January 19, 2018

Shrugging off years of conservative thinking regarding jump-shooting teams and winning titles, the Golden State Warriors were crowned NBA Champions in 2015 after shedding rim-protecting big man Andrew Bogut in favor of wingman Andre Iguodala to solve a rugged Cleveland Cavaliers team.

In many ways their victory was the culmination of years of the NBA seemingly shifting away from big men, becoming a guard’s league.

Once thought absolutely necessary to succeed at the highest levels, rim-protecting big men Bogut and Timofey Mozgov were relegated to the bench during crucial stretches of the NBA Finals. On July 20, NBA TV aired a coaches edition of Open Court in which Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale explained how the Warriors bucked common knowledge:

“The skill level is coming back, and I think that’s why people are playing small guys now, because small guys tend to be more skilled,” McHale said. “But I can guarantee you one thing; tall and skilled beats small and skilled all the time.”

And then as if to emphasize his point, McHale took a shot at the Warriors’ successful strategy of defending the likes of Mozgov or Tristan Thompson with the smaller Draymond Green.

“[Green] couldn’t grow enough to guard me,” McHale joked.

Not every team can gather enough skilled big men to overcome the advantages of the Warriors versatile roster, and even fewer can find enough talented wings to match their style. What the future of the league will look like as teams try to adjust is anybody’s guess, but at the Athlete Institute Academy in Orangeville, Ontario some may be getting a glimpse of it in Thon Maker.

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Squint your eyes and you can almost see glimpses of a Kevin Garnett-like frame showcasing hints of a Kevin Durant-like perimeter game, leading SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell to describe Maker as an NBA prospect from the future:

“Let’s back up for a second: we all remember the ultra-skinny 7’1 forward who drew national headlines off a mixtape in February 2014, right? At the time, Maker seemed like a basketball prospect sent to Earth from 200 years in the future. Here was a player as tall as anyone in the NBA crossing people over in transition, raining three-pointers, blocking shots and dunking on anyone who got in his way. He was drawing comparisons to Kevin Durant and Kevin Garnett. The footage was that impressive.”

The thought of a 7’1” big man carving up defenders with savvy ball-handling ability and dashing to the hoop is enough to make opposing teams quiver should Maker reach his full potential.

The hype surrounding Maker wasn’t so hot last year. Shortly after transferring to the Athlete Institute, the Sudanese’s weaknesses were exposed. At a lanky seven-feet tall and reportedly south of 200 pounds during the 2015 Nike Hoops Summit, Maker seemed too skinny and fragile, managing just two points (but grabbing 10 rebounds) against the best players in the 2015 class.

Consequently, the talented yet inchoate prospect decided to stay in the high school class of 2016 to improve his game and add strength, reportedly packing on 27 pounds of muscle and becoming much more of a force inside the paint, developing into a top-10 recruiting prospect with offers from Arizona, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville and Indiana.

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“If one of these big guys that just got drafted becomes dominant on the inside, everybody will have to have people who can guard them,” Brooklyn Nets coach Lionel Hollins said during the previously referenced Open Court special.

Since adding weight, Maker has displayed the type of aggression around the rim that scouts want to see, impressively blocking shots and bludgeoning opponents inside for rebounds and easy points in a manner that has drawn those Garnett comparisons. In a showdown last month against DeAndre Ayton, a center who’s widely considered as the best prospect in the high school class of 2017 after dominating the University of North Carolina’s starting frontcourt in an exhibition game as a high school sophomore. Maker absolutely dominated. In fact, he obliterated the University of North Carolina’s starting lineup as a high school sophomore. From ESPN’s Jeff Borzello’s account of the Under Armour All-America Camp exhibition:

“Maker forced Ayton to the bench with three early fouls and completely dominated. His motor never stopped running and he was constantly attacking the rim, either by running the floor or making plays in the half court. He finished with 23 points (which might have been a little low, to be honest) and 17 rebounds, while Ayton went for seven points and six rebounds.”

Maker’s seven-foot frame gives him a clear advantage. Even still, it’s his size combined with his ball handling and shooting ability that intrigues the most.

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Bogut and Mozgov were rendered obsolete in the NBA Finals, cast aside in favor of skilled perimeter players who can create plays and make smart, quick decisions. But that doesn’t mean that big men who possess size and skill are no longer of great value. The Warriors are still a better defensive team when they have Bogut on the floor, it’s just that the defensive drop off is minute compared to the offensive gains received with Green at center.

The circumstances that created the Warriors’ deep, versatile roster are hard to replicate. They can adapt to any opponent they face, dictating the style. Inserting a player with Maker’s size and skill set could work as a deadly counter to the prevalent smaller lineups that have become vogue in the NBA. The Warriors like to switch defensive assignments to prevent breakdowns, and Maker might eventually have the ability to switch his approach with each new defender, scoring over the top of the undersized Green and taking Bogut out to the perimeter, outside of his comfort zone.

It’s still too early to tell if the young prospect can live up to his potential, but he’s certainly showing signs of promise. If skill is increasingly more valuable as McHale stated, and skilled size still trumps all, what might the future of the NBA look like? Prepare to meet Thon Maker.

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