April 27, 2018, 7:31 pm
Welcome back Hoop Ballers to our International Spotlight weekly feature where we will be taking a look into the curious case of Thon Maker.
A truly amazing story, the kid was born in Wau, South Sudan and had to escape the civil war in Uganda before getting accepted as a refugee by Australia while he was just five years old. Edward Smith, an Australian of African-American heritage who helps children from migrant background helped him move to the US where he settled down at Carlisle School in Martinsville, Virginia. He then moved to Canada and reclassified into the 2015 class, participating in the 2015 Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Oregon, alongside fellow Australian Ben Simmons.
He returned to Orangeville Prep for the 2015–16 season while being recruited by Arizona State, Florida State, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Notre Dame, St. John’s, and UNLV. In a stunning move following that year, Maker declared his intentions to enter the 2016 NBA draft, a decision that required a ruling from the NBA to determine his eligibility. To skip a year of college, Maker had to convince the NBA he graduated from Orangeville Prep in 2015 and he successfully did so, proving he graduated from high school in June 2015 but stayed another year as a post-graduate student by his own choosing, fulfilling both the minimum age and one year removed requirements to the NBA’s satisfaction.
His decision to not attend a college prevented NBA scouts from having a chance to watch him play at a high level against elite competition but Maker attended the NBA Draft Combine and impressed with his length, measuring as the third-tallest player without shoes at 6’11.75″ and recording the highest no-step vertical jump (32″) of any player over 6’11” in NBA Draft Combine history.
It was clear that the Bucks were enamored with Maker for some time and John Hammond didn’t hesitate to make him just the second player in more than a decade to make the leap from high school in North America straight to the draft and the first to play in the NBA since the league introduced the “one-and-done” rule for high school students in 2005.
The Importance of Length in the Modern NBA
John Hammond has a reputation for drafting players who have length and significant defensive versatility with examples including Thon, Giannis, John Henson and Jonathan Isaac. He has been a pioneer in believing that length would pay off in the long run and nobody could really argue with him today as the NBA is becoming a league full of of unicorns; athletic bigs who can impact the game with their size on both sides of the floor.
Once limited to descriptions of birds, wingspan has become one of the most important measurements for basketball prospects over the past decade. Coaches marvel at players with long arms, figuring they will more easily grab rebounds, block shots, steal passes and shoot over defenders. And while the average man has a wingspan about 2 inches more than his height, several NBA players pop off the chart because of their long arms. It’s no coincidence that wingspan is one detail Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr takes seriously when deciding on lineups and rotations for the defending champions. This season especially, he has been going with a center by committee based on matchups. “It’s legit. It’s much more important than your height,” Kerr said. “If your wingspan is more than your height, that’s kind of abnormal. Most of us have the same wingspan as our height. That’s kind of a rule of thumb. A lot of basketball players don’t, though, they have wider wingspans. And they’re able to get their hands on balls or shots or loose balls. I’m a big believer in that.”
The Bucks have adopted this approach and have crafted an aggressive defense, one that routinely sends two defenders at the opposing ball handler with pressure ready to pounce behind the blitz. This half-court scheme implemented by former coach Jason Kidd was an attempt to eliminate the “fastball,” a pass delivered to an opposing player in the optimal spot at the optimal speed at the optimal moment. A defense that can reroute those passes or delay them can degrade the quality of those shots. It’s a somewhat vague approach but the point is that the more the Bucks’ lanky defenders can divert opponent’s passes high and wide, the less likely that opponent is to get a comfortable look at the basket. This is why the Bucks coaching staff emphasizes a “hands up” directive and why staffer Nic Turner charts each possession accordingly. “If we don’t play with our hands up, Coach Kidd goes crazy,” said Giannis.
Thon, Henson, Giannis and Middleton all fit this narrative and their activity in the perimeter has been the main focus of the Bucks’ defensive approach the last few seasons. Look at how Sterling Brown and Thon attack Bradley Beal high above the 3-point line, forcing him to make a poor decision and commit the turnover.
In Kidd’s time as head coach, the Bucks forced the most passes per 100 possessions of any team in the NBA, taking opponents late into the shot clock while also forcing a decent number of turnovers (the team ended up second overall in opponent turnover rate for the season). But while both of these metrics are typically indicators of a good defense, they’re just numbers and the team still allowed 103.8 points to opponents which ranked as the seventh worst in the league.
The Bucks’ defense was somehow reformed under interim coach Joe Prunty, who longer asked players to hurry around the court covering three opponents at once. Instead, they tend to switch and stay home more often and trap much less aggressively. Length is again a crucial component in this scheme as it helps eliminate potential mismatches while also denying the “catch” and quick jump shot by an offensive player coming off a screen.
Age and Body Concerns
Thon is a 7-footer with a huge frame who plays the game with energy and shows an intriguing combination of ball skills and ability to run the floor, but the main issue for him is his lack of body strength. He has a frame that just cannot seem to add weight in a constructive basketball sense and even though he has been relatively healthy in his first couple seasons there are major concerns about him holding up as his legs and hips are extremely stiff. He does not get much lift when he faces contact, and the added strength to his upper body has noticeably slowed his mobility and explosiveness. Thon intrigued scouts with his determination, length and skill level, but that happened against almost non-existent competition and his development has stagnated.
