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Thon Maker and the sophomore slump

MILWAUKEE – After a strong close to last year’s regular season and a breakout performance in the Milwaukee Bucks' first round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors, much was expected from Thon Maker in his second year. Thus far, he has not quite lived up to those expectations.

Maker started the first seven games of the season before being moved to the bench to make room for Henson in the starting lineup. Henson has thrived with the starters, while Maker has struggled with bench units.

Despite seeing his minutes per game nearly double this season, Maker’s scoring has only risen slightly to 4.6 points per game and, until hitting six of his last eight threes, Maker was shooting just 28 percent from deep after hitting 37.8 percent behind the three-point line last season.

“He’s got to keep playing hard,” Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “He’s doing the right thing in practicing hard and playing hard. It’s going to show on the court like it has the two previous games. And moving forward, we have to keep him accountable to do that every night and help us every night.”

Maker’s last two games have been particularly strong offensively with 16 points and four rebounds in 18 minutes against the Raptors and 12 points and four rebounds in 22 minutes against the Pacers. He has also hit six three pointers in the last three games after largely excising looks from deep from his game in December.

With a couple of strong performances in the last week, I decided to chat with Maker about the last week, his teammates’ advice, his season thus far, a potential “Sophomore Slump”, and the support he has received from Antetokounmpo. Here is our conversation:

ESPN Milwaukee: What have these last two games been like for you? You've seemed to find some flow and hit some shots. Have they felt different for you?

Thon Maker: These past four games have been different in terms of my aggression. My guys have been telling me to be aggressive. Everybody told me to be aggressive and play relaxed.

So, when I'm out there I'm playing relaxed and not trying to force anything, but just being aggressive. And they're telling me to just play my game. When I'm open, shoot it. And you can hear it on the bench. Before I even get the pass, in the middle of the catch, and they're saying, "Shoot it!" They're just telling me to be aggressive.

What does it do for you to have teammates helping you through this and giving you confidence?

It narrows your thinking down as the game is going on. Guys telling you to shoot it when you're open - you have nothing else to think about, but if you're open or not. That's it. As soon as you catch it, you let it fly. You work on it a lot. You work on it enough that it's going to go in.

At the same time, you can't try to force it. You just got to look at the flow of the game. Now, you're entrusted by the coaching staff and your teammates to read the flow of the game. If it's a six-point game in the fourth quarter and we haven't had a good shot in a while, you're not going to take that shot unless you're wide open. Make the move and you're entrusted to keep the ball moving because it's not just about you.

You got to think about the team every single time. The guys telling you to shoot it just let's you know that, don't think too much.

Only 35 games into the season, but it's been a bit of a rollercoaster for you. You're in the starting lineup at the beginning of the year, then you move to the bench, and now you've had some strong games in the last week. What's going through your head as this season goes on?

When I first moved to the bench, it was a little tough to adjust to, but I've just recalled last season when I first started. Just taking care of my body and knowing that there could be a random time that I'm checking in, so I need to continue to take care of my body. I see what other guys are doing. I see Delly doing squats on the bench, so I've started to copy him, stretching a lot and standing up. JET telling everybody to stand up and cheer the guys on. It's pretty good. I like it. It keeps me moving, stretching, sometimes jogging here and there.

So, I'm just finding different things to keep my body ready, so when I'm going in, I'm not behind. When I first check in, it's usually a little bit behind, but some games, I start aggressive and it usually works out the rest of the way. If I check back in, I'm ready. The game slows down.

When guys have a strong finish to their rookie season and struggle in their second season, we begin talking about a sophomore slump. There's just something that keeps them from having the same feel. Does the thought - "I just can't re-capture what I had at the end of last season" - ever go through your head?

What the coaching staff has done, especially Coach Grg*, these last two games, he got me a 15-minute video of Game 6 of last year's playoffs. And he got me to watch on both ends of the floor, both defense and offense, to see and feel how aggressive I was on both ends of the floor. I was locked in. The energy was there every single possession.

He just got me to watch those and from there, I've just taken off. Just aggressive. It's kind of reminded me...I saw that's a different player and I was like okay. I don't know what happened between the end of the playoffs to now, but I figured out I'm going back to that old me.

(Editor's note: Coach Grg refers to Tim Grgurich, who has been a consultant for the Bucks since Jason Kidd took over as head coach in Milwaukee. He previously made a stop in Milwaukee with George Karl. The 74-year-old coach is seen as a basketball guru, who has influenced generations of basketball players. More information on him here.)

When I asked Giannis about your struggles, he said that all NBA players have ups and downs. They'll have good games and bad games. It's an 82-game season. Specifically about you though, he said he tells you that you just need to trust your work. You've worked hard. You need to trust that. Is that the message your teammates have given you?

Exactly. All the guys, we sat in a meeting and they were all like, "Just play your game. Play your game. Don't try to force anything. Don't try to play out of character. Just continue to play your game and be relaxed."

And Giannis was telling me about his experience as well and how it was up and down, but he just trusted it and continued to work on his game. And when he went out there, he was just aggressive and continued to play his game. That's what they told me to do.

Giannis is an interesting comparison because in his first year, he did have some up and downs and big games followed by quiet games. Has he been helpful throughout all of this?

Yeah. He definitely has. We actually spoke after the Toronto game on our flight back and we were just talking about the game and talking about the energy. We didn't have it collectively and it was in spurts and we had the game in reach. The other thing is we can use that playoffs as motivation when we play these guys again.

He just talked about me individually, saying you played a great game. You've got to continue to do that. Just be aggressive. Play your game. Everybody's going to step up, but you just have to continue to bring the energy. So, me and him, whenever we're going through stuff, we just talk about it.