For weeks, Milwaukee Bucks center Thon Maker has been envisioning playing at Fiserv Forum. When he visited the Bucks’ new arena in August before its opening, he was giddy.
In his mind’s eye, he could see the throngs of fans all wearing the same shirts and waving towels. He could almost feel the energy of a sellout crowd, even a playoff crowd, spurring on him and his Bucks teammates.
He couldn’t wait to step on the court for the first time on opening night, knowing the environment that awaited.
That experience came on Friday against the Indiana Pacers, but it didn’t go as Maker expected. Inactive for the second game to start the season, Maker didn’t realize the whole team was going to be individually introduced prior to the game.
If he had known, he says he probably would have worn something nicer than the outfit he picked out. Preferably, he would have been suited up in his jersey.
“I was mad,” Maker said when asked how he felt not to be suited up. “But by the second half, I was a little bit more chill and started focusing on the game. My imagination took over in the first half, but in the second half I had to calm down.”
Maker, the 10th pick in the 2016 NBA draft, dealt with knee soreness in the preseason that caused him to miss Milwaukee’s final three preseason games as well as court time during training camp.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has opted to keep Maker and D.J. Wilson, the Bucks’ 2017 first-round pick who also missed most of camp with a right hamstring strain, inactive during the first two games. They’re healthy, but in Budenholzer’s estimation, there are other players who have not been injured who are in a better spot to help the team right now.
For Maker, a 7-foot-1 center, this is part of an up-and-down stretch dating to his rookie year. After getting eased in as a rookie in 2016-’17, Maker burst onto the scene late in the season, eventually starting for the Bucks in the playoffs against the Toronto Raptors. He excelled in that series, looking like he could have a bright future in the NBA.
Maker began last season as a starter but lost that job by the end of October. He looked like he was overthinking on the court and didn’t know exactly how he fit. By the end of the season, Maker had moved farther down the bench, sitting out eight of the team’s final 18 games.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Maker resurfaced in Game 3 of Milwaukee’s first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics. After sitting out for all but one minute of the first two games, Maker looked rejuvenated when the series shifted to the BMO Harris Bradley Center, collecting a combined 22 points and 10 blocks in Games 3 and 4 as the Bucks evened the series.
It’s that experience that Maker will lean on now as he faces his latest challenge to affect the Bucks in a positive way.
“I hate missing playing, just period,” Maker said. “So I kind of didn’t like not playing in the preseason, but injuries happen in the league and you just got to find a way to get back and be ready.
“Last year I was in this position and I was always putting my extra work in. I was in the gym sometimes late night – 12 a.m. all the way to 3 a.m. sometimes – just to try and stay ready. My name got called against Boston and I came out ready. It’s how the NBA goes.”
Maker’s teammates and coaches know how hard he works; that isn’t the issue. He’s been known to spend long hours in the gym both during the season and over the summer, to the point where people around the team have half-jokingly told him to get a life.
“Thon works hard,” Bucks center John Henson said. “He puts the work in. Great teammate. Just a great person overall. We root for each other. I root for him, he roots for me.”
That hard work isn’t going to stop any time soon. In order to get his chance, Maker will have to prove he brings more to the table than others at his position. Henson and Brook Lopez have gotten off to strong starts, and Christian Wood has been impressive in earning his own way onto the team.
Maker knows he’s in control of his own development and has the support to get an opportunity at some point. It’s just about biding his time and staying motivated, something he doesn’t expect will be a problem.
“It’s the NBA, you’ve got to stay hungry and get in the gym,” Maker said. “Right now, I’m starving.”
One drop at a time: Bucks two-way guard Trevon Duval is on his own path back to the court, but his situation is a bit different from Maker’s. About a week before training camp, Duval suffered a left eye injury that affected his vision and has kept him out of contact drills.
With noticeable swelling and redness, Duval has to keep up a regimen of prescribed eye drops as he slowly gets back to full health.
“Just waiting for it to get back to normal,” Duval said. “Probably within the next week or two I can be back on the court playing, back up to speed. … (My vision is) slowly getting back to where it needs to be.”
Signed as an undrafted free agent following one year at Duke University, Duval has spent his first weeks as a professional trying to absorb as much as possible from the sidelines. He’s trying to learn Milwaukee’s system and coaching staff while looking to the team’s veterans to pick up how they go about their business.
Over time, he’s been able to add to the list of things he can do, getting back onto the court a bit over the past two weeks for running and non-contact work. The last step involves being able to go full-contact, which will involve wearing the pair of Oakley goggles he picked out recently.
Going undrafted and now missing close to two months wasn’t what Duval was hoping for, but he’s looking forward to putting this chapter behind him and taking the court for the Bucks and Wisconsin Herd.
“Everything didn’t go as planned, but everything happens for a reason,” Duval said. “I think I was put in this position for a reason. I just need to keep getting better to where I need to be.”