Thon Maker Is the Bucks' Secret Unicorn

Too good to be true? Spend some time with the Bucks' rangy, risky project—he backs down KG but shoots like Steph, keeps the diet of an offensive lineman but lifts like a boss, all while determined to be MVP—and you'll become a believer, too.

By Howard Beck

Photography by Sara Stathas

February 8, 2017

Thon Maker ambles over, head bobbing over narrow shoulders, with a smile as easy as his stride, and the first thing you notice is the distance between you and that grin.

The Milwaukee Bucks rookie seems impossibly tall, even in a sport defined by height. Taller than his official listing of 7'1".

You notice his arms. They seem impossibly long, as if he could wrangle an actual buck.

You remember the video. The one from 2015, in Las Vegas. The one in which Maker unleashes a series of moves that send his defender stumbling like a drunken tourist, then casually sticks a deep step-back jumper. The one that closes with giddy fans slapping their cheeks and falling over each other, mouths agape.

In that moment, the obscure international prospect became an internet sensation—and from there, a curiosity, a subject of wonder and intrigue for the NBA.

Even now, in an age of basketball unicorns, where big men move like Jagger and shoot like Steph Curry, the sight of a 7-footer executing crossovers and deep jumpers tickles the senses every time.

Photo by Sara Stathas for B/R Mag

Last spring, the Bucks considered the enigma of Maker—a 19-year-old with just six years of basketball experience, an athletic marvel with still-raw skills, a globe-trotting vagabond with a cloudy bio—and in defiance of nearly all projections, made him the 10th pick in the NBA draft.

The choice stunned rivals and drew snickers in scouting circles. Maker—a native of South Sudan, by way of Australia, Louisiana, Virginia and Ontario—was a project, the kind of player you grab in the low 20s or the second round, where the stakes and the salaries are lower. That's what the draft experts said. This was a reach, by any traditional metric.

But what if other metrics matter more? What if the best indicators of NBA success are immeasurable? What if the most intriguing thing about Maker is not his uncanny blend of size and agility, but everything else?

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It's 5 p.m. on a frigid December afternoon, and the wind blows hard off Lake Michigan outside Harbor House, a seafood and raw-bar restaurant situated on an isolated lakeside plot.

Inside, Thon Maker chooses a tall bar table, the better to unfurl that vast expanse of limbs.

It's happy hour, the waitress announces—$4 beers and $8.95 for a half-pound of peel-and-eat shrimp—and Maker responds with cheery befuddlement.

"Happy hour?" he says, in an accent that blends South Sudan and Western Australia. "I'm always happy!"

Photo by Sara Stathas for B/R Mag

Dinner lasts 80 minutes, and Maker is telling stories for most of it, which means his cheeseburger is still two-thirds whole. It's OK, he insists. He'll take it back to the gym to finish before his next round of shooting drills. Besides, he says, he ate before he came here: beef brisket, mac and cheese and barbecue turkey—one of the five calorie-packed meals per day he needs just to keep pace with an almost-nonstop sunup-to-sundown workout regimen.

Spend enough time around the Bucks, and what emerges is a portrait of a player who seems almost too good to be true: thoughtful, mature, intelligent, engaging, studious, diligent, focused, intensely driven and, by the way, consistently, unfailingly nice.

It's the first thing everyone mentions.

"He's always smiling," coach Jason Kidd says. "I don't know if he's ever been in a bad mood."

The Bucks strength coach Mike Davie will tell you he's never heard Maker complain—though Maker has played fewer minutes than 48 other rookies.

"I'm going to be a champion. Not just one, multiple times. I'm going to be an MVP."


Guard Jason Terry, now in his 18th NBA season, says Maker speaks with the authority of a 12-year vet. "Very rare," Terry says.

Forward Michael Beasley immediately invokes Maker's "good energy"—the kind of spirit that lifts everyone in his midst—then adds, "He's smart as hell."

And confident.

"I'm going to be an All-Star," Maker says. "I'm going to be a champion. Not just one, multiple times. I'm going to be an MVP. I'm going to be Defensive Player of the Year. Not just once, multiple times. … And the rings part is the biggest one for me. And the Hall of Fame part."

If you didn't meet him and see for yourself, you might think Maker was a fictional creation—the Sidd Finch of basketball.

And if you were skeptical still, it would be understandable. Maker has appeared in just 26 games this season, playing 149 minutes. He's averaging 2.9 points and 1.2 rebounds. He's taken just 48 shots. There is little for anyone to see or appreciate. Though, when Maker does make an appearance at Milwaukee's Bradley Center, he is cheered like a savior.

