LAS VEGAS -- John Hammond knew the player he would select with the No. 10 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft would shock many. Nevertheless, he decided earlier that day to trust his preparation and let the chips fall where they may. He selected Thon Maker, the mysterious, yet tantalizing seven-foot wing prospect that took the road less traveled during a tumultuous upbringing both professionally and privately.
That process should sound familiar. Three years ago, Hammond used a first-round pick on Giannis Antetokounmpo, a mysterious seven-foot second-division wing player living in poverty in Greece. Maker and Antetokounmpo are different players with different stories, but there’s an obvious parallel of Hammond pouncing on them earlier than most expect before giving someone else the chance to roll the dice.
"I don’t know how many certainties there are in the draft year in and year out," Hammond told SB Nation following the Bucks’ third game at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. "The top 2? The top 4? The top 6? I don’t know how deep it can go to say there are certainties in the draft.
"The pick of Thon, was there risk involved?" Hammond continued. "Of course there is. But there’s risk with a lot of picks in this draft and throughout every other draft."
Replace Maker’s name with Antetokounmpo’s in that answer, and the logic still works. During Antetokounmpo’s rookie season, the Bucks went through painstaking detail to make sure he wasn’t fed too much too soon. That August, Hammond himself said the goal was to "sneak in minutes for him" and little more. Antetokounmpo ultimately blew through their expectations, eventually started some games that December and is now on his way to stardom.
The same trope is being used to describe Maker’s development path. Perhaps that’s because Maker, like Antetokounmpo, needs stability after a winding journey that took him out of his war-torn native South Sudan to Australia and eventually to a rural community and elite training facility in Ontario, Canada. While his peers advanced to college opposition, Maker stayed an extra year at nearby Orangeville Prep, convincing the NBA that his extra time should count as a post-graduate year. That allowed him to enter the NBA Draft, but did little to quench fears about the level of competition he faced. That didn’t scare Hammond, who surely remembered the same concerns being expressed about Antetokounmpo’s opposition in Greece.
It also doesn’t scare the Bucks’ coaches, who are working hard to develop Maker’s most basic instincts. Whereas Antetokounmpo arrived as a jolt of energy with less tangible basketball skill, Maker offers a unique combination of shooting, ball handling, passing and grace. He just lacks the strength and the experience to fully maximize it.
"He’s going to have to get stronger before he can get any kind of real consistent minutes," Hammond admitted. "We’re going to try to go through that process methodically. Maybe it’s 7-8 pounds a year, try to get him 15 pounds heavier. Now, he weighs 220 [pounds], but if we can get him to 235, he can step on the floor and he can be a more consistent player."
That lack of strength was obvious in the Bucks’ third Summer League game against Memphis, when Maker earned the dubious honor of hitting the 10-foul limit in a Summer League game. It was the sort of cruel, yet necessary learning experience the Summer League environment allows, especially in the third game in four days.
"It’s good that I got to see the game that way," Maker said after the game. "Now I know what it feels like."
Yet the solution isn’t simply to live in the weight room. The Bucks are trying to build Maker a curriculum of coverages, angles and tricks that he can master and then vocalize with teammates. They want him to understand how to play so he can properly channel his effort. They also know it is easier to play with force when the muscles are actually equipped to provide more force. It’s a virtuous cycle.
"When you talk about basketball, you’re thinking knowledge and positioning first," Bucks assistant coach Sean Sweeney said. "Then, you’re thinking effort and intensity. Then, you’re thinking teamwork. Then, you’re thinking your skill set."
That foundation includes preparing every new lesson plan with high intensity. Following the Bucks’ second Summer League game, Maker made a surprising admission.
"The practice is the part I needed as a transition," Maker said. "It’s been a major step up in terms of practice from high school to practice. But from practice to [the games], it’s been the same."
The fruits of those many study sessions are beginning to show. Maker is raw and often caught out of position, but he’s flashed the many skills the Bucks eventually hope he’ll master. He began the Summer League with back-to-back double-doubles, thriving in the pick-and-roll and on the offensive glass.
Most importantly, he is setting the pace for teammates. He’s running straight down the middle of the floor, turning and pinning his man in the post. Once there, he can fire jump hooks over opponents or maneuver his way in front of the basket. Those moves aren’t always being finished now, but that’ll change as he gets stronger.
"He’s trying to go as hard as he can on every possession. He’s changing ends of the floor every time, and he’s sprinting," Sweeney said. "So that’s already there. Now it’s a matter of strength, maturation as a player."
He’s also shown the ability to step out and shoot, which is most important of all. Though his jumpers aren’t going down, his release looks sound enough and it’ll also improve once he gains more muscle strength to control it. You can envision a world where Maker spaces the floor for Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker on one end and covers for their defensive deficiencies on the other, smothering ball handlers out on the perimeter and sticking his long arms straight up in the air around the hoop.
That potential combination of shooting, rim protection and rebounding is an especially intriguing one for a Bucks team that needs all three badly. Milwaukee finished dead last in three-pointers made last year, and while they did a respectable job limiting opponents’ field goal percentages around the basket, they gave it all back by allowing the second-highest percentage of offensive rebounds in the league.
Antetokounmpo and Parker continue to work diligently on their jumpers and defensive attentiveness, but they’ll need a third player to cover for them for the Bucks to contend for titles. Maker isn’t anywhere close today, but in time, maybe he can become that player. In time.
"We don’t want to rush the process getting him on the floor more quickly than could even be possible," Hammond said. "It’s the same thing with the strength and conditioning. Let it happen methodically."
Then again, this wouldn’t be the first time a raw Hammond draft pick accelerated through modest early expectations.
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