SAINT FRANCIS — OK, admit it, you were surprised as I was Thursday night when the Milwaukee Bucks chose the NBA draft’s mystery man — 7-foot stringbean Thon Maker from Australia — with the 10th overall pick.
None of us should have been.
Bucks general manager John Hammond has done this before. In 2013, he used the 15th pick on another unknown — 6-11 stringbean Giannis Antetokounmpo from Greece — and look how that turned out. Antetokounmpo is the centerpiece of the Bucks’ roster rebuild and is on the verge of becoming an NBA All-Star.
The 218-pound Maker is only 19 years old — we think — and spent last season at a Canadian prep school instead of playing college basketball. Antetokounmpo was 18 and he, too, had never played college hoops before Hammond gambled on his potential three years ago.
Having hit a home run with Antetokounmpo, Hammond kept swinging for the fences Thursday night. Although Hammond declined to compare the two players, he thinks Maker has the size, skill, athleticism and work ethic to join Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker as future stars on a contending team.
“There wasn’t a real body of work to evaluate Giannis from, to be honest with you, and the same thing was true of Thon,” Hammond said. “I can say this, he impressed us. We’ve had a chance to watch him the last couple years. He’s continued to get better. He’s continued to get stronger.”
For a team that needs perimeter shooters and might need a center if Greg Monroe is traded, a project such as Maker might seem like a luxury. However, the NBA is becoming a position-less league and Hammond thinks the versatile Maker will fit right in. The pick also was a sign the Bucks’ rebuilding process is ongoing, that the brass doesn’t think it has acquired enough young talent to change direction, add a few veterans and compete for a title.
“It has nothing to do with the guys on our roster,” Hammond said. “We felt like we wanted to take the best player on the board with this pick ... and also the player with the greatest upside.”
Of course, upside means a player has yet to reach his potential, which certainly applies to Maker, who is very raw. But the question then becomes: Does he have the mindset to become the player the Bucks think he could be?
Hammond is banking on it. Maker impressed him when he came to Milwaukee for a six-player workout, especially when he stuck around afterward to work out by himself for almost two hours.
“You’re always concerned that, can you put your head on the pillow at night knowing that you’ve drafted someone you trust?” Hammond said. “We feel that’s the case with Thon. We knew that he’s going to do everything he can to make himself the best player that he can possibly be. That’s one thing we’re totally assured of. We don’t have to teach him how to work. He knows how to work.
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“We just look at a young player like this with his size, with his athletic ability, his ability to move his feet and the fact that he can stretch the floor right now. He has 3-point range. I think you put all those things together, give him a little time to gain some strength and we think he has a chance to be a special player in the future.”
Although Maker was projected to be drafted anywhere from the late lottery to early in the second round, few scouts dispute his potential. The biggest question is his age.
A recent report said Maker, who was born in Sudan and grew up in Australia, is 22 or 23 instead of 19. The Bucks were burned on the age of an international player once, when then-general manager Larry Harris used a 2007 first-round pick on Chinese forward Yi Jianlian, who proved to be three years older than everyone thought.
“Look, he’s 19 years old,” Hammond said of Maker. “That’s what we have record of. ... We’re comfortable with who he is and what he is.”
So, it seems, is Maker.
“If it were true, I’d probably be sideways about it,” Maker said. “But it’s not true, so I’m comfortable.”
One difference between Maker and Antetokounmpo is their basketball instincts. Even at 18, Antetokounmpo displayed a natural feel for the game. Many scouts have questioned Maker’s feel.
“His experience is limited, but I think he does have a pretty good feel for the game and (he’s) an extremely bright person,” Hammond said. “We think he’s going to have a very high learning curve with that.”
Hammond lauded coach Jason Kidd and his staff for their teaching ability and work ethic. It helped to develop Antetokounmpo and he’s betting it will do the same with Maker, giving the Bucks yet another long, athletic player who can help the team play the kind of defense Kidd prefers.
The Bucks added a potential 3-point shooter and a strong defender when they selected 23-year-old Virginia shooting guard Malcolm Brogdon in the second round, but the big catch was Maker.
“Two or three years down the line, when we’re moving toward that team of owning the future and becoming a championship-caliber team, could you ever have that vision of Giannis and Thon and Jabari on the floor at one time?” he asked rhetorically. “I think it has a chance to be pretty dynamic.”
That approach has worked for the Bucks in the past.