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Starting a new role, Thon Maker is ready to continue NBA journey with Long Island Nets

In his occasional series profiling Long Island’s players and coaches, Alec Sturm takes a look at the well-traveled Thon Maker.

Windy City Bulls v Long Island Nets Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/NBAE via Getty Images

“I took him home the other day, he tried to give me gas money. I’m like ‘bro, I don’t need gas money, we’re going to the same place.’”

That’s Long Island Nets guard Bryce Brown describing his teammate, Thon Marker: generous, fun ... and wanting to get to his next destination as quickly as possible,

A 7-foot, 230-pound center, Maker was drafted 10th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2016 NBA Draft, a lottery pick with some high school and international experience, a development piece. Since then, the now 25-year-old’s NBA journey has included stops in Detroit, Cleveland, and now, in Uniondale, N.Y. with the Long Island Nets of the G League.

Maker’s goal with Long Island is simple: Like any other G League player, he’s working towards an NBA call-up, but says he is present and in the moment with his current team.

“I’m not one foot in one foot out. I want to focus on where I’m at right then and there. And whether there’s attacking each day, practice, each game, shoot-around, or whatever it is, I’m just locked in, and then the chips will fall wherever they fall. But I’m here 100%.”

Teammates in Long Island describe Maker as “very likable,” someone who has been dying to take the team out for dinner since he arrived. “That’s just the kind of guy Thon is,” Brown says. (For the record, the team couldn’t make dinner work while out in Lakeland, but went out to Hibachi during a road trip in Chicago. Eventually, things worked out.)

And it’s not just around his teammates, either. Maker is outwardly joyous when interacting with fans, gracious with the media.

Whether it’s speaking up in team meetings or being a leader in practice, Maker is “an unbelievable human being [and] teammate.” Long Island Head Coach Adam Caporn says, echoing many of his players’ sentiments.

This isn’t the first rodeo — or as it’s known in Australia, bushmen’s carnival — for Maker and Caporn. The two were together on Australia’s FIBA World Cup qualifying team in 2019, a run that is best characterized by a brawl that broke out in a game between Australia and the Philippines, in which Maker was prominently and unfortunately featured.

“The famous Thon Maker kick,” as Maker remembers it. “From then on, as staff and players, we’ve had that bond, that relationship from that moment. But we turned that negative thing into a positive.”

Caporn doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the “highs and lows” of the run (Australia did ultimately qualify for the World Cup) but remembers Maker as the same fun center who’s once again on his roster. The bond is strong: Maker and Caporn have stayed in contact since 2019, and the coach was ultimately a “big reason” as to why he chose the Nets ... and why Caporn was happy to have him.

“I don’t think I’ve seen the best of him as a basketball player yet,” asserts the coach.

In signing with Long Island, Maker joined a playoff-ready G League group, one whose sights are very much set on winning it all at the end of the season. It didn’t start that way. The Nets were a team that didn’t even feature a former NBA player in their starting lineup on the beginning of the regular season (and one of the few G League teams to not have a player sign a 10-day hardship contract when coronavirus swept through the NBA).

Now, Maker, along with signees Treveon Graham and Tyrone Wallace, bring much-needed NBA experience to Long Island. Among them, they have more than 500 games of NBA experience, led by Maker’s 263.

Maker’s impressions of his team? “It’s well ran, that’s the first thing,” he notes.

“They have a great development standard set already. So you [can] just insert a player and everything runs smoothly. When I first got here, they explained everything to me about how they go about developing players, and how they run the whole organization, [and] how they want hard-working people. At the same time, it’s not like they’re restricting you from doing stuff. It’s just more of, ‘okay, this is what we do. We know it works. And we need you to kind of go along with it.’ And so far, you know, it’s been really fun.”

Despite bouncing around between a few NBA teams centered in the Midwest, Maker had never found himself in a G League setting, not with Milwaukee, Detroit, or Cleveland. Now in his first stint in the NBA’s development league, the former lottery pick’s mindset is without hubris.

“For me, my mentality every day is to get better, just attack each day to get better, whether it’s getting shots up [or] working on my body,” he told NetsDaily. “I’m a person that can put pride aside, put egos aside and just find ways to get better.”

“Getting back to being myself, flowing within the game, not thinking too much, just playing the game,” he added. “The biggest goal would be to have an identity that I know. [That way, if] a team hits me up, I can say, ‘okay, this is what you’re going to get out of Thon Maker,’ right. That’s what I’m building over here, and the coaching staff knows it and they’re helping me through it.”

Before joining the Nets, the 7-foot center had a bounty of options available, but none worked out. In the summer, Maker was forced to watch his Australian countrymen fight for Olympic glory — led by current Brooklyn Net Patty Mills — from home.

