketball.

***

Can Thon Maker become a reliable five man on the defensive end in the NBA? The answer to this question, will largely define his career.

For what it’s worth, Maker seems confident and is not running away from the challenge. When asked what type of player he will be in five years, Maker remarked,“I see myself more like KG on the blocks, but also being able to be used in multiple perimeter based actions. I see myself quarterbacking our defense and being a mismatch on offense.”

Milwaukee appears to be a great fit for Maker. Head coach Jason Kidd has illustrated a commitment to positionless basketball, with unleashing point guard Antetokounmpo being the most obvious signal of this. And this is crux of why Milwaukee selected Maker inside the top 10.

He is obviously a gamble, even Maker’s staunchest supporters will agree on this, but the upside is immense. Should Maker develop in a manner similar to Antetokounmpo, the Bucks could be revolutionary force. Just imagining a five-man group containing Antetokounmpo-Middleton-Parker-Maker makes my head explode. Length, length and more length!

Maker comparing himself to Garnett and Porzingis makes me think the comparison to Odom might actually undersell where his camp think he belongs. These are lofty goals and they confront the collective groupthink. There are no quantifiable statistical measures to support such claims and a natural reaction is throw them away.

Odom showed more polish at the same age and it’s unlikely Maker will develop into a playmaker on his level. Odom was hyper-long, had lateral quickness to match and was better suited attacking opposition defenders face-up. But in 2016 all around polish isn’t the aim, just specialisations in the few things that define the modern game. Shooting and rim protection – master these elements and Maker could become an NBA unicorn just like Porzingis has in New York.