Where is Thon Maker's playing career headed?

Thon Maker has faded from the NBA consciousness, and is now tasked with restarting his career.

Just three years ago, Thon Maker had a transformative moment that he’d been chasing since bursting onto the scene as an internet workout sensation.

It was game three of the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2018 postseason series. With the Bucks facing a 2-0 deficit, they launched Maker off their bench, and into the crucible of a must-win playoff game.

The result was something to behold. The former Perth resident was a destructive force: his statistical output – 14 points, 5 rebounds, 5 blocks and plus 23 in 24 minutes – was the best performance of his career. But no box score could quantify his impact on that night. Quite simply, Maker was amazing. He was swotting shots and anchoring a defence with confronting assertiveness, while splashing threes on the other end.

This performance was a manifestation of the potential Maker had been promising to the basketball world. An Australian sporting community hoped this would be the start of his ascension in the NBA.

It proved to be anything but - Maker has vanished from the NBA consciousness since his Game 3 heroics. Maker became an afterthought in Milwaukee once they hired Mike Budenholzer. He was traded to Detroit for spare parts in 2019, failing to make an impact for a fledgling Pistons team before having his qualifying offer pulled. Maker started the current season in Cleveland, but could only earn a measly 76 minutes of playing time before being released in January.

News on Maker’s future has been scant since his release from Cleveland. Over the past few months, all we have seen from Maker are a handful of workout videos and images of him adding muscle in the weight room. There have been no rumours of interest from other NBA franchises. Things are now at a point where it’s reasonable to question where his next chance at the NBA will come from.

Maker has long viewed himself as an NBA star in the making. Such confidence helped fuel his early insertion into the Bucks playing rotation in 2016, despite having a limited playing resume before being selected in the top ten of the NBA draft. Milwaukee wanted to believe in his potential. In some ways, they had to show faith, given the significant draft capital they invested into Maker. But other teams have no such pressures. The instant Maker was out of Wisconsin, he became yet another high-end draft pick who failed to reach the heights prophesied upon him.

Failed stints in Detroit and Cleveland only add to this perception. These are hard reputations to shake inside the NBA ecosystem. It lessens the odds of Maker getting another legitimate crack at the NBA, while the odds of him reaching NBA stardom are assuredly over.

The same invite that Cleveland offered last November will likely be there again when training camps open for the 2021-22 season. Maker will get another chance to return to an NBA roster. All is not lost, although the power isn’t with him anymore due to his lacklustre resume. Maker’s metrics during his NBA career unfortunately look like those of a man who is destined for a short stint in North America.

Maker’s NBA career rests on him changing his perception around the league. To be even more blunt: he must prove that he is capable of consistently contributing to winning basketball. For all the flashes of potential he showed in Milwaukee, these were the exceptions. Not the rule. It has been 36 months since he strutted all over the Celtics and there has been limited positive news since.

While hypothetical, it begs asking whether Maker would benefit from a year playing in the NBL. If NBA opportunities don’t open up over the next six months, following the lead of Deng Adel and Ryan Broekhoff could be Maker’s best chance of creating a market for his services in America. Maker would return to Australia as a face of the local league, and the demand for his services would allow him to cherrypick the situation that would allow him to best flourish.

There is also the potential of an Olympics campaign in July. Although it must be asked: is Maker in the best iteration of a Boomers roster? On talent alone, sure, but his role in Tokyo would be limited to a reserve one at best. Given his lack of recent professional minutes, it would be a mighty risk to select him over those who have been performing at a high level over the past year. The 2019 World Cup campaign showed that the Boomers can succeed with players at the end of their bench who know their role and have a specialist skill – talent is no longer the biggest driver of who plays for the program.

At his best, Maker can anchor the prototypical modern day small ball lineup. He can impact the game at both ends. The operative word in both statements is “can.” Maker hasn’t proved he can reliably be a winning player at any level of basketball. Questions over his age — whether valid concerns or not — are held around certain pockets of the NBA. He needs a circuit breaker to restart his professional fortunes. This could come in America, but a return to Australia and a developing professional league would guarantee an opportunity that has been lacking. A stint in the NBL would guarantee minutes and a platform to impress.

Maybe that is exactly what Thon Maker needs.