The Bucks are already stocked with young studs in the frontcourt: newly crowned All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo, rising star Jabari Parker, the rangy John Henson and the burly Greg Monroe.

Maker must wait his turn, which is fine. There are skills to polish, muscles to burnish and moves to master before he is ready to conquer the world.

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Kevin Garnett working with Thon Maker (Courtesy of the Milwaukee Bucks)

You don't compare rookies to legends. It's foolish. But there's Kevin Garnett, the NBA's original mutant—a stretchy, ball-handling, distance-shooting 7-footer—on the far side of the Bucks' practice court, feverishly tutoring Maker, and the similarities are too striking to ignore.

That wiry body. Those limbs. That skill set.

"When I look at Mr. Maker, the first impression you get is: This kid resembles Kevin Garnett a little bit, just in his stature and build," Terry says on this December morning. "And then you watch him play? And you're like, 'Whoa.'"

Sure, cringe at the comparison. But consider that at 19, Garnett was still a curiosity, too—albeit one playing regular minutes for the Minnesota Timberwolves and showing flashes of what was to come.

Superstars are built, not born. Garnett had to add muscle and shooting range and deepen his knowledge of the game over time. He came in at 6'10", 215 pounds. Maker is 7'1", 215 pounds and even less polished.

But the Bucks have a plan.

They also have time, a program and a track record. No NBA team has done a better job of acquiring and developing young talent over the last five years.

In 2013, Antetokounmpo was the mystery of the draft—a long, athletic, unpolished teen from Greece with a hard-to-pronounce name. The Bucks took him with the 15th pick. Today, he's a superstar and perhaps Maker's most important mentor.

"I see some similarities," Antetokounmpo says, and one big difference: "He's a lot better player than me" at the same stage.

Nearly every top prospect arrives amid optimism and glowing reviews. It's the nature of the draft. Many wash out, lacking the drive or the mentality or the basic physical skills to succeed. Some simply get injured. There are no guarantees. And the Bucks are promising nothing.

But the essential elements are all here in this case, and the Bucks have committed an arsenal of resources to build their next star.

"Thon Maker's gonna be the best 7-foot player in this league," Parker told The Lead in a recent interview. "He's going to. He's that good, man."

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Photo by Sara Stathas for B/R Mag

The broad outlines of Thon Maker's biography—four countries, three high schools—would suggest chaos, yet he exudes only resilience.

His family, members of the Dinka tribe, fled Sudan's civil war when he was six. Maker remembers a long drive to Uganda, where he and his five siblings, along with their mother, stayed until receiving visas to move to Perth, Australia. His father stayed behind.

The move was presented to the children as a joyous event, an opportunity to further their educations. Maker recalls a celebration in their honor, with friends and neighbors toasting their future success.

"Mom played us the video in Australia," Maker says. "We were dressed up and in the middle, sitting down on a table. And everybody, the whole community, was in the backyard. And each person would stand up, some of the leaders, and say a message to us."

Maker recalls the adults' admonitions: "'You be yourself. Your dad is this way, he carries himself this way, he leads the family this way. Come back that way. Go over there and don't do foolishness, don't drink alcohol, don't wear your hat backward, don't pull your pants down,' all that stuff."

"It was a big move," Maker says. "I knew how important it was. And I couldn't fail those people. … I had to carry myself a certain way."

In Dinka, the name Maker is pronounced muh-KEHR—with a subtle roll of the "r"—not the Americanized may-kur that has become common since his arrival. He's happy to provide the proper pronunciation when asked, but he quickly demurs, saying, "You don't have to change anything. It's all good."

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Photo by Sara Stathas for B/R Mag

Growing up, Maker knew little of the chaos engulfing his home country. He felt its effects more recently, however, when President Donald Trump temporarily banned entry to the United States from seven countries, including Sudan.

The day the ban went into effect, Maker was in Toronto for a game against the Raptors. NBA officials initially worried that Maker might be impacted, but he travels on an Australian passport and was therefore free to return to the United States. The administration later issued a clarification saying all dual-citizens like Maker are free to come and go.

As a child, Maker's first love was soccer. Basketball came later and was never a serious pursuit, until 2010. That's when he met Edward Smith, founder of the Next Level Basketball academy in Sydney, who was coaching two of Maker's cousins.

By then, Maker was a rail-thin 6'7"—his cousins called him "Long Body"—with only rudimentary skills and whatever moves he could copy from his idol, Kobe Bryant, who he had watched on television.

