“Kudos to Thon Maker.”
Marcus Morris gave credit where credit was due after the Bucks delivered a good old-fashioned beatdown on the Celtics Friday night.
Maker, who had played just a minute of playoff basketball this season, logged 24 minutes off the bench to help lift Milwaukee to a 116-92 win on its home court. He scored 14 points and blocked five shots, but the contributions off the stat sheet — his “energy” and “activity” — stood out more to Bucks coach Joe Prunty.
“He made a lot of plays on both sides of the ball that are critical in terms of winning the game, in terms of hustle plays,” Prunty told reporters after Game 3. “I keep mentioning the blocks, but those are plays where he’s running from behind sometimes. He wasn’t always there meeting somebody, he was just continuing to stay in the play.”
Maker’s performance may have been surprising to some, if not most. The 21-year-old averaged just 4.8 points and three rebounds this season, and after the series’ first two games, it didn’t seem all that likely his role as a reserve would progress into anything impactful. But there was at least one person who was confident a breakthrough would come.
It was none other than former Celtics forward Kevin Garnett.
Garnett, in an interview with Bleacher Report in December, went as far to tap Maker as a future NBA MVP. The 41-year-old said the youngster reminds him a lot of himself, “a young, exuberant athlete who has a lot of tools,” and specifically highlighted Maker’s touch, agility, and footwork.
“Thon is going to be the MVP of the league one day,” Garnett told B/R’s Jonathan Abrams. “Mark it down. He has the bones. He has the appetite to be able to chase something like that.”
Garnett worked with Maker and the Bucks throughout the regular season, visiting from time to time for one-on-one lessons during practice. Maker told Boston.com the pair worked a lot on optimizing his “speed and quickness,” but he stressed Garnett’s instruction on the mental aspects of the game resonated the most.
“He emphasized just taking my time in terms of making moves, and maintaining that mental edge and that attack mindset when you get into the game on the defensive end and on the offensive end,” Maker said. “In terms of preparing, in terms of playing the game, talking the game, teaching the game, he’s great. He’s very great. He’s got it all because he experienced it — and he knows how to teach it again.”
Maker lived up to Garnett’s high expectations Friday night when an opportunity opened up after Bucks center John Henson was ruled out with a back injury. Former Celtic Tyler Zeller got the start, but it was Maker who made the difference.
In the days leading up to the game, Maker and Garnett were actually texting — a conversation that was inspired by a video Garnett posted to Twitter Wednesday.
“I sent him that video with the link first and I said, ‘This is very motivating,'” Maker told reporters during practice Saturday. “He said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. When you go out there, you’re not there to make friends. You’ve got to bring that energy and you’ve got to bring that toughness. You have nothing to lose. You’ve got to go play hungry.’ So I was ready.”
You call it crazy. We call it KG. pic.twitter.com/MtbsdBO3BN
— KG's Area 21 (@KGArea21) April 18, 2018
Garnett’s video captures much of what he hopes to impart upon Maker: “You gotta be a little crazy to play this game.” One’s attitude and intensity — two of Garnett’s defining qualities — can be what takes a player’s game to the next level.
“He’s a beast,” Maker told Boston.com after a long pause. “His approach to the game, mentally, he’s just got that mindset. And in terms of physically playing the game, he’s already got it. He’s a legend.”
While he’s flattered by Garnett’s high hopes for him, Maker is not complacent.
“It makes you feel good, but you gotta understand you got a long way to go,” he said. “It’s up to you to continue working. If you don’t work, then you fail those people. For me, I know I have a long way to go, I know I got to put in the work. I just got to do it.”
Maker’s role has only continued to evolve since the Bucks selected him with the 10th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. After seeing limited action during the first half of the regular season, he was a part of the starting five — as a rookie — during Milwaukee’s lone playoff series against the Raptors last season.
“I think the biggest thing for him is he’s continuing to grow,” Prunty told Boston.com. “He’s going to grow every day. That’s, I think, the beauty of him. He’s got a high motor and a high level of passion for playing basketball. He’s got a good skill set in terms of he can do multiple things on the floor. He’ll continue to get better as he gets more experienced. He’ll get stronger as he continues to develop. He brings a lot to the table. There’s no question about that.”
Prunty, who took over as interim head coach in January, had nothing but praise for Garnett’s work with Maker and the team. Not only did he find Garnett’s involvement with the Bucks beneficial for the players, but his interactions with the 15-time All-Star were also invaluable.
“Kevin walks into a room and there’s an automatic electricity,” Prunty said. “His personality takes over and you embrace what he says because he’s passionate. He’s got that enthusiasm and then there’s the knowledge that comes with it, too. I mean, Ticket is an amazing man and I give him a lot of credit through the years for the things he’s been able to accomplish.”