For the fourth year in a row, the future-owning Bucks drafted a teenager with their first-round pick, choosing international big man Thon Maker on Thursday night.
Milwaukee used the No. 10 overall selection – unexpectedly – on the well-traveled and fascinating Maker, giving the team another lanky youngster to add to its core and providing fans endless opportunities for terrible puns on his name.
At 7-foot-1 and 223 pounds, the raw but potential-filled Sudanese-Australian impressed the Bucks – actually, impressed isn’t the right word; he amazed the Bucks – with his personality, character and hardworking attitude, in addition to his high-upside basketball ability.
General manager John Hammond met with the media after the pick and talked, earnestly and ardently, about why he was "really excited" to get Maker.
"You’re always concerned with can you put your head on the pillow at night knowing you’ve drafted someone that you can trust? And we feel that’s the case with Thon," Hammond said. "We know 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.
"We just look at a young player like this, with his size, with his athletic ability, with his ability to move his feet and the fact that he can stretch the floor right now – he has three-point range – and I think when you put all those things together and give him a little time to gain some strength, we think he has a chance to be a special player in the future."
For his part, Maker, who talked to local reporters on speaker phone from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and endearingly apologized multiple times for the noise at the venue, said he was "speechless" and "so excited" to be chosen by the Bucks.
Since he was far from a lock to be a lottery pick, Maker wasn’t invited to sit in the green room at the Barclays Center. Nevertheless, he came anyway and sat in the stands. In an interview at the draft, Maker was asked what he would bring to the Bucks, and he echoed Hammond’s sentiments.
"A lot. A lot. As a person, first and foremost, just being a great person off the court. I feel like it’s going to affect a lot of people," he said. "People usually say nowadays that playing hard is the new skill, or having a motor is a new skill. For me, it was just always having that work ethic and just continuing to work hard."
Hammond pointed to Maker’s unfathomable upbringing and peripatetic life as foundational elements of his remarkable makeup.
Maker was born in South Sudan – reportedly 19 years ago, though his age has been disputed – but, as a young child, was able to escape that country’s brutal civil war, eventually moving with some family members to Australia. Initially a soccer player there, Maker soon discovered basketball, fell in love with the sport and immediately showed great promise.
After attending a talent camp in Texas, Maker moved to the United States in 2012, settling in Louisiana and dominating the high school competition, averaging 22.4 points, 13.1 rebounds and 4.6 blocks over his freshman and sophomore seasons.
In 2014, Maker took his talents north. Along with his brother, he moved to Ontario, Canada, enrolling at and playing for Orangeville Prep, a program associated with the Athlete Institute. After first reclassifying into the Class of 2015 and then deciding to remain in the 2016 class at Orangeville, Maker got the opportunity to represent the World Select squad at the 2015 Nike Hoop Summit and also competed in several other high-profile tournaments, attracting recruiting interest from the top U.S. college programs.
On April 3, though, he declared his intention to bypass college and enter the 2016 NBA Draft. Having fulfilled the league’s minimum-age, high-school graduation and one-year-removed requirements, Maker proceeded to wow teams, including Milwaukee, at the Draft Combine and in workouts, where he showcased his unique combination of height, leaping ability and surprisingly accurate outside shooting.
Hammond doesn't think Maker's thin frame will be an issue, suggesting that when the rookie meets with Bucks training staff, he'll be able to put on weight and add strength. The general manager also isn't concerned about Maker’s lack of experience playing against elite competition, noting that the team had been scouting him the past two years.
"He’s got some steps of growth to go through, but … he’s very multifaceted at that young age and at seven-feet tall," Hammond said. "He has the ability to handle the ball more effectively than we realized, he has good vision with the ball and the fact that he shoots it makes it extra exciting.
"His experience is limited, but I think he does have a pretty good feel for the game, and he’s an extremely bright person, so we think he’s going to have a very high learning curve with that."
Throughout his 10-minute discussion of the draft choice, Hammond reiterated just how extraordinary Maker’s intelligence and work ethic were to the Bucks. To help make his point, Hammond relayed a story from Maker’s June 15 workout, a six-man session at the Cousins Center practice facility that he said typified the player’s assiduous approach.
