With his Detroit Pistons future unsettled, Thon Maker puts his best foot forward
Brian Sevald (NBAE/Getty)
One of Thon Maker’s coaches sent a boxing video along to pass the idle time amid the NBA’s endless off-season. “See if you can spot yourself in this situation,” he said to accompany the epic “Rumble in the Jungle” fight that pitted Muhammad Ali and George Foreman from 1974.
“Right away, I knew. I felt on the defensive end, that would be me, Ali, siting on the ropes and taking the punches,” Maker said as Pistons team camp wound down last week. “That would be me, guarding the big guys, taking all the hits and still standing my ground. And on offense, I’d be that guy like Ali – tire them out, be on the move, make them tired. That was a great video to watch and relate to.”
To extend the analogy, Maker’s career at some level is on the ropes. Four years after being drafted 10th overall by Milwaukee, Maker’s immediate future is in doubt. The Pistons could retain him for 2020-21 by extending a qualifying offer that would pay him $3.6 million. But that’s an unlikely outcome given Maker’s resume. The likelihood is Maker will become an unrestricted free agent, which would allow the Pistons – or any other team – to offer a contract of lesser value.
While Dwane Casey unfailingly praises Maker’s work ethic and attitude, the Pistons will be mindful of cap space and roster spots as they seek opportunities to up their talent base and stockpile assets as they transition under new general manager Troy Weaver. Maker, Casey said, had shot the ball extremely well in individual workouts before the team camp and he was looking forward to seeing the matchup between Maker and Justin Patton, the No. 16 pick of the 2017 draft whose career was derailed by a series of foot injuries.
That matchup was short-circuited by a broken finger for Patton that required surgery, but Maker put his contract status out of mind as he approached camp.
“I’ve always loved Detroit since the first day I got here,” he said. “I just focus on the basketball and that’s between my agent and the team. My focus is to come here in this bubble and just play. Just have fun.”
After the March 11 suspension of the NBA season, Maker stayed in Detroit during the mandated two-week quarantine and then – uncertain over the availability and safety of air travel – drove to his off-season home in California. He ordered weights and conditioning equipment on Amazon and made the best of it there in a group that included his younger brother, Matur, and his cousin, 7-footer Makur Maker, who made headlines earlier this year by becoming the rare five-star recruit to sign with an HBCU, Howard University.
“It was the perfect setup,” he said. “There were three of us. We played somewhere between 10 to 14 one-on-one games a day. We were in the gym two times for basketball and in the weight room one time and we just played. Did drills, but played a lot, getting better every single day – perfect setup.”
Maker, still just 23, averaged 13 minutes, 4.7 points and 2.8 rebounds a game in 60 appearances for the Pistons last season. His 3-point attempt rate – the percentage of shots taken from the 3-point arc – fell well below his career rate of .412 to .332 as Casey reined in Maker except for corner threes.
“He’s shooting the three much better,” Casey said early in team camp. “Last year, I told him to step back from the arc three, but the corner three he had the green light. But this summer, he’s really grown to make the arc three.”
“It’s been a huge focus,” Maker said. “I’ve been working on my total game. I know I said we played a lot of one on one, but focusing on finishing in the paint, finishing strong, shooting the ball and playing while moving stead of being stationary.”
If Maker can make incremental gains in a handful of areas – the arc three, strength to better defend the post and finish near the rim, as a facilitator – he’ll solidify his case to stick in Detroit in some capacity. He’s already proven himself to Casey in one very critical area.
“Thon is Thon. That’s a skill when you bring it every day,” Casey said. “You know what you’re going to get from Thon Maker. He brings that to the court each and every day. That’s hard to replace.”