Why Detroit Pistons’ Thon Maker is taking cues from Muhammad Ali ahead of contract year

Detroit Free Press

Omari Sankofa II
| Detroit Free Press

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To improve his game, Detroit Pistons big man Thon Maker has taken cues from an unexpected source — Muhammad Ali. 

A Pistons assistant coach sent Maker a clip of Ali’s legendary 1974 fight against George Foreman, commonly known as The Rumble In The Jungle. Ali introduced his rope-a-dope tactic during the bout, leaning on the ropes and allowing Foreman to tire himself out from throwing punches. Ali won by knockout in the eighth round. 

“I was watching this, and he was like, ‘See if you can spot yourself in this situation,’” Maker recalled Wednesday. “Right away, I knew it.”

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Maker’s had two big focuses this offseason — adding strength to improve his post defense and adding more movement to his offensive game to wear down opponents. He compared the former to being able to “take punches” from some of the league’s best post players, such as Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, and the latter to Ali’s ability to tire out his opponent. 

It’s a big offseason for Maker, as he’s preparing to enter restricted free agency for the first time in his career. Head coach Dwane Casey has praised his improvement as a shooter. Maker said he doesn’t have a feel on how his free agency will go, but he’s using the group workout bubble to showcase his improved game. 

“I’ve always loved Detroit since the first day I got here,” Maker said. “In terms of the (future) part, that’s never my part. I just focus on the basketball and that’s between my agent and the team. My focus is to come here in this bubble we have set up and just play, have fun.”

Maker averaged 4.7 points and 2.8 rebounds in about 13 minutes per game last season and hit 34.4& of his 3-pointers. His qualifying offer is worth about $4.9 million. If the Pistons want to bring him into restricted free agency, they’ll pick it up. If they believe they can find more value for that price and decline it, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent. 

The 10th pick of the 2016 draft hasn’t quite solidified himself as a reliable backup big man, but bigs that can protect the rim and space the floor are valuable in today’s league. And those aren’t the only two things he’s been working to improve. 

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He wants to be better as a finisher. He hit 62% of his shots at the rim last season, according to Cleaning The Glass, ranking in the bottom 25% among bigs. He’s also working to defend smaller players more effectively.

“I’m working on my total game, step-by-step,” he said. “There’s certain spots on the floor I’ve focused completely on — finishing in the paint, finishing strong, shooting the ball has been a big focus and playing while moving instead of being stationary and static. We’ve put a lot of focus on that part in terms of the shooting and moving, but also on the defensive end. I’ve worked on switching, switching onto smalls, taking away the three because I’ll be watching a lot of games and these guys shoot the three like it’s midrange now. I’ve worked on that a lot.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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