After having a flash-filled rookie season last year, Thon Maker’s sophomore season with the Milwaukee Bucks has been a rude awakening for anyone hoping to see him take the next step in his development.
When the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2016-17 season came to a close after a valiant, but unfulfilled comeback versus the Toronto Raptors in the playoffs last April, it mirrored the team’s big picture overall.
They were a team that had assembled a competent supporting cast around superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, but didn’t have enough firepower to take down the then-underachieving Raptors, who were on the cusp of facing a crossroads in the offseason.
What no one could have expected over the course of that series was the stunning impact rookie big man Thon Maker, who displayed his defensive potential as a rim protector by shadowing the Raptors’ biggest stars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan on the defensive end.
Maker’s playoff performance was the culmination of a rookie campaign that while perfectly modest at best, showed plenty of progress as he navigated through a steep learning curve after he eschewed the traditional path by making the leap to the 2016 NBA Draft directly from high school (the same path his brother, Matur, is preparing to take for this year’s draft).
But any hopes Bucks fans had over whether Maker would build on his encouraging rookie year success in his sophomore season surely have been dashed at this point in what has been an increasingly stagnant year for the Sudanese-born Maker.
Having already eclipsed his total minutes played last year, Maker is currently averaging 4.6 points on 39.5 percent shooting from the field and 33.3 percent shooting from three while chipping in 3.7 rebounds in 43 total appearances. However, the most damning statistic of Maker’s is the -5.6 net rating he currently holds, which is a stark contrast to the +1.3 net rating he accrued primarily as the team’s starting center last year, per NBA.com/stats.
While it’s one thing to go through the long list of numbers that have been way off the mark for the Bucks’ backup big man, it’s what we’ve regularly seen from Maker on the court that’s been the most concerning.
If you read any deep dive or twitter thread focusing in on the team’s faulty defensive scheme enacted under head coach Jason Kidd, there’s no doubt you’ve seen Maker regularly get caught out of position and scramble to chase the play, often resulting in fouling an opposing player in the process (Maker’s currently averaging 4.8 fouls per-36 minutes, a slight tick down from last year, admittedly).
To make matters worse, Maker’s tendency to space the floor and launch from deep whenever the ball came his way during his rookie year has tapered off in favor of venturing inside the arc to set up shop from either elbow or try his hand at finishing down low, congesting the team’s spacing in the process.
It’s a dispiriting turn of events in Maker’s development and a sign that fans have almost soured completely on his place within the team’s big picture that on the off night he cobbles together an impactful, positive performance for the Bucks, it merely feels like a footnote at this point.
What makes it all the more worrisome is how the Bucks’ growing need to produce winning results and maximize the present and long-term future with Antetokounmpo in the midst of hitting his superstar ceiling could indirectly lead to Maker getting lost in the shuffle over time.
With the near constant rumblings that the Bucks are interested in potentially swinging for the fences to nab Los Angeles Clippers big man DeAndre Jordan and trades in general that would help shore up their thin frontcourt, the need to upgrade their weakest position looms large, especially for a front office that hasn’t rested on their laurels when it comes to tinkering with the team’s roster.
That obviously speaks to the fact that significant parts of the brain trust that presided over the Maker pick two summers ago are either no longer with the Bucks (former Bucks general manager John Hammond, former assistant GM Justin Zanik) or are facing an uncertain long-term future with the team (head coach Jason Kidd).
No matter how many strides he may have made throughout his first year in the league, this was all part of the package deal that came with selecting someone as raw and inexperienced as Maker in the draft nearly 18 months ago.
And despite what occasional Bucks consultant and sure to be Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett might tout about his ceiling, Maker’s fit in Milwaukee was always dependent on how he’d fill out a future starting five for the team, that is if he developed the proper skill set to become the theoretical stretch-5 that makes perfect sense alongside Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and so on.
But the patience and investment in playing the long game with Maker is currently being tested right now with the deficiencies in his play and the pessimism that is growing from large sections of the Bucks fanbase as a result of the step back he’s taken this season.
Whether the Bucks ultimately go about swinging a deal for a big man before this year’s trade deadline or not, their commitment to sticking with Thon through all his ups and downs will certainly be put under the microscope over the coming months and years.