Smith came to scout a handful of more established kids. Then he saw Maker, flinging odd two-handed jumpers that sometimes went in and sometimes hit the side of the backboard.

"One of the worst players in the gym," Smith says in a telephone interview. Maker's jumper "could be all over the place. But when he shot it, he shot it as if he was Steph Curry."

That spoke to a more important quality: confidence. Or as Smith calls it, "a belief system."

As the scrimmage unfolded, Smith only became more convinced, watching Maker battle on every possession.

Photo by Sara Stathas for B/R Mag

"When you're playing pickup ball, and a guy's taking it so serious as if it's life or death, then you know you got a winner," Smith says. "All these guys thought I was coming over there to see them. And then I left with him."

Maker was initially hesitant to move more than 2,000 miles across Australia for the sake of basketball. He remembered the words of all those well-wishers back in Sudan.

"I was like, 'No, I want to do academics because that's what my dad wants me to do, that's what my mom wants me to do," he says. "And [Smith] is like, 'Well, in the U.S. you can do that. You can do academics, and you can do basketball also. And I believe you can make it to the NBA.'"

The family agreed to let Maker move to Sydney and to give Smith guardianship. Thus began a dizzying basketball journey that would take him to Metairie, Louisiana; Martinsville, Virginia; and, finally, Orangeville, Ontario, where Maker would play for the Athlete Institute while attending a nearby secondary school. Smith accompanied him throughout.

That slick ball-handling? The killer crossover that left the kid in Vegas stumbling backward? It all began with Smith's dribbling drills back in Sydney. Though Maker was already tall for his age, Smith was determined to train him like a guard, to give him the versatility needed in a rapidly evolving game. Also, if he could create his own shots, he wouldn't have to depend on teammates to pass him the ball.

Not that Maker needed much nudging on the subject.

"I wanted to be a guard," Maker says. "I wanted to be 6'8" and stay there."

He laughs.

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Photo by Sara Stathas for B/R Mag

How do you raise an NBA star? Start with a full refrigerator. A large one.

When the Bucks are home, Maker starts his day in the team kitchen, where chef and dietician Shawn Zell feeds him a four-egg omelet, oatmeal and a protein bar, plus white potatoes or hash browns or sweet potatoes.

Two hours later, just before practice, Zell will hand Maker another protein bar and a smoothie. For lunch, a big plate of pasta and two fistful servings of meat. Dinners vary—some protein, some starch, some veggies—and Maker always takes three to four servings.

"He kills our food budget," Zell says, "but he's a pleasure to work with."

The average male in his early 20s consumes about 2,000 calories a day. Maker routinely downs 6,000 to 7,000, more than the offensive linemen Zell used to feed when he worked for the then-St. Louis Rams.

It's not that the Bucks are trying to turn Maker into Shaquille O'Neal; he just burns an incredible amount of energy—"one of the fastest metabolisms I've ever seen," Zell says—and the staff is just trying to keep him fueled.

Maker has the highest aerobic capacity of any Bucks player—which means, if you lined them up and ran them to exhaustion, he would outlast them all.

"Which is a really good sign," says Troy Flanagan, the Bucks' director of performance. "Because if you're bulking somebody up, they have to have that sort of engine to carry the extra mass. Some people you put on extra mass, and it essentially deteriorates their performance. But he's definitely not in that category."

Kevin Garnett working with Thon Maker (Courtesy of the Milwaukee Bucks)

The Bucks are trying to build Maker's muscle mass, but gradually. He's gained about 10 pounds since the summer to bring him up to 215. Eventually, perhaps, he will settle into the 230-240 range—Garnett's playing weight for much of his career—but that could be years away. Adding weight too quickly could lead to soft-tissue injuries. The Bucks intend to be methodical about this.

When Maker arrived, the Bucks measured his muscle mass, limb by limb, using a DEXA scan—essentially, an X-ray of his body composition. That helped shape his workout program, which for now is focused on building up his hips, trunk and quadriceps. (Despite the wiry appearance, Maker already has great upper-body strength, the trainers say.)

In a typical week, Maker will work in the weight room three to four times and log more than 20 miles of running between team practices and individual work.

And it all ties together. The trainers have spent months developing Maker's squat technique and strength, which provides a base for both his jump shot and his defensive stance.

"He squats beautifully," strength and conditioning coach Mike Davie enthuses.

They are working on his acceleration, especially laterally, because today's pace-and-space game requires big men who can defend a lot of ground.

