By Frank McLean
One of the most interesting stories of this Toronto Raptors-Milwaukee Bucks series is watching the Bucks develop rookie Thon Maker the old fashioned way. They play him.
First it’s how he made it to the NBA where he was drafted 10th overall this past June by the Bucks one pick after the Raptors selected Jakob Poeltl. He has done it you can say the most unconventional way.
He was born in the South Sudan. At the age of six moved to Australia. He then moved to the United States to play high school basketball in Louisiana and West Virginia and the last two years was in Orangeville, Ontario, Canada playing for Athlete Institute prep school.
People knew that he was a special talent even before he was drafted.
A year ago he was fan attending Raptors playoff games with his coach. At one of those games Maker was sitting there and one of the refs working the game, who had seen him on ESPN, asked him “hey man, when are you going to get here? and Maker said, “He has even worked some of my games this year.” That ref was veteran Monte McCutchen.
When you talk to the 20-year old he is very unfazed over the fact that he is starting the NBA playoffs.
“Everything comes back around. A year ago I was playing high school ball here, and now I’m playing in the NBA”, Maker said. “Just going out there and playing hard. At the end of the day it’s just basketball, just got to continue to play the way I have been playing.”
Including the first four games of this Bucks-Raptors tilt, Maker has started the last 35-straight games for the Bucks and they have been 22-13 in that time.
Rookies don’t usually get to develop as starters in the NBA playoffs, but in the case of Maker it’s being done as a necessity. The Bucks are currently one of seven NBA teams that do not own and operate a D-league (“NBDL”) team like the Toronto Raptors do with the Raptors 905 in Mississauga.
As Bucks head coach Jason Kidd was explaining before game four.
“The idea is we don’t have a NBDL team so we didn’t want it to be a wasted year and we didn’t want to ship him somewhere,” Kidd said. “The options became slim, we needed to play him. Talking with the coaching staff , they thought let’s look at starting him and being able to benefit using his energy, but also giving him an opportunity to play so it’s not a wasted season.
“You look at his abilities, what he brings to the table, his speed at 7’0, his ability to shoot and then also his ability to play hard.
“Being a starter can help him grow hopefully faster, understanding he’s going against all-stars, or he’s going against quite a few talented players out on the floor when you go against the other starting group. Hopefully this speeds up the process.”
Veteran Jason Terry who is not easily impressed with rookies, but when you ask him about Maker, he is a believer.
“Thon Maker has a high basketball IQ,” Terry said. “His work ethic is great and the thing about him is his attitude. He’s not over-confident, he’s not cocky, but he has enough confidence to him have success against more veteran players in this league. Great kid, great teammate and he doesn’t play like a rookie.”
Not every rookie has the ability or skill set to develop at the NBA level. That’s why the D-League was invented. Someday the Bucks will have an NBDL team just not right now. Maker is that stereotypical Cinderella story from Africa, the United States, to Canada and now the NBA.
One thing for sure Thon Maker is a keeper and with Giannis Antetokounmpo this duo will be anchoring the up and coming Bucks for the next few years.
Veteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.