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On the Star Track: What to Make of Thon Maker?

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With Giannis progressing to stardom and Jabari’s development paused, how may Thon Maker’s path unfold?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

It is unpleasant to admit, but it must be admitted: the future of the Milwaukee Bucks is quickly approaching a crossroads. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the franchise player and face of the team, and his All-Star coronation is proof of his status. If anything in Milwaukee is certain, Giannis will be the one to lead the Bucks to any form of playoff success.

But as we have seen time and time again, no star can go it alone in the NBA. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen, LeBron James had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and later had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. At present, Milwaukee has two candidates with a reasonable claim to fill the role of Giannis’ Wingmen: Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker.

Now on to the unpleasant part: there are still a number of questions surrounding both Jabari and Middleton, some fair and some not. Middleton, continuing to work towards a full return from his hamstring injury, must continue to prove that he’s still able to consistently contribute in all the different ways the Bucks need him to contribute, from three-point shooting to wing defense to occasional playmaking and half-court scoring. Jabari, even before his second left ACL tear, had begun to answer several of our questions about his offense, but now will have to overcome both his knee injury and his pre-existing defensive reputation. And to top it off, Jabari will have these questions surrounding him at the same time as his rookie contract extension will be discussed and negotiated, which really isn’t fair when you think about it.

The main question isn’t whether or not Khris Middleton or Jabari Parker can be good enough to supplement Giannis, but is whether or not both of them will reach a certain (read: high) level relative to their individual ceiling. At this point, we simply don’t know how each player will recover from their injuries, and while we hope that they return just as they were before, the likelihood of that happening is pretty low.

Enter Thon Maker. To be clear, the odds of Thon improving to the point of usurping Jabari’s or Middleton’s place in the Bucks’ “Big Three” are low, and the point of this piece isn’t to determine how he does that. Instead, our focus is to figure out what tools he has that can translate into skills that would put him on a similar track, and turn it into a “Big Four.”

As the 10th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Thon was (and still is) a huge reach of a pick, and also another heavy swing of the draft day bat by John Hammond. Much like Brandon Jennings, Tobias Harris, Giannis, and even Rashad Vaughn, Hammond is well-known for targeting young talent in the mid/late lottery to try and pick up an unlikely star, and Thon would be among the most unlikely of the bunch. What can Thon do at this raw stage of his development to get himself on the same track as some of his teammates?

Stay Hungry

Usually, this phrase applies to athletes who have achieved some level of success, and need to work to maintain the intensity of their younger selves. For Thon Maker, I sincerely doubt that intensity will ever be a question. The level of effort and energy that he expounds on the court is breathtaking, and we all hope he never loses that edge.

When I tell Thon to “stay hungry,” I mean it in the most literal sense possible. Listed at 7’1” and 223 lbs, there is no way he plays any position smaller than PF in the NBA. However, in order to be considered special, Thon needs to play the 5. His activity level, length, and outside-in offensive game are relatively common for forwards but rare qualities in centers. He must bulk up his base to prevent getting moved at-will by the game’s more conventional big men. Not only that, but strengthening his lower body will improve his ability to finish near the rim, an area where he’s struggled thus far.

This is not new information, and has already been recognized by the Bucks organization as a major focus for Thon’s development. But putting it at the top of our list reemphasizes just how important this item is for Thon’s NBA future.

Keep It Poppin’

Miles Plumlee’s tenure with the Milwaukee Bucks provided one semi-consistent benefit: he regularly rolled to the rim and put pressure on the defense by providing a threat to jam home a lob. Thon will see his fair share of rim runs, but his most valuable contribution will be moving away from the rim.

In theory, Thon would usually be matched up evenly against power forwards and centers on a conventional team. However, when sharing the floor with Giannis, Middleton, and Jabari, it is far more likely that the opposing C draws Thon Duty than the PF. And if there’s one thing that most NBA centers don’t like, it’s getting pulled away from the rim.

As a pick-and-pop pivot man, Thon Maker will have the opportunity to create spacing that a Milwaukee Bucks offense has not seen in a long time. He’s already shooting 51.3% from deep in limited minutes, which many would dismiss as a result of a small sample size, but is a product of 5.4 3PA/36 minutes and a very nice-looking jumper. The best player comparison for this type of offensive application would be Channing Frye, who is currently spacing the floor for another do-it-all forward in Cleveland. It’s working out pretty well there, I would say, and is worth emulating.

Film. Film. More film. Take a nap. Wake up and watch more film.

For all of the flashes of rim-protection and floor-stretching, the clearest aspect of Thon Maker’s current NBA career is this: he usually has no idea what’s going on.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, either! As a 20-year old rookie without any high-level basketball experience, instinct is the only guide Thon has out on the court. Once instinct gives way to well-practiced and rehearsed movements, we’ll start to see Thon turn those tools into bonafide skills.

Eyes on the Prize

If there were any takeaways from Howard Beck’s excellent Thon feature for Bleacher Report, or his subsequent conversation with Zach Lowe, it’s that Thon Maker wants to be great, and is willing to put in the work. It is this ambition that he shares with fellow “unicorn,” Giannis Antetokounmpo, though their work will likely be focused on very different things. Giannis’ development was centered around putting structure on top of his basketball instincts, so he could translate his natural talent to basketball skill. Thon, on the other hand, is equipped with more tools, and needs to develop the basketball know-how to effectively deploy them.

To be the best Thon he can be, Maker needs to keep his focus narrow as he continues to grow as an NBA player. It’s great that he wants to win the MVP, but to even come close to that level, there is a very clear, very precise path that Maker can walk to become a star. Lucky for him (and for the Bucks), time is on the 20-year old’s side, and he’s flanked by young running mates that will grow alongside him.

Oh, and it would help if he was able to play more than 10 minutes per game. That would be great.