In 2014, YouTube introduced the world to a 7'+ teenager that played basketball as if he were not of this planet. His name was Thon Maker, and he is currently on the precipice of going in the first round of the NBA Draft.
In a basketball universe where jacks-of-all-trades are becoming the desired norm for front court players, Maker became the king of basketball mixtapes almost immediately thanks to his tenacious dunks, thunderous blocks, and seemingly-limitless shooting range. Then, a little under a year ago, Maker had his break-the-internet moment at the Las Vegas Fab 48 showcase: The sports world watched in shock as this Sudanese leviathan revealed he had ankle-breaking handles to match his freakish build.
But as the hype surrounding Maker continued to climb and climb, scouts began searching for excuses to chip away at his game.
They cringed as they noted he had failed to gain weight between this year's NBA Draft Combine and last year's Nike Hoop Summit. They called his legs "pencil-thin" and speculated he couldn't add any more weight to his body despite also saying he had a "huge frame." They speculated his age was inaccurate. Most tore him apart for not taking a year to compete and get better against college competition. Some even compared his hands to Kwame Brown's, and wrote him off as a bust on that reason alone (ignoring that Brown couldn't do simple activities like grocery shopping or his own laundry).
Maker's projections have been all over the place. He's been ranked from high lottery pick to completely undrafted across all corners of the Internet. He's been written off as a second round pick by many that also claim he needs two years in the D-League before he can make a tangible impact. DraftExpress has him as an early 2nd round pick, but Maker has been creeping up Chad Ford's big board in recent weeks towards the mid-1st round.
It's anyone's guess where Maker goes, but the league-wide intrigue hasn't waned. Per the Detroit Free Press, Maker is set to have workouts in the coming weeks with the Atlanta Hawks, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Indiana Pacers, and yes, even the Chicago Bulls.
My goal here is to present you with the facts. So much of Maker's story and game has been left in the dark to the general public because of his eye-popping mixtapes and subsequent rampant criticism by analysts attempting to quiet the hype. Today, with the help of international hoops savant Fran Fraschilla, I aim to make the unknown known. The conclusions you draw from that point are your own, but the record needs to be set straight first.
Coming to America
"It's a remarkable journey. When you look back at his incredible odyssey and you realize where he's come from--and then you talk to him--you realize that this is a very bright, observant young man. Highly intelligent, very articulate--really, he's nineteen going on forty when you have a conversation with him. To see where the journey started, and to see where he is as he gets ready for the NBA Draft... it's a remarkable accomplishment on his part." --Fran Fraschilla
Thon Maker's story began on February 25th, 1997, during what was the last half of the Second Sudanese Civil War. His 6'8" father and 6'3" mother descend from the Dinka People, a tribe distinctively known for their substantial height relative to the rest of the world (with notable basketball examples including Manute Bol and Luol Deng). At the age of five, Maker's uncle arranged for Thon and his family to flee to neighboring Uganda and eventually Perth, Australia after the country accepted them as Sudanese refugees.
Thon Maker's serious basketball career began on January 28th, 2011; less than a month away from his fourteenth birthday. He remembers the specific day because he still carries with him the train pass he used to travel to his first practice at Next Level Basketball Australia.
In 2012, Maker got an invite to a talent camp in Texas and embarked on his first journey to the United States. An AAU National Championship and Virginia High School State Championship later, Maker and his brother enrolled at the Ontario-based Athlete Institute while attending school in nearby Orangeville, Canada. During his time at A.I. Prep, Maker added another national championship to his collection while playing alongside fellow projected NBA lottery pick Jamal Murray.
By this point, Maker was already garnering obscene levels of hype due to his YouTube mixtapes and gracing the front page of ESPN.com. Attempting to capitalize on his sky-high stock, Maker reclassified for the 2015 draft and attended the Nike Hoops Summit in Oregon. But later that year, he reclassified once again back to 2016, and while not completing the same path as other 'one-and-done' players, was allowed by the NBA to stay eligible in this year's draft.
Let's get something out of the way right now, Thon Maker is an absolute athletic marvel. Forget the strength concerns for a moment and just examine his Draft Combine performance. Maker set the combine records by a player 6'11"+ for both standing and max vertical with jumps of 32" and 36.5" respectively. For reference, those leaps are better than what both Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan recorded at their own respective combines. When packaged with his 7'1" height in shoes and 9'3" standing reach, that means Maker is immediately giving teams nearly twelve vertical feet of rim protection from a standstill, and well over twelve feet when on the move.
From