Thon Maker was a starter in label only during the regular season. From the time Jason Kidd made him a permanent fixture for opening tips in February, the baby-faced 7-footer played just 13.3 minutes per game – by far the lowest number of any player in basketball who started at least 20 games this season. Furthermore, Maker got off the bench in just 12 fourth quarters of the 31 games he started, and he saw 48 minutes of action in those fourth quarters.
Game 1 of Milwaukee’s first-round series against the heavily-favored Toronto Raptors played out accordingly. Maker was pulled sooner than any of his fellow starters in both the first and third quarters, and he only reappeared in the final stanza once the Bucks had been assured of victory.
None of this is to say that the South Sudan native disappointed in his NBA debut. The trajectory of Maker’s rookie season would be considered successful for all but those of the truly elite prospects in each draft class, let alone the player who a loud majority were absolutely sure wasn’t worth a lottery pick nine months ago. It’s not like he beat out below-replacement level scrubs to become Kidd’s starting center, either. Greg Monroe and John Henson have their warts, obviously, but aren’t far removed from signing multi-year contracts that pay them eight figures annually.
Still, it was jarring to see Maker stride to the scorer’s table and replace Monroe for good with just under 10 minutes left in Game 2. The Bucks had an opportunity to steal another game at Air Canada Centre and take full control of the series, yet Kidd was turning to a 20-year-old he didn’t trust enough to play in fourth quarters over the last three months of the regular season? Monroe was beasting, too. Any skepticism gleaned from that decision, though, completely vanished shortly thereafter, and could mark a turning point in Milwaukee’s present and future.
Maker’s line over the final nine minutes and 40 seconds of the Bucks’ hard-fought Game 2 loss was pedestrian. He had two points, took one shot, blocked another, dished two assists and failed to grab a single rebound. Still, it was no coincidence that Milwaukee turned its nine-point deficit into a legitimate chance for victory when Maker was on the floor. Already, so much of what he brings to the table doesn’t show up in traditional stat sheets.
Take this defensive sequence from the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s game, for instance:
The quick feet and long arms aren’t entirely surprising. Maker’s natural gifts have always been what made him such a tantalizing prospect, and remain the biggest reason why the Bucks gambled on draft night last summer. He’s a perfect fit for their hyper-aggressive defensive scheme, a jumpy big man with the speed to successfully trap pick-and-rolls, switch onto guards and clean up his teammates’ mistakes at the rim.
What conventional wisdom said would hold Maker back, at least initially, was his lack of feel for the game. Instead, he’s already doing things like toggling assignments with Giannis Antetokounmpo after double ball screens and avoiding a violation by briefly tip-toeing past the paint while overloading the strong side of the floor — in the fourth quarter at one of the league’s most hostile arenas on the playoff stage. Maker made forcing Kyle Lowry into a wild turnover somehow look even easier than the many defensive intricacies that came seconds prior.
No wonder Jason Terry, an 18-year vet, recently told Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck that teammates listen when Maker offers words of strategic and psychological support. “He’s 100 percent right,” Terry said.
These similar defensive possessions from Game 2 definitely support that assessment. How many bigs in the league can seamlessly cover so much ground, make split-second reads and bust-up ball screens with such ease?:
Maker’s precocious comfort extends to the other side of the floor, too. He’s not much more than a standstill shooter at the moment, but is a legitimate threat from beyond the arc and consistently makes the extra pass. The value of a center who unclogs the paint for Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t be discounted, either:
And don’t forget about the athleticism that made Maker a mixtape legend several years back. He’s a 7-foot-1 gazelle who has the overall body control of a player six inches shorter:
Maker was supposed to be unplayable against the Raptors. Jonas Valanciunas would not only feast on the offensive glass, but give Toronto some additional scoring punch by bullying the Bucks’ 216-pound rookie on the block. Neither development has come to pass so far.
Valanciunas is just 4-of-9 with with three offensive boards in the 21 minutes he’s been matched up with Maker, and Milwaukee is grabbing 81.1 percent of the Raptors’ misses with its rookie manning the middle — just below the Bucks’ team-wide mark for the series, but one still far better than Kidd could have anticipated based on the regular season.
No one’s suggesting Maker is without limitations. He’s a fragile finisher when forced to use touch, frequently makes the ball available to swiping hands by bringing it down in the paint and occasionally goes through the motions rather than making a real effort to set effective screens. Maker doesn’t pursue rebounds with the relentless force he defends the ball, and the Raptors aren’t quite afraid to leave him open in the corner.
There’s still so much obvious room for improvement here, but that reality shouldn’t take away from the tangible impact Maker has made in the first two games of his postseason career. And if it’s a harbinger of what’s to come, he’ll help lead the Bucks to much more than a 1-1 split as playoff underdogs — perhaps as soon as this season, and definitely further down the line.