3 goals: Thon Maker – win playing time on merit in 2019-20
(Editor’s note: Today continues a series looking at the 17 players – 15 under standard contracts, two on two-way deals – who comprise the 2019-20 Pistons roster heading into the home stretch of the off-season. Today: Thon Maker. Coming Monday: Christian Wood.)
Going into the 2016 NBA draft, Thon Maker was the man of mystery. Three years into his career, a lot of those questions remain open.
The Pistons took a shot that some of the answers would start to take shape on their watch when they traded their 2015 lottery pick, Stanley Johnson, a few months ahead of his restricted free agency to acquire Maker more than a year ahead of his.
For now, Maker’s value is largely on the defensive end and mostly tied to two attributes: his extraordinary length and his above average lateral mobility.
In an NBA that increasingly values mobile big men who enhance a defense’s ability to cover more of the half court, that gives Maker a niche. How well he fills it will be determined by how much he can get out of a body that measured 7-foot-¾ but only 216 pounds at the 2016 draft combine.
Maker immediately became the No. 3 big man behind Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin upon joining the Pistons, largely out of need. Backup center Zaza Pachulia faded after the All-Star break and Jon Leuer never really hit his stride after a late-summer knee injury stalled his recovery from the previous season’s ankle surgery.
The Pistons shouldn’t need to lean so heavily on Maker in 2019-20 after signing veteran Markieff Morris to ease the burden on Griffin but also to give Dwane Casey the luxury of playing him as a small-ball center against the increasingly frequent lineups that require one.
Casey’s practice is to give his players their three core values to the team on the night before the first day of training camp. In keeping with that protocol with a slight twist, we’ll look at the three goals for each player on the roster heading into the 2019-20 Pistons season. For Thon Maker, those are …
EARN MINUTES – As noted above, Maker’s minutes last season came out of pure need. Johnson was the primary backup for Griffin at power forward and the Pistons needed Maker not only at that spot but at center on nights Pachulia’s matchup with the increasing number of mobile second-unit centers was unfavorable for the Pistons. The addition of Morris means Maker will have to earn his minutes this season and it will be a great sign for Pistons frontcourt depth if he does so. At his best, Maker can be a disruptive defender from the 3-point line to the rim with his 7-foot-3 wing span and his 9-foot-2¼ standing reach and a perimeter shooting threat even when playing at center.
ADD STRENGTH – Maker’s lack of strength shows up at both ends. He struggles to hold post position defensively. Stronger players muscle him closer to the rim, to a degree negating his length and ability to alter shots. He’ll get his hands on a ton of missed shots at the offensive end, but has difficulty carving out enough space to go back up and convert. Maker’s frame always will limit him to some degree in those pursuits, but even incremental strength gains would be helpful. He’s got enough going for him in other areas that if he can hold his own against a greater percentage of opponents in the post or convert offensive rebounds into points at a slightly higher rate to stay on the floor longer, his ability to be a disruptive defender – clogging passing lanes, shutting down a perimeter pick and roll and recovering to blunt weak-side penetration to the rim – can be put to greater use by Casey.
HONE THE 3-POINT STROKE – Maker is a most willing 3-point shooter – a whopping 56 percent of his shot attempts with the Pistons came from the arc – but he remains a subpar marksman, though not by much. It’s not at all unusual for young players to struggle with 3-point accuracy as they adapt to the strength of NBA players, the greater shooting distance and the speed of defenders. Still just 22, Maker is a 32 percent career 3-point shooter in a league where the average is 35.5. That’s a pretty reasonable accuracy figure given his age and the fact he’s not a finished product physically and buoys optimism that he’ll follow the arc of many young players in becoming a more proficient perimeter shooter over time. If Maker maintains his 3-point attempt rate and improves to roughly NBA average at 35 or 36 percent, he’ll be on his way to becoming a consistently positive contributor. He’s also got the potential to become a driving threat – at minimum, a one- or two-dribble weapon – to capitalize on closing defenders as his improved 3-point threat is realized.