"His ability to, like, tag somebody and get back this way, he's brilliant," Davie says. "He needs some technical work. In terms of speed time, he's as good as anybody on the squad."

If the Bucks needed Maker to play 20 minutes a night, he could. But their stocked frontcourt provides Maker the luxury of developing his body, working, observing, preparing.

"I've never heard him complain about not playing," Davie says. "He understands. And he just gets to work."

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Photo by Sara Stathas for B/R Mag

Steve Novak had conflicting thoughts when he glimpsed the mystery kid at a draft workout last spring. First: "Wow!" Then: "WTF?"

Maker was working his way around the three-point arc on the Bucks' practice court, sinking 12 of his first 14 tries.

"And I was like, 'This guy's unbelievable!'" Novak, the veteran sharpshooter, recalled before being waived by the Bucks on February 2. "And then he would, like, shoot one off the backboard."

So, yeah, there was room for improvement.

When Maker returned in July as the Bucks' top draft pick, the coaches liked what they saw.

    • A smooth jumper that just needed some tweaks.

    • Rudimentary post moves—a hook shot, a fadeaway, a stepback.

    • A deft handle, including that internet-famous crossover dribble.

Mostly, they loved his boundless energy.

"He might not be the most polished," assistant coach Josh Broghamer said of his first glimpse of Maker, "[but] he's contesting every shot. He's trying to guard every player. … He's trying to hit everyone on screens."

It takes a village to raise a prodigy, and every Bucks assistant has spent time with Maker over the last seven months—from 74-year-old coaching legend Tim Grgurich to defensive coordinator Sean Sweeney to big-man coach Greg Foster. Kidd and his top deputy, Joe Prunty, are also deeply involved.

A typical day begins at 7:45 a.m., two hours before practice, and often ends well past sundown, when Maker returns for night shooting sessions. After breakfast, he'll spend 30 minutes in the weight room with Davie, then head to the court for an hour of individual work with Grgurich and Broghamer. All before Kidd whistles the start of practice at 10 a.m.

After practice, Maker might spend another 20-25 minutes going one-on-one with Miles Plumlee or shooting with Antetokounmpo. (Plumlee was traded to Charlotte on February 2.)

Long after sundown, Maker often returns to the gym for his own night shooting sessions. Or at least he did until late January, when the Bucks training staff—concerned that Maker was working too hard—kindly ordered him to stop. Yes, they effectively had to bar the kid from the gym.

"He wants to be great. He's not scared to say it."


Broghamer, the youngest member of the staff at 26, might spend more time with Maker than anyone. He says Maker's jump shot, solid on Day 1, has undergone minor surgery.

When Maker arrived, Broghamer says he was jumping too high—about eight to 10 inches, a needless extra burst for a 7-footer who can already shoot over most opponents—so the Bucks have brought it down to about five inches.

The rationale: High takeoffs fatigue a player faster, leaving him with less lift as the game wears on and thus a harder time replicating his shot.

"The easier the shot is, the easier it is to replicate," he says, echoing one of Kidd's key teaching points. "When you're used to shooting it at a certain point, and you can't get to that point, it's hard to make it consistently."

Maker also had a habit of pausing slightly between the moment he planted his feet and his jump, resulting in a "fling" and a flat shot, Broghamer says. Those mechanics have been adjusted so that every shot begins with a smooth, predictable pattern as he gathers the ball: left foot down, right foot down, then both up together in one fluid motion.

Now? "It's all together. He gets that beautiful arc you saw." Now, when Grgurich asks Maker to shoot from behind the green sideline, 25 to 30 feet from the basket, Maker has no problem delivering an effortless swish.

He would surely benefit from more game reps, but the Bucks do not yet own an NBA D-League franchise.

So Maker keeps working and waiting for opportunities. He made his first start in a January 21 game at Miami, when Parker was benched for disciplinary reasons. The box-score line was modest: six points (1-of-3 shooting), one rebound and one steal in 18 minutes. But his frantic energy was unmistakable.

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Photo by Sara Stathas for B/R Mag

On any given day, Maker might work out with his fellow big men on post play before practice, then join the guards for perimeter footwork sessions after practice. Then he fuses it all together to unleash in his next one-on-one battle with Plumlee, or Monroe, or Antetokounmpo.

That killer crossover-to-stepback move? Maker got Antetokounmpo on it, too.

