Recapping the 2017/18 season: Thon Maker is just getting started

Apr 20, 2018; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks center Thon Maker (7) dives for the loose ball during the first quarter against the Boston Celtics in game three of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks’ season ended with yet another first round playoff exit. But that’s not the only reason there is a sense of déjà in the air. Another summer of big decisions are on the horizon, and another striking playoffs performance from Aussie big man Thon Maker left has left fans pondering where the true ceiling lies for the developing big man.

In a similar pattern to last season, Thon was a certified difference maker on the court, when the bright lights of the NBA playoffs came on. Like last season, he left the basketball community with a tantalising taste of what could one day, be a consistent arsenal of two-way excellence. Though unlike the frenzy of excitement around Maker this time last year, it’s now met with raised eyebrows, with many questioning what Thon is destined to become, as far as the NBA is concerned.

The questions are valid. After six quality starts in the first round of the playoffs last season in Toronto, Maker came out with his reputation greatly enhanced, giving people the belief that the long term outlook on the 7’1″ Aussie could actually come to fruition as soon as this season. Yet, here we are, after a second full season in the league — a largely disappointing one — he has once again put forth monster highlight reel sequences in front of playoff audiences.

Starting expectations

Maker entered the 2017/18 season with the starting job his to lose. After starting all six of the Bucks’ playoff games last season, Thon was thought to be the rim-protecting, floor-spacing presence Milwaukee longed to pair with the paint-heavy offensive dominance of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It was a rough start for Maker however, as he was benched for John Henson just six games into the season. No longer a unknown quantity, Maker found the going tough as rival NBA squads had a full summer to assess Thon and exploit his weaknesses. In seven starts, he averaged just 4.6 points and 2.7 rebounds whilst only blocking two shots over that span.

The second game of the season was a good illustration of how teams were looking to attack Maker, as the Cleveland Cavaliers visited and blew the Bucks out on their home floor 116-97. Kevin Love in particular was able to have his way with Maker, scoring 11 points in the first 7 minutes before Maker was benched.

Plays like the one above became an early season staple for Milwaukee opponents, as Maker’s still developing frame was routinely stranded on an island against opposition big men. In this play we see a simple clear out for one of the leagues best offensive big men in Love. It’s too easy at this point, as Love can easily manipulate Thon’s body position to get a relatively simple look. It’s clear Maker isn’t comfortable in this situation yet, swiping at the ball multiple times in an attempt to stop his opponent.

It must be noted that the Milwaukee schedule was certainly a rough one match-up wise for Maker to start out, with Love joining Aron Baynes, Steven Adams, Jusuf Nurkic and Dwight Howard as a few of the opposing starters in the opening weeks.

Was it the defensive scheme’s fault?

Jason Kidd — the now former Milwaukee Bucks head coach — was the creator of one the most publicized — and criticised — defensive schemes in the entire league. A roster specifically targeting athletic players with long wingspans such as Maker, promoted ultra aggressive double teams on the ball handler, hedging screens and avoiding switches. The idea behind this would be to have players like Maker and Antekounmpo utilise their obscene wingspan to pressure the ball handler and create turnovers, leading to transition buckets. But in reality, all it did was create confusion and embarrassing dysfunction.

Maker often gives the appearance of a baby giraffe on the floor, with arms and legs flying everywhere, found this scheme particularly hard to pick up.

The above clip from a January contest against Orlando is a solid illustration of how the Bucks defensive scheme set the team up for failure. When Evan Fournier curls around a Mo Speights screen to receive the ball, a few things happen. Where the disconnect occurs, is Maker hedging an attack on Fournier. While this happens, Maker’s direct opponent Speights drifts to the open corner. Speights being a threat from the outside forces Matthew Dellavedova to protect the corner leaving the paint wide open. Because Maker is so aggressive in his attack on the ball handler – and make no mistake, this was part of the scheme Fournier is able to simply blow by Maker for the easy lay up. This particular scheme continually went against Maker’s best asset right now as a defender, namely rim protection. The Milwaukee big men were consistently drawn out to the perimeter, leaving the paint horrifyingly vulnerable.

Milwaukee ranked 23rd league wide for opponent points in the paint, giving up 47.3 per game. They also gave up the most attempts in the restricted area league wide at 30.7 shots per contest, with the opposition scoring on a damaging 63.5 percent of those tries. Not great numbers for a team with Maker, Henson and Antetokounmpo in the middle. This isn’t excusing Maker entirely for his individual struggles defensively, but instead merely pointing out that he wasn’t put in the best position to succeed under Kidd.

Offensive struggles and the KG effect

At this point in Maker’s career, his biggest offensive weapon is his ability to knock the outside shot down. Unfortunately, he had a case of the second-year blues. Coming off a rookie season in which he was able to bury 38 percent of his triples on 1.5 attempts per game, that number plummeted to 28 percent on an identical amount of shots taken.

The question remains as to whether or not he will be able to expand his offensive arsenal into the paint, but at this stage, concerns are based around a lack of ability to handle the ball in traffic and through contact. Standing 7’1″, Maker should be able to get a shot off over almost anyone in the league. Despite this, he connected on only 30 percent of his field goal attempts between 3 and 10 feet.

One NBA icon that continues to take a keen interest in Maker’s development is former NBA MVP, NBA Champion and 15 time All-Star Kevin Garnett. A much-publicised comment from Garnett on Maker becoming a league MVP has often been the butt of the online basketball community’s jokes, but at least to this point, KG remains committed to his work with Thon. Possessing a similarly freakish frame, Garnett had one of the most dominant inside-outside offensive games the league has ever seen. At times, we see the development in Thon that gives you hope that he is indeed on a path to success on that end.

