Milwaukee Bucks: Making Sense of Thon Maker’s Play

Oct 8, 2016; Madison, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd talks with Milwaukee Bucks forward Thon Maker (7) during the game with the Dallas Mavericks at the Kohl Center. Milwaukee defeated Dallas 88-74. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 8, 2016; Madison, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd talks with Milwaukee Bucks forward Thon Maker (7) during the game with the Dallas Mavericks at the Kohl Center. Milwaukee defeated Dallas 88-74. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports /

Milwaukee Bucks’ rookie Thon Maker has seen little court time in his rookie season. Why has this been, and how has he looked when he has played?

It’s an unusual phenomenon to be almost halfway done with the regular season and yet know so little about one of your prized assets, but that’s just the position the Milwaukee Bucks find themselves in regarding Thon Maker.

The 2016 first-round draft pick has played in just 73 total minutes so far this year, mostly late in the fourth quarter with the game’s outcome already decided. Given that Maker is the fourth center or one of the lesser power forwards on the Bucks’ roster, this lack of minutes says more about Milwaukee’s roster construction than it does Thon’s abilities.

In largely garbage time, Maker is shooting 59.1 percent from the field and a whopping 55.6 percent from behind the arc, albeit on just nine attempts from deep. He’s also added 19 rebounds and four blocks.

He’s been one of the most intriguing players to watch while he’s on the floor, and has been responsible for some great highlights. Of course, we’re more concerned with what his current play means for his career prospects, so watching sloppy late-game film isn’t the best way to get a clear picture of the situation.

There have been three games in which Maker has gotten some playing time in a non-garbage situation: December 12 versus the Toronto Raptors, December 30 against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and more recently, January 10 in a win over the San Antonio Spurs.

Over these three games, Thon has played around 16 minutes of quote-unquote “meaningful” basketball – small sample size to be sure, but still long and diverse enough to be indicative of some trends or talents.

As far as lineups go, Maker has been as versatile as expected, lining up at both the power forward and center positions. He’s functioned as the main screener and rim-runner playing alongside a shooter like Mirza Teletovic and also spaced the floor while Greg Monroe works on the low block.

It looks like the main aspect of Maker’s offensive game at this point is his outside shot. Often, he’ll look to set an early ball screen at the top of the key, then pick-and-pop for a three-pointer, and he has no hesitation in pulling the trigger.

When he’s not directly involved in the action, Maker does tend to disappear for stretches, which is a fairly common rookie critique. He’ll also be a step late recognizing opportunities within the Bucks offense, which can lead to overall confusion.

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With just one assist to his credit on the season, it’s clear that Thon isn’t a very willing passer, but his lack of dimes can partially be explained by his playing time.

When he plays in garbage time, the Bucks are often trying to get shots for Maker, whether that be isolation faceups or pick-and-pop three-pointers. During meaningful minutes, given his penchant for remaining in the corner, opportunities for assists don’t often present themselves.

His lack of offensive IQ isn’t a huge negative; having never played basketball above a high school level, it would be foolish to expect Thon to step into an NBA offense right away.

Maker’s relative immaturity also shows through in his frame. At 220 pounds, he looks incredibly thin on the court, and often, his lack of strength leads to problems.

Here, Pau Gasol easily backs him down and scores in the post. Opponents are shooting a whopping 75 percent at the rim against Maker, most likely due to his lack of both bulk and defensive awareness.

In defending the pick-and-roll, he has the speed to stymie the ballhandler and recover to his man in time, and it’s not hard to envision a future Bucks lineup with Maker at center that has the ability to switch nearly every action they face.

When he plays at the power forward position, Thon’s responsibilities change. Rather than his strength and positioning, his lateral quickness and on-ball ability come into question when he’s tasked with stopping combo forwards and wings.

Davis Bertans blows by Thon all too easily here, which leads to an open Spurs three-pointer. Defending wings from the outside isn’t something Maker should be tasked with too often, but he needs to improve his standing in this respect.

Despite being long and athletic, Maker hasn’t had much success on the boards, grabbing just 31.6 percent of available contested rebounds. For comparison, Greg Monroe is the next-lowest Bucks center in this area with 36.8 percent.

This however doesn’t mean he lacks effort in this area; you’ll often see him crashing the offensive boards hard and running the floor, although with varying levels of success.

Obviously there are plenty of positives and negatives from what we’ve seen out of Maker thus far, but how has the perception around him changed since the draft?

We knew that he’d have many teammates to compete with for minutes, so his playing time has come about as expected and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

What’s been the most encouraging is the motor and effort with which Maker plays the game.

The Bucks knew they’d be getting an extremely raw and therefore risky player with their draft pick. With this comes a lot of pressure for the player at hand, but Maker’s work ethic and desire to improve make the decision all the more defendable regardless of his play on the floor.

The label of “bust”, which so many people were eager to stick on him, seems less and less fitting every time Maker electrifies the crowd late with a deep three-pointer, ankle-breaker, or highlight block. Thon is a clear fan and team favorite at this point in his rookie season.

His three-point shot looks like a legitimate weapon, but the rest of Maker’s game is still growing. With luck, he’ll be ready to contribute in a major way in a couple of years when the frontcourt is considerably less crowded.

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You might have to wait a while to see him play, but Thon Maker’s court time is a glimpse into the future of the Milwaukee Bucks.