After the workout ended and everyone had showered, Maker was waiting for some members of Bucks management, who were taking him to dinner that night. By the time Hammond came down to the gym, Maker was back out on the floor, where he worked with a couple Milwaukee assistant coaches for another hour and 45 minutes.
"The blueprint (for his development) is real simple," Hammond said. "It’s called hard work, and it’s going to happen right here in this gym. That’s the most important thing, and he wants it."
Added Maker on Thursday night, "Whatever I do, academics or basketball or other things, I always go 100 percent. I enjoy the good results and the bad results, I learn from them. Being a competitor, that’s always been in me. My enjoying the game, just playing the game and loving the game, it will do good things for you."
Considered a high-risk, high-reward prospect, Maker’s selection by Milwaukee at No. 10 was called a swing-for-the-fences pick by many on social media. Hammond was asked if Maker’s hardworking and high-character nature gave the Bucks increased confidence that he’d do everything in his power to reach his skyscraping ceiling.
"That was probably the real key component for us," Hammond said. "I think from every step that we took … we saw a kid that we thought had very strong determination and desire."
After bringing Maker in, getting to know him, doing background work, psychological profiling, information-gathering and, especially, sitting down with him in the car on the way to dinner, Hammond was sold. "He convinced us that he’s going to work that hard, and we believe in him," Hammond said.
Maker said he, too, had a positive memory from that day in Milwaukee – and he recalled it vividly.
"Spending the afternoon with them, having lunch and then dinner, the car ride with John, very detailed," he said of his recollections. "I remember it perfectly. It really gave me a hint that this might be it."
How did those five other workout participants react when Maker got right back on the court after the training session ended?
"Some of these college guys are surprised I want to stay in the gym and work more," he said. "Just wanting to get more shots up, it shocked them. Some of them said, ‘Man you’re crazy for wanting to stay.’ But I enjoy it."
Hammond said the team did its due diligence, exploring options for trading up or down – many fans and media believed there was a strong chance Maker would still be available later in the draft – but Maker was always the man. "At the end of the day, we liked the player, we stayed with the pick and we feel good about it tonight," Hammond said.
He said the prospect of playing Maker with up-and-coming stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker was exciting and indicated the rookie will be a rostered player that will have the opportunity to earn NBA minutes. He dismissed a question about whether the selection of the young center meant the team was moving on from Greg Monroe, who signed a $50 million free-agent contract last offseason but seemed ill-suited for the squad.
"We felt like we wanted to take the best player on the board with this pick and also the player with the greatest upside, and that was the pick that we made," Hammond said. "It had absolutely nothing to do with the roster as is."
The general manager, who joked after selecting 23-year-old Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon in the second round that the Bucks had thus added veteran leadership, rejected the notion that Maker might be that same age, which has been speculated due to uncertainty from his tumultuous early life.
"No, look, he’s 19 years old; that’s what we have record of," Hammond said. "We’ve kind of been through this before with international guys; sometimes guys are questioned about age, and it’s tough. You look at a guy like Thon Maker, where he came from in the South Sudan, and it’s a difficult situation, but we’re comfortable with who he is and what he is."
Maker laughed off the notion in his draft interview. "It’s not true, so I’m comfortable. I’m not pissed off – or I’m not angry or anything," he said, realizing his original expression wasn’t preferred. "I’ve got to learn what I can say and what I can’t say now."
What Hammond and the Bucks can say is nothing but good things about their new first-round pick. While the veteran personnel man would content later there wasn’t a focus on drafting for character – even though he spent a great deal of time lauding that trait in Maker and Brogdon – Hammond clearly appreciates the added bonus of landing a player with high class to match his high upside.
"The one thing that we took away from this is who he was as a person," Hammond said of Maker. "He’s a young man who’s been through an awful lot. He’s had a long journey to arrive here, but I think maybe he appreciates it a little more than others.
"I’m telling you, we fell in love with him as a young man. Just a great guy, extremely bright, extremely articulate and we think he’s going to be a good fit for the guys on this team as we stand."
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.