About a week after KG visited the Bucks practice facility in March, Maker produced one of the more polished offensive performances of his NBA career. The breakout performance coming against the same Cleveland squad that had taken him to the cleaners, earlier in the season. At one point in the second quarter, Thon scored six straight points for Milwaukee, crucially, none of those points came from the perimeter.

Here we see LeBron James loosely guarding Maker in the paint. Brandon Jennings drops off a simple pass to Maker, who without hesitation knocks down a nice little hook shot. Sure, it was a basic attempt, but it’s not the type of shot we’ve become accustomed to seeing from Thon.

The very next offensive possession for Milwaukee, we see the Bucks go right back to Maker again, in the identical position and once again he quickly rises to shoot the sweet hook shot. Admittedly here, he is on the much shorter J.R Smith, as LeBron peels off to cut off a potential Antetokounmpo attack on the basket. The made shot is great, the confidence to take it is the encouraging thing here.

Not done yet, Maker knocks down his third hook shot of the night in the third quarter, this time guarded by Kyle Korver who actually provides some physical attention rises up. Undeterred, it once again hits nothing but net. Out of all the individual highlights of Maker’s in 2017/18, this particular night in March may have just been the most promising.

If Maker can influence the game offensively from a variety of areas, he becomes an entirely different beast. The addition of a simple mid-range hook shot would be incredibly valuable.

The resurrection of Playoffs Thon

Maker’s role in the Milwaukee rotation had completely evaporated by the time the playoffs rolled around, as a pre-deadline trade for veteran big man Tyler Zeller ate into his minutes. Couple that with an ill-timed groin strain at the end of March, and it appeared unlikely that Maker would be given the opportunity to influence the series against Boston.

For an indication of where Maker was in the pecking order at this point, The Pick and Roll asked Prunty about the possibility of Zeller and Maker having a role in the series before Game 2, after the duo combined for just four minutes in the first contest. In response, Prunty gave a lengthy answer about Zeller’s role moving forward without once mentioning Maker’s name. Maker played the final minute in Game 2 when the contest was over, his only minute of the series to that point.

Henson then succumbed to back soreness, opening the door for Maker, who responded with 22 points and 10 blocked shots in 55 minutes of court time over the next two games. Milwaukee won both contests to level the series at two apiece. Thon had essentially changed the course of the entire series with his infectious energy, his ridiculous wingspan sending shots flying into the crowd with thrilling regularity.

The clip above is just one of Maker’s five blocked shots from Game 3, and displays perfectly the freakish athletic ability mixed with the bad defensive habits that have been ingrained in his game. Former Buck Greg Monroe receives the ball with just five seconds left on the shot clock. Without hesitation, Maker aggressively attacks Monroe on the perimeter allowing him to blow by with relative ease. For reference, Monroe has attempted just 12 three point shots over his eight year NBA career, and is yet to make one of those.

In this instance, Maker’s natural athleticism allows him to recover and swat the shot from behind in spectacular fashion, masking the initial error in judgement. Again, as mentioned above, that is not a major slight on Maker as much as it is an illustration of why he has had difficulties in adjusting in his second year. The percentage play in that situation is to allow Monroe to shoot a long range shot with the clock running down, and certainly not allow him to get up a potential lay up with he shot clock expiring. Along with a lot of his Milwaukee teammates, his early successes have been a product of ability rather than system, which bodes well for the future under a new coaching staff led by Mike Budenholzer.

His influence was quelled somewhat from the lofty standards of those first two games, as he totaled just 11 points and one block over the final three games. His penchant for racking up fouls coming into effect as the Celtics adjusted. His impact became felt in energy plays and running the floor, more than actual box score numbers.

Plays like the one above need to become a staple for Maker moving forward, who often is criticised for his poor rebounding numbers. He possesses a rare ability to run in transition for his size, and can finish plays such as the one above if his effort is sufficient. Maker averages 6.5 boards per 36 minutes dipped from his rookie mark of  7.3. That is simply not good enough for a player of his physical stature. Part of that is due to his at times clumsy handle, the other part is due to his lack of body size. Both will once again be an emphasis in the off-season.

How the future looks like

Maker first revealed his intentions to play with the Australian national team in the third window of World Cup qualifiers back in March. Those intentions were set in concrete as the squad was recently revealed to play Japan and the Philippines later this month. Maker will be joined by Milwaukee team mate Matthew Dellavedova on the road in what will be a strong squad looking to cement their dominance on the Asia/Pacific region.

In a throwback to the high school Maker mix tape days on YouTube, videos surfaced just weeks after the Bucks’ playoff exit of Thon getting to work. Work ethic has never been an issue with Thon, and if this video is any indication, he will be hell bent on continuing the momentum gained against Boston.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride for Maker, but once again we find ourselves intrigued by the possibilities ahead, caught wondering about the growth still to come in the 21 year old’s game. The extraordinary flashes have quite possibly created unrealistic expectations on a guy that was once thought to be a long-term project. It’s quite realistic to suggest that Maker has exceeded expectations in his first two seasons, from when he was selected 10th overall in the NBA draft. With that being the case, maybe it’s time to wind back the frustration and utilise greater patience when assessing what has been an inconsistent, though thrilling start to a hopefully lengthy career in the NBA.

One thing’s for sure – Thon has made his mark in two straight post-seasons, and any way you slice it, that’s an impressive start to a career. Consistency is the key.

*All stats sourced from nba.com and basketball-reference.com 

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