MILWAUKEE – A year ago, Thon Maker was a rail-thin high school basketball player, watching the NBA playoffs with his teammates in Orangeville, Ont., hanging on to every turn of the Toronto Raptors‘ tumultuous path to the Eastern Conference finals like anyone else.
Three months ago, Maker was a suspect rookie project; the 10th-overall pick in an unremarkable draft class watching the NBA game from his regular spot deep on the Milwaukee Bucks bench. Through the first 46 games of the season he appeared in just 22 and made a total of 18 field goals.
But things change fast. In the space of a few weeks Maker has become an NBA starter, a contributor to one of the hottest teams in the league and now, in the playoffs, a key factor in what is shaping up as a potential first-round upset of the No. 3-seed Raptors at the hands of the No. 6-seed Bucks.
It would be a stretch to suggest that Maker is the reason the baby Bucks have surged to a 2-1 lead over the Raptors with a pivotal Game 4 scheduled for Saturday afternoon.
That category is reserved for the Bucks’ emergent 22-year-old superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.
But Maker, 20, does capture the essence of the series, in that the Bucks are proving young, fast, long and fearless, very quickly making the Raptors seem tentative, old and out of fashion.
His role is simple, and he’s embraced it:
“At this point it’s just being defensive-minded, coming in to bring energy to the guys especially at my position,” he said. “Bringing energy, blocking shots. It starts at the defensive end. Offensively it’s spacing the floor and using my knowledge of the game at this point to make plays for others and myself, but at this point it’s mostly on the defensive end.”
Like his team, Maker is coming on quickly, playing with boundless energy and no doubts. While he’s 7-foot-1, Maker is the embodiment of the NBA’s paradigm shift from the game being viewed on a vertical plane to a horizontal one, a shift the Bucks have embraced more than most teams.
Height will always be important in basketball, the rim being 10 feet off the floor and all, but being able to cover ground laterally — ideally with quick feet aided by a long reach — has never been more valued.
Maker’s height comes with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, and fast feet that allow him to slide step for step with a point guard like Kyle Lowry while being able to flash back to the paint to protect the rim. He never tires and his confidence is growing by the day.
He may not be the reason the Raptors are suddenly looking overmatched, but he’s a symbol of it.
The Bucks make the court smaller and the Raptors – the NBA’s sixth-ranked offence during the regular season – haven’t been able to compensate, scoring just 95.4/100, a 14.4 drop from the 109.8 they sailed along at during the regular season.
The Raptors aren’t struggling against the Bucks because they’re not as tall or thick; but they are struggling to solve the Bucks’ ability force their primary ball-handers – DeMar DeRozan and Lowry wide to the sidelines or at least angle them to towards the corners.
When they try to pass they need to allow for an extra few inches of space as the Milwaukee’s reach means extra tips and deflections. Timing gets thrown off and the slightest window of opportunity is slammed shut. And when the Raptors do get anywhere in the paint it’s through a maze of long limbs. Shots get altered, passes rushed.
The Bucks weren’t supposed to be here, doing this – they were 22-30 on Feb. 10 when Maker became a starter. While the return from injury of Khris Middleton – a multi-faceted scorer who is a perfect complement to Antetokounmpo – is the primary reason for Milwaukee’s late-season rise, the Bucks are 22-10 since Maker became a starter.
And Maker? He wasn’t supposed to be doing this either. Not now. How does a kid glued to the bench, who only was eligible for the 2016 draft because he was attending high school outside of the U.S., become a factor in the NBA playoffs?
“The idea [for starting Maker] was we don’t have a D-League team so we didn’t want it to be a wasted year and we didn’t want to ship him somewhere, so the options became slim,” Bucks head coach Jason Kidd said, explaining the shift in Maker’s role. “So, we needed to play him and after talking with the coaching staff we thought, ‘Let’s look at starting him and being able to benefit, using his energy but also an opportunity to play so it’s not a wasted season.’
“And that’s the way we approached it and we’ve gone with that for some time now and it’s given him the opportunity to play and not be a wasted season. And he’s grown with the starting and playing limited minutes and when he does play, he plays hard.”
Maker made his impact early in the series. His signature plays were a pair of blocks in the second half of Game 1.
They came just over three minutes apart, the first on Lowry, the second on DeRozan, each leading to fast-break scores by Antetokounmpo at the other end as part of a 14-4 run than helped tip Game 1 in the Bucks’ favour.
Three games in and Maker’s blocks are almost a harbinger as the Raptors stars have mostly flailed against the longer, younger and faster Bucks.
In Game 3’s onslaught, Maker figured prominently again as part of the fast-moving, always reaching, never stopping Milwaukee swarm that so turned the Raptors inside-out early in the first quarter.
Maker’s as surprised as anyone else how quickly things have turned for him in his rookie year. Signature blocks on Lowry and DeRozan within minutes at the ACC? A playoff career-high 11 points as the Raptors got pushed ever closer to the brink in Game 3? Important fourth-quarter minutes as the Bucks nearly came back for the win in Game 2?
He wouldn’t have predicted any of that. Not so soon.
“I didn’t think I’d be playing in the playoffs anyway, this whole year,” Maker said. “It’s amazing man. I’ve been blessed. I’m just trying to work hard and stay humble. Stay humble and good things happen.”
The Bucks have a very specific type of player they favour, and they are in the Antetokounmpo mold – long, fast, rangy, ideally close to positionless.
Maker fits, still, most thought it a stretch when Maker was taken 10th overall by Milwaukee. He was projected as a late first-round pick or maybe even a second-rounder.
But in his favour was not only his talent, but a maturity that perhaps reflects a refugee from Sudan who settled in Australia and left his family there to hopscotch around North America while being groomed for the NBA, his last two years spent at the Athlete Institute in Orangeville.
“He was different than other elite high school kids,” said Jesse Tipping, the founder of the Athlete Institute and its quick-to-prominence basketball academy team, that also features NBA rookie Jamal Murray among its alumni. “He knew exactly what he was there for every single day. He was there to train; he was there to make it to the NBA and do well. He was putting in extra time with our therapists and extra time on what he was eating and putting in extra time on little things with his strength and conditioning. He was a pro from Day 1. It’s not normal even with elite kids that do make it.
“When he got drafted and everyone was surprised, I knew the Bucks would have a hard time not playing him because I’ve seen a lot of pros and he has a better work ethic and skill-set than them. His motor is ridiculous. He just never gets tired.”
Or, as one Bucks executive put it. “We weren’t worried when we drafted him because we knew he’d work his d— off to succeed.”
And without complaint, apparently.
“He’s always happy, always with a smile on his face,” said Bucks guard Matthew Dellavedova. “I think he’s just an infectious type of person. He puts a smile on everyone else’s face. And it’s the same during a game, he’s the first one up on the bench cheering or yelling out what defence coverage we’re supposed to be in and that was even when he wasn’t playing. He was a great teammate and that’s translated to what he’s done on the court, his energy on the defensive end, the way he runs the floor.”
It’s translated into a problem for the Raptors, and in a way for Maker too. He’s still got friends in Orangeville. Toronto feels close to his heart.
But with every three he makes or deflection he gets or shot he blocks out of nowhere, he’s making things more difficult for his adopted home’s team.
“I’ve spoken with some of my old teammates, they’ve been watching the games, telling me they’re very proud of me and how I’ve been playing,” said Maker. “But they say they’re having mixed emotions about who they support.”
If Maker and the Bucks keep going the way they are, it won’t be an issue in the second round. Maker and his Milwaukee teammates will represent his friends’ lone rooting interest.