The problem arises mainly from the fact that he played on the perimeter early in his career and getting used to playing his more natural power forward position is still a major adjustment, especially physically. After seeing Giannis’ progress in terms of bulking up and Thon’s inability to do so, there is a sense that what you see is what you get in terms of his body and any additional weight could slow him down or put pressure on his legs that they may not be able to handle. Maker gets knocked off balance easily and has had a lot of trouble establishing himself in the post against stronger defenders. Look at Biscmack Biyombo dominating him in the interior and easily grabbing the rebound from an out-muscled Maker.
Against bigger, more physical centers, teams have mostly abandoned the pick-and-roll play and just sent their big man to work against Maker. Often, that means the Bucks bring a second defender to help, which opens passing lanes to shooters along the arc. Here is Kemba Walker taking a wide open three from the top of the key as Dwight Howard establishes his position deep in the paint, forcing Matthew Dellavedova to double team him while Tony Snell fails to switch and rotate.
The lack of strength translates to poor rebounding numbers (only 3.0 in 16.7 minutes per game) and a lack of free throw attempts (1.3 per contest) as the fundamentals to play the power forward position are not there. Thon is shooting a mediocre 69.9 percent from the free throw line this year (up from 65 percent last year) while among 25 players who stand 7 feet or taller and have played over 1,000 minutes this season, he ranks 21st in defensive rebounding percentage at 15.1%.
In the days leading up to the draft, a number of teams ruled themselves out of selecting Maker in the first round over concerns that his age had been misrepresented. Some believed Maker to be between 21–23 years of age despite being officially listed as a 19-year-old and this conversation will likely never go away especially as Maker often looks gassed after logging no more than 20 minutes on the court.
Second Year Regression
Maker’s 7’3” wingspan wreaks havoc on defense and his agility at that size creates mismatches on offense, especially since he can shoot over most anybody, but he has struggled in his sophomore year primarily due to the lack of playing time. The statistical regression has been inevitable as Maker made 37.8 percent of his shots from beyond the arc last year spacing the floor efficiently for his teammates, but this season he’s hitting just 29.8 percent.
At his best, Thon forces his defender out of the paint and even if he isn’t hitting an elite number from the corner, knowing he can hit those shots keeps his defender honest. If his man crashes down on a driving Antetokounmpo or Bledsoe, it’s imperative that he makes a decent number of his jumpers but he failed to do so in his sophomore year and without his spacing, the Bucks offense grinds to a halt in the half-court. Look at Gortat opting for the right decision which is to clog the paint as Giannis attacks, instead of staying with Thon who drops back to the corner and misses the wide open three.
Moreover, despite doubling his minutes this season, his per-game averages have stayed the same and his usage rate has gone down while his turnover rate nearly doubled and his per-36 numbers in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and 3-pointers have all decreased.
His pick-and-roll coverage has always been an issue and he struggled mighty with switches all year long, making him an easy target for opponents. Maker regularly got caught out of position and scrambled to chase the play, often resulting in fouls. Here’s him on an unnecessary switch where he is late challenging Evan Fournier to the basket and commits the foul.
After a promising Summer League debut, an underwhelming preseason gave way to 23 DNP-CD’s and an average of just 4.2 minutes of mostly garbage time in the 18 games Maker played over the first half of his rookie season. It is by this point that most teams would assign a seldom-used rookie to the D-League but because the Bucks didn’t have a direct D-League affiliate last year, they took an unconventional approach. Not only did they keep him in uniform, but the team moved him into the starting lineup in order to get him some run and he responded by becoming a factor in their playoff series against the Raptors with his energy and resilience.
Maker again failed to impress early this year and by the end of the season he had largely fallen out of head coach Joe Prunty’s rotation. A groin injury kept him on the inactive list before he got back on the floor in the final three games of the regular season. In those games though, Maker saw time in experimental two-big lineups and then a few minutes in mop-up duty but the Bucks again went with experience and started Henson against the Celtics, a team that is leaning heavily on dribble handoffs, pick and rolls and weaving action in the middle of the floor.
As Bucks defenders went underneath the action on ball handlers or tried to fight through it the Celtics found open driving lanes and good looks, ultimately torching the defense due to the lack of a rim protector, but an injury to Henson opened up things for Maker and he once again responded. After playing just one minute through Games 1 and 2, Thon is emerging as a vital cog in the Bucks’ defensive success with his ability to stick with Celtics guards and wings and deny them the easy drives to the basket. The Aussie was a force in Game 3 with 14 points, five rebounds and a career-high five blocks in 24 minutes and it was much of the same in Game 4 where he recorded eight points, two rebounds and another five blocks in 30 minutes off the bench, becoming the first player to record five blocks in back-to-back playoff games since DeAndre Jordan did in 2014.
Despite garnering a ton of hype throughout his high school career, there is a sense that Thon has been intentionally hidden from NBA draft evaluators and his weaknesses have been exposed at the NBA level. It’s incredibly difficult to evaluate a player who did not play in college or Europe and Maker will continue to intrigue teams and fantasy players with his overall skill set. A potential new coach in Milwaukee this summer might be able to craft a game plan better suited to his strengths and he is an engaging person who shows energy, heart and competitiveness, elements that usually win teams in the long run so I’m still very high on him.
Keep enjoying the NBA playoffs HoopBallers! Thank you for reading this article and please make sure you check us back again next week and throughout the offseason as more player breakdowns are coming up. Stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of April 27th