ST. FRANCIS, WI - JUNE 24: Milwaukee Bucks draft picks Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker participate in a press conference with general manager John Hammond and head coach Jason Kidd of the Milwaukee Bucks at the Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin Training Center on June 24, 2016 in St. Francis, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

Bucks offseason: Maker’s development, free agency approach, and more

The NBA Draft often sheds light on the direction a franchise is moving towards, whether that be rebuilding, retooling, or outright going for broke.

Coming into last season, the Bucks were seen as one of the teams set to make a leap. Milwaukee had come off an expectations-defying 41 win season, signed Greg Monroe, and would feature Jabari Parker returning from injury. TNT’s Charles Barkley went as far as saying that the young Bucks would be Cleveland’s toughest challenge in the Eastern Conference.

The Bucks didn’t even have a chance to prove him right, as they missed the playoffs entirely. On the way to finishing a disappointing 33-49, the team’s season was marred by maddening inconsistency, highlighted by big wins like handing the Warriors their first loss of the season, but also some head-scratching losses.

As disappointing as the season turned out to be, the team still found enough success to land a low lottery pick, as opposed to a high one. In what many experts called a two player draft, picking at 10 meant there was little chance of drafting a player capable of making a major impact as Milwaukee looked to return to the playoffs, but the team could have certainly added a rookie to join the rotation as a role player.

Instead, Milwaukee went in a different direction and selected Thon Maker. If ever a high risk, high reward player it would be Maker. With a freakish wingspan and video game athleticism, Maker fits the mold of Jason Kidd’s desire to play positionless basketball both offensively and defensively. The only problem is that Maker is still very raw in terms of developing a skill set. That said, as many have been quick to point out, few years ago the Bucks drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was Thon Maker, before Thon Maker and it’s turned out pretty well.

The one concern with drawing that comparison was that the Bucks were absolutely atrocious in Giannis’ rookie season. While Giannis has certainly put in a lot of time developing his game off the court, a huge reason his development has been so quick was because of the large amounts of playing time he got his rookie year.

Missing the playoffs last season was a disappointment, according to Jason Kidd and ownership. That means Milwaukee will be playing to win. This raises the question: how much will Maker play and can he develop the way the team wants? Normally, teams that make picks like this are years away from the playoffs, let alone trying to contend. Milwaukee isn’t that far from the playoffs, and if the head coach and ownership are both pushing to make the playoffs, where exactly does that leave Maker and his development?

If the Bucks have decided that the playoffs are their goal a useful tool would be to compare Maker to the career of another player in a similar situation, one who was involved in his own share of news on draft night – Serge Ibaka. When Ibaka entered the league, he joined a team headlined by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Jeff Green.

Serge Ibaka was a raw talent, when drafted. In fact, it’s the reason he was selected at 24, despite looking like he had been chiseled out of marble. Playing in front of him was Jeff Green, the original third wheel for the Thunder’s Big 3 (later replaced by Harden, and then Ibaka, and now Oladipo). Jeff Green was selected three spots after Kevin Durant and later traded away, so that the Thunder could start Ibaka.

In his rookie season, Ibaka played 18 minutes per game, averaging 6 points and 5 rebounds, helping the team to a 50 win season. The season prior to that OKC only won 23 games. It’s important to note that James Harden also joined the team the same year as Ibaka, which certainly played a huge role in the Thunder’s huge leap, but it shows that Maker could have a strong impact off the bench in his rookie year for a team aiming to reach the playoffs.

The main area Ibaka helped the Thunder in his first year was his defense. In limited minutes, he was already a huge factor blocking shots and protecting the rim. In fact, throughout his entire career Ibaka only has had one season where his offensive +/- was positive (a meager 0.2), but defensively he has been positive every season.

A motif in the NBA is that defense is largely an effort-related talent, and combined with his physical tools, Maker could make a huge impact defensively and on the glass. In fact, one of Milwaukee’s biggest weaknesses was a lack of rebounding, and Maker can earn some playing time if he attacks the glass.

Developing offensively will be a slow process, especially considering the Bucks have a lot of other young players, who need the ball (Giannis, Jabari, and Middleton). However, if Maker can earn his playing time defensively, he should be able to generate opportunities, just from being on the court.

A key skill of Ibaka’s was his high field goal percentage early in his career. Through his first five seasons, Ibaka never shot below 53%, meaning he took advantage of any opportunities he got through the flow of the offense. In recent years, that completely changed. Ibaka’s three-point attempts jumped from 123 in his first five years to 389 in the last two. Needless to say, his field goal percentage plummeted and the skills that made him so good in the first place began to atrophy. Milwaukee cannot make the same mistake with Maker.