Even with an offer to join the Boomers in Tokyo, Maker had instead opted to participate in offseason workouts for NBA teams as he explored his next destination.

“I was kind of caught between national team games [and] workouts. As a free agent, you try to solidify something right then and there, soo that was the biggest thing. But I was rooting for those guys from the jump.”

Ultimately, he landed in Israel, with Hapoel Jerusalem. Even without an NBA opportunity clearly in focus, he didn’t want to wait around on his couch, hoping to get that phone call. Playing in Jerusalem was an opportunity to stay fresh.

With his new club, Maker got used to a whole set of new rules and was forced to be a more physically imposing player down low and setting screens.

After an uneventful couple of weeks, player and team came to a “mutual agreement” to part ways. Looking for the next opportunity, Maker mulled over playing in Europe and even going back home to Australia. When 10-day hardship contracts became available in the NBA, his eyes again turned to the United States.

Once Covid-19 had subdued league-wide, the hardship contracts subsequently disappeared as well. And there stood the G League and longtime friend and coach, Adam Caporn.

After not being in an NBA environment for so long, the plan was always to bring Maker along gradually. “Speaking with Coach [Caporn] and the training staff, it was the plan that we agreed on because I haven’t played for a minute,” he said. “Like, I played a little bit in Jerusalem. But after that, my last real game was three months ago. So they wanted me to bring me along slowly.”

Before each game, Maker goes through his pre-game workout with fellow center Adam Woodbury and Long Island Assistant Ben Strong, a former G League center. Strong detailed to NetsDaily the biggest areas of improvement for Maker moving forward:

“Timing, that’s really the biggest thing for him. He’s a vet, he knows how to play. The biggest thing with him is timing, [and] getting his legs back. On defense, he’s a step slow on blocking shots. It’s like he’s right there but a millisecond slow so we’re working on getting his legs conditioned to burst out ... it’s usually from a pick-and-roll situation, [so] getting from the free-throw line to the glass quicker than the guard.”

Here is an example of such a block, from Maker’s time in Cleveland, where he recovers to nail Elfrid Payton’s layup attempt against the glass.

Maker echoes Strong’s sentiments regarding defensive rebounding, blocking shots, and the vitality of timing one’s leaps in doing so. Additionally, he says, “Running the floor is another part I’ve worked on as well. I want to consistently run hard on both ways, running back on defense as well. Those are the areas that have been the biggest focal point for me, on the defensive end. And you know, cause I take pride on the defensive end a lot.”

And on offense?

“[Getting] him picking-and-popping, getting his legs under him for his shot,” said Strong. “He just hasn’t played in a while. And then working on when he’s down low, getting him low so that when I hit him, he doesn’t fall back because he’s kind of a slender guy. It’s all centered around his legs. Once his legs come back, he’s going to be good.”

Maker has struggled shooting the ball thus far as a Net, nailing threes at a rate of only 13%, but has been a very capable shooter from beyond the arc in his past NBA years. He has keyed in on pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll actions in the past year, as well as corner threes, where he is a career 36 percent NBA shooter, per Cleaning The Glass.

“The coaching staff does a good job with those [shots] as well,” Maker notes.

Through a month’s play with Long Island, Maker has slowly found his footing, bringing his per game averages up to about six points, six rebounds, and one block per contest.

But even in a game where he isn’t the most efficient from the field, Maker has been able to make an impact in other ways. Take February 4th’s double-overtime game against the Cleveland Charge, for example. Maker shot only 2-for-12 from the field but hit a dagger 3-pointer to seal the victory for the Nets in the second extra period. That was accompanied by solid defensive play on Cleveland’s towering Tacko Fall, even winning the opening overtime jump ball against Fall, who’s got six inches on him, to set the tone.

Just one game before the mid-season break, Maker notched his season-high in points with the Nets, scoring 13 points along with 8 rebounds in a 115-86 victory against the Grand Rapids Gold.

Maker’s journey has been long and hard, a survivor’s tale. He was born in what is now South Sudan in the middle of the 22-year-long Sudanese Civil War. As a child, he fled across the border with his mother and brothers to Uganda, then across the Indian Ocean as a refugee to Perth in western Australia, not far from Caporn’s hometown, where he first picked up the game. Then, it was across the continent to Sydney and finally to North America, ultimately following the man who mentored him to Toronto where he caught the attention of NBA scouts.

His next stop is sure to be somewhere else. A successful stint in Long Island would help, a title run even more so. The man who’s long had his back, Caporn, thinks Maker can still be a “great basketball player,” as he said at the time of the signing. Brooklyn has no rights to Maker and an NBA team could call him up at any moment. That’s the way the G League works.

One thing remains certain, though. Wherever he is, whoever is paying for gas money, he’ll be grateful for the opportunity, happy he’s made it. Because that’s just the kind of guy that Thon Maker is.