Milwaukee's Thon Maker well ahead on NBA development

Thon Maker sat in front of his locker inside the visitors' room at Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday night after the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Philadelphia 76ers to clinch a playoff berth for the second time in three seasons under coach Jason Kidd.

All around him, Milwaukee players were celebrating the achievement. Maker appeared to be soaking it all in, a smile ever-present on his face as he spoke about his rookie season so far, a year that began inauspiciously for the young Australian.

"It's crazy," Maker told ESPN. "I'm in my first year, now [we've made] the playoffs, it's kind of like a Cinderella story but I can't see it that way. It's a crazy dream!"

After being selected with the 10th overall pick in last June's NBA draft, Maker played very little to begin the season. By the time February rolled over on the calendar, Maker had 23 DNP-CD (did not play-coach's decision) attached to his name, even though he was averaging more minutes each month than the one before.

Then, on January 21, things changed for the rookie.

Kidd started Maker in the Bucks' loss to the Heat, but Maker showed enough in his 19 minutes on the floor to make the coach decide that more playing time was required for his young charge. Since January 21, Maker's minutes have almost tripled from his January average (6.9 to 18.8 per night in April), while his output on both ends of the floor has given the Bucks a much-needed spark.

Since then the team has gone 19-16, and even though Kidd knew that eventually Maker would grow into his role, he admits that he didn't think it would be this soon.

"We found that out early that he was a positive, and we needed him," Kidd said pre-game on Saturday.

"As you can see, his minutes have grown of late. He's grown as a player, and it's actually kind of cool to watch him go from not playing to starting and having that effect on the game."

Maker understood the Bucks' process of bringing him along slowly -- they expressed to him early in the season that it would take time to develop his game and bring it up to NBA-standard. Reflecting on where his rookie campaign began, Maker feels he is ahead of where he imagined himself being at this point of his career.

"I think it's [happened] at a faster development pace," Maker said.

"Initially I thought it was just going to be more of [me] continuing to train, continuing to build my body until next year. This year, as everybody saw in the middle of the season, I'm playing [and] all of a sudden I'm starting and minutes are increasing. I feel like it's [happening] really fast, but at the same time I can't forget I'm still working on getting better."

It's that work ethic that has impressed his teammates most. From learning different offensive moves from Kevin Garnett, to team mandated one-on-one sessions among their big man contingent, to his own late-night shooting drills, Maker has been eager to hone his craft from the get-go.

"He deserved to be in the starting lineup because since day one he's been working hard, talking to everybody," said the team's superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

"He's making the game easier for us and he's going to be ready for the playoffs, too."

Looking back, Maker says the highlight of his rookie year has been the chance to repay management's decision to take a chance on him in last year's draft.

"Playing has been the highlight," he said.

"Before it was mostly practice, and now I'm playing. Before it was practice, garbage minutes here-and-there, but now it's meaningful minutes and I'm getting to start."

Playoff seedings will certainly change by the time the regular season concludes on Wednesday, but if Milwaukee remain in their current position of sixth in the Eastern Conference, a first-round meeting with the Toronto Raptors is likely. Whether they progress from there is unsure, but one certainty is that Maker will unfortunately not be available for the Australian national team this year.

The Boomers will play in the FIBA Asia Cup to be held in Beirut, Lebanon, in late August, and then begin World Cup Qualifiers in November. Maker reassured that talks with Basketball Australia have progressed, but the Bucks prefer the rookies to remain in Milwaukee this summer to practice.

"I spoke with [Boomers assistant coach] Luc Longley about that," Maker said.

"They understand. We know that later on once we get closer to the preparation stage for Tokyo then we'll start to make some moves.

"They understand, they're not worried about it. They understand that as we get closer to Tokyo that's when the real decision making happens. They said right now just continue to get better."