Considering pre-draft questions about his age, Sudanese-born 7-footer Thon Maker was considered somewhat of a joke when the Milwaukee Bucks surprisingly selected him 10th overall this past June. The 20-year-old was, after all, the first prep-to-pro first-round pick since 2005, and there was little film to go on besides his dominance of underwhelming competition for a post-graduate school in Ontario.
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 he did play over the first half of the season. It is by this point that most teams would assign a seldom-used rookie to the D-League.
Not the Bucks. Because they don’t have a direct D-League affiliate, they took an unconventional approach. Not only did Milwaukee keep Maker in uniform, but the team moved him into the starting lineup, just to get him some run, or so coach Jason Kidd told NBA.com’s John Schuhmann:
“We didn’t want it to be a wasted year and we didn’t want to ship him somewhere. So the options became slim to where we need to play him. Talking to the coaching staff, they said let’s look at starting him, being able to benefit [from] his energy, but also giving him the opportunity to play.”
After starting Miles Plumlee and John Henson to mixed reviews as Milwaukee posted a 20-22 record midway through the season, Maker made his first start on Jan. 21. Within a few weeks, the Bucks had traded Plumlee for Spencer Hawes, and Maker was the permanent starting center. As Schumann notes, that often meant short stints at the start of each half, followed by extended time on the bench.
Still, Maker got his foot in the door, and slowly pushed it more and more ajar. By March, Kevin Garnett, who’s served as a part-time instructor for Maker this season, was calling him a future MVP candidate:
"Kevin Garnett told me that Thon Maker will be the MVP of the league one day." –@RealVinBaker saying KG said that Vin can quote him on that
— SiriusXM NBA Radio (@SiriusXMNBA) March 20, 2017
And Giannis Antetokounmpo was threatening to punch him if he didn’t keep shooting during crunch time in a career-high 23-point performance that keyed an overtime victory against the Detroit Pistons:
Giannis to Thon in OT: "If you hesitate, I'm gonna punch you, so shoot the ball whenever you get it." pic.twitter.com/PqtkUth7ND
— BrewHoop.com (@brewhoop) April 1, 2017
When all was said and done this regular season, the Bucks finished 20-10 after Maker became a full-time starter, establishing themselves as the East’s sleeping giant in the playoffs. His wingspan of 7-foot-3 wreaks havoc on defense, and his agility at that size creates mismatches on offense, especially since he can shoot over most anybody at a 38 percent clip from 3-point range for the entire season.
True enough, Maker is a key cog in Milwaukee’s formidable starting lineup that’s dominated the third-seeded Toronto Raptors through three games of their first-round series. A quintet of Maker, Giannis, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton and Tony Snell has outscored the Raptors by a whopping 15.1 points per 100 possessions in 37 minutes, as the sixth-seeded Bucks have nabbed a 2-1 series lead.
Maker has averaged 6.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, two assists and 1.7 blocks while shooting 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range in just over 19 minutes through the first three games of the series. He’s been the anchor of a defense with a 95.4 rating that ranks as the best in the East playoffs. He’s also the only first-round pick starting for a team with a win in the 2017 postseason.
And that, my friends, is no joke.
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