Maker is still too raw of a talent to simply throw the ball to and ask to score, but if he takes incremental steps each season could become a well-polished player on offense. Unlike Giannis, Thon will have to really earn his way onto the court and have to have a more immediate impact, just based on what the franchise’s goals are right now.

It’s certainly an interesting tradeoff to have him develop skills incrementally, as opposed to many at once like with Giannis, but it could help Maker carve out a more specific role for himself going forward. One of the reasons Ibaka struggled in recent years was because the Thunder developed him to be a strong force on defense and through his rebounding, but completely changed the way they used him on offense. The Bucks will need to decide within two to three years, what exactly they deem Maker’s ceiling to be and make sure that they develop him accordingly.

A driving force behind drafting Maker was that he is still very young, and has a lot of room to grow. He could serve the Bucks extremely well in a few years, just as Milwaukee is really edging into the contention conversation. However, a lot of that depends on what they foresee his role to be. If the team thinks he can become a superstar, they need to play him big minutes. If they don’t, then having him develop in the same way Ibaka did would be the way to go, but they cannot expect him to become a kind of player they didn’t develop him to be.

That said, the Bucks as a team have some glaring holes to patch up still, namely 3-point shooting. Free agency begins in a few days, and it will be interesting to see whether the team makes any win-now signings, namely to address their perimeter shooting. This means that Milwaukee needs to focus on adding role players, not stars. Last offseason, signing Greg Monroe implied a desire to move in a win-now direction, but drafting Maker may be a sign that Milwaukee would rather slow down and take their time.

A huge factor in the team’s success will also be the development of Giannis and Jabari. Both still have a lot of areas of their game, which they need to improve and build on. The key for the team’s improvement should be through their development. There are continued rumblings about the team going after a player like Dwight Howard, but ultimately that kind of signing doesn’t necessarily mean the Bucks will be in the championship conversation and would only hurt the younger players.

Milwaukee needs to decide between development and winning now, and the moves over the last two seasons have been all over the map. Trading Knight for Carter-Williams was definitely a development move, but then signing Monroe was geared towards winning. Drafting Maker echoes more towards a long-term move, but if that is the case the Bucks need to stay consistent in free agency and not sign players, who would take the ball away from their young stars.

Winning always creates heightened expectations, but the team needs to show some patience. The team has been consistent that Giannis and Jabari are the future, but it’s time they act like it. Drafting Maker was a good first step, but if the organization wants to reach the playoffs, it has to be through their young stars and not through signing veteran players to help accelerate the process.

The franchise cannot continue to preach development, while having an unrealistic urgency to win. Giannis is 21, Jabari is 21, Middleton is 24. Most NBA stars begin to reach their prime starting at age 27, Milwaukee has years before their core rounds into championship contention, and moves like adding Thon Maker are the right ones.

Reaching the playoffs is a perfectly reasonable goal, but that mandate needs to fall on the young core. That also means that players like Bayless, Mayo, and Vasquez need to go. Signing veteran players aimed at providing a boost to the team’s playoff hopes is detrimental to the core’s development. Every team needs veteran leadership, and the Bucks from two years ago are a testament to that, but the type of veteran players they sign moving forward is of paramount importance.

Bayless, Mayo, and Vasquez are all ball-dominant guards. Instead, the Bucks should focus on players, who are adept at moving the ball, and either shooting or rebounding. Ones who address needs and can play well off the ball, allowing the younger stars to develop. Potential free agents of this type include: Nicolas Batum, Courtney Lee, Marvin Williams, Joakim Noah, Zaza Pachulia, Luol Deng, Arron Afflalo, Gerald Henderson, David West, and James Johnson.

Each of these players addresses specific needs for the Bucks, while also allowing Giannis, Jabari, Middleton, and Maker to develop, but what separates them is that none of them are ball-dominant players. The perimeter options are all players who excel at catching and shooting, while providing solid defense, and help to keep the ball moving, as none are “ball-stoppers”. The low-post players all help provide the interior defense and rebounding, Milwaukee sorely lacked, but are also very good passers. In particular, Joakim Noah is one of the premier passers out of the post and high elbow.

The Bucks need to build a team around their core, instead of trying to make their core fit with the players they add. The team’s success is contingent on that, and drafting Maker is a good first step, but they cannot continue to take one step forward and two steps back. Within the entire NBA, Milwaukee is one of the few teams that has two potential superstars and a third star to boot, all of whom are under the age of 25. It’s time to build on that core and following a successful draft, the next step is signing the right kind of free agents.

Buckle up, Bucks fans. The best basketball is still ahead.

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