"He wants to be great," Antetokounmpo says. "He's not scared to say it. Like, he come up to me and be like, 'I'm trying to follow in your footsteps. I'm trying to do what you did. And I'll do whatever it takes.'"

Antetokounmpo had an early advantage: The Bucks were terrible when he arrived, allowing him to join the rotation immediately. He played 77 games as a rookie, including 23 starts, averaging 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds in 24.6 minutes.

But Maker joined a Bucks team on the rise, with sights on the playoffs. Team officials resolved to use this as a development year, meaning his biggest highlights would be confined to the practice court. That may be changing.

Maker recently started back-to-back games at center, alongside Antetokounmpo and Parker, and showed flashes of that tantalizing potential. In a February 1 game at Utah, Maker twice swatted away layup attempts by Jazz star Rudy Gobert, then capped the night with a trio of fourth-quarter three-pointers. He finished with career highs in minutes (24) and points (12).

For a few moments, at least, the world could see what teammates have been gushing about.

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Photo by Sara Stathas for B/R Mag

Teammates have dubbed Thon Maker "The Sheriff" because of his vocal nature, his attention to details and rules, and his eagerness to hold everyone accountable.

The veterans have entrusted him with rule enforcement and fines—even as they make him wear a neon SpongeBob SquarePants backpack on road trips, as part of his rookie hazing.

The rookie is the strongest voice in the locker room. On the bench, he's the one pointing out the blown defensive assignment. But he does it all with a deft, disarming touch.

And teammates accept it, Terry says, because "he's 100 percent right."

Even team executives who considered Maker a gamble were blown away when they interviewed him last spring.

"Off the charts," an Eastern Conference general manager says. "Smart kid. … He's engaging, and funny, mature and well-spoken."

Yet that same GM, like most others around the league, considered it a reach when the Bucks grabbed Maker with the 10th pick.

Because Maker was a late entrant to the draft—after being granted a rare exception to the ban on high school players—few teams had extensively scouted him. He'd hardly played against top competition. Rumors circulated (as they often do with international players) that he was older than his listed age. Scouts fixated on physical traits, like his hand size and his wingspan (7'3")—both deemed small for a player his size.

The Bucks waved it all off. This is a franchise confident in its judgments and its ability to nourish young talent. Milwaukee took Antetokounmpo in the mid-first round of a historically weak draft and snared Henson a year earlier with the 14th pick. Neither was viewed as a future star.

In truth, there are few sure things in the NBA draft, and land mines are everywhere. Risk is inherent and grows the further you get from the top five. Perspective: Two-thirds of the players drafted between 10-19 become backups or worse, according to a DraftExpress study of every draft from 1998-2012. In that same span, just eight of the 150 players taken became All-Stars. Given those results, maybe it's not so crazy to take a high-risk, high-ceiling player at No. 10.

"We look at the risk as being more minimal, only because we believe in the person," Bucks general manager John Hammond says of Maker.

The last two decades are littered with versatile big men who were supposed to be the next Garnett, or the next Dirk Nowitzki, but ended up in the dustbin: Darko Milicic. Nikoloz Tskitishvili. Anthony Randolph. Darius Miles. Jonathan Bender.

A new generation of freakishly skilled (and so far successful) 7-footers is emerging—Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis—and perhaps the Bucks have the next one.

Bold in his picks, reserved in his demeanor, Hammond makes no predictions about what Maker will become. But six months after drafting him, having spent countless hours in Maker's midst, Hammond says, "I even feel more convinced."

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The motto is everywhere, plastered on banners and social media hashtags: "OwnTheFuture." It's more than aspirational.

The Bucks are opening a state-of-the-art training center this summer and a new arena in 2018, by which time they just might have the longest, most versatile lineup in the league: Maker (7'1") alongside Parker (6'8"), alongside Henson (6'11"), alongside their revolutionary point-forward, Antetokounmpo (6'11").

They are collecting unicorns in Milwaukee, plotting for an NBA takeover in the not-so-distant future.

There's a broader vision at work here, and Maker is determined to etch himself into the framework. It will not happen tomorrow or next month or maybe even next season, and for all of his soaring confidence and ambition, Maker knows this, too.

There's a process to follow—thousands of jumpers to take, hours of film to study, endless footwork drills to master. A whole lot of squats. All performed in obscurity, which sort of suits him.

"You gotta have patience," Maker says, sounding again like a 10-year vet instead of a teen. "You have to enjoy what you do to go through it."

Stardom awaits; of this he is certain.

Someday soon, the world will know his name—and perhaps even how to pronounce it.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @HowardBeck.

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