Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer stopped from a brief conversation with center Thon Maker a few days a go. At that time, neither of them knew veteran center John Henson needed surgery to repair a ligament in his left wrist.
All Budenholzer knew was he liked what he had been seeing from Maker both on the court in spot minutes as well as during practices and individual workouts. Maker was grinding hard, doing everything that was asked of him and keeping a positive attitude despite not getting many meaningful minutes, appearing in just six of the Bucks’ first 14 games and playing more than 10 minutes only twice.
“Just to be ready. You never know when your number’s going to be called,” Maker recalled when asked what Budenholzer’s message was to him.
With Friday’s announcement that Henson is out indefinitely – his surgery could keep him out beyond the all-star break – Maker’s time has come to again prove himself as a capable part of the Bucks’ rotation. He didn’t want his latest chance to come due to an injury to any of his teammate, but the third-year center knows how much the Bucks are counting on him to consistently perform as their backup center.
“Every single time I check in I got to find a way to give us a boost,” Maker said. “It’s unfortunate with John’s situation, but he said the same thing. He just said, ‘You’re up. It’s your opportunity. Just go out there and show the world what you’re made of.’”
Maker has heard and said the words, “stay ready” more than any Bucks player over the past three seasons.
As a rookie, Maker played sparingly before exploding down the stretch, starting 34 games and breaking out during the playoffs. He then began his second season as a starter but couldn’t duplicate the success from the spring and lost his starting spot to Henson after seven games.
Maker struggled with inconsistency throughout the rest of the year and ended the regular season out of the rotation. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Maker again broke out in the playoffs, using his shot-making, aggressive defense and energy to help the Bucks climb out of a 2-0 hole against the Boston Celtics.
Under Budenholzer, Maker has again had to bide his time. In the past, Maker’s niche was being the team’s lone big man who could proficiently shoot three-pointers to provide space for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the team’s other drivers. This season, though, everyone on the Bucks roster has become capable of shooting three-pointers, leading Budenholzer to lean on Brook Lopez and Henson – more consistent, veteran players – as the two centers in his regular rotation.
Over time, though, Budenholzer saw enough for Maker that he knew he could use the 7-foot-1 center more. Maker performed well in extended minutes against the Raptors, handled himself well in mop-up minutes and on Wednesday was part of a five-man unit that turned a 15-point deficit into an eight-point lead against the Memphis Grizzlies.
On Friday, in the first game Henson sat out due to his injury, Maker didn’t put up gaudy stats – nine points, 3 of 10 shooting, three rebounds, one assist and one block – but he provided a needed jolt of energy as well as some defensive flexibility.
“I think he’s having a positive impact for us,” Budenholzer said. “I think in the first half and in general, we’re not playing with the kind of urgency we need to play with and, again, he’s somebody that brings the effort, the energy. He lifts his teammates up. It’s very unfortunate – injuries happen – but to have somebody like Thon that brings that to the table (is important). The timing of his emergence into the rotation, I think is very good for us because we need that.”
In terms of the defense, Budenholzer has often preferred a zone drop scheme, with his centers falling back to defend the hoop against pick and rolls. That can leave the Bucks vulnerable to opposing big men popping out for three-pointers or ball-handlers using the extra space in the mid-range to knock down shots or create for others.
Maker is still getting used to that scheme, which involved fighting his instincts. Under the team’s former coaching staff led by Jason Kidd, Maker’s job was to aggressively pressure on screens, disrupting the ball-handler then using his athleticism to recover if needed. Of all the Bucks’ centers, Maker’s unique length, quickness and athleticism lend themselves more to that type of scheme.
“Sometimes I caught myself stepping up and some of the coaches were like, ‘You’re too aggressive; back up, back up,’” Maker said. “I’m like, I’m just trying to get the energy going. We’re getting stops and I’m getting thirsty for more stops.”
Over time, Budenholzer seems to have grown more comfortable with the idea of using Maker’s aggressiveness.
“(When) Coach calls ‘Push’ and we go into ‘Push,’ I start to wake up even more because I get to be more aggressive and all-out energy,” Maker said.
“He trusts that I’ll be there to stop the ball, first and foremost, once we get into the coverage in terms of trapping and getting the ball out of the guard’s hands. Then also, recovering. I’m really good at recovering back either to my man or the next rotation. Having that energy on the ball is key.”
While he’s strung together a pair of solid performances over the past couple games, the Bucks are going to need Maker to provide a positive impact for the long haul to make up for what is expected to be an extended absence for Henson. If he can’t, the Bucks have Christian Wood, who earned the final roster spot on the team out of training camp, waiting for his own chance.
“It’s a big opportunity (for Maker),” Antetokounmpo said. “I always talk to Thon every day. It’s all about getting better and bringing energy for his team because that’s what he’s got to do. He can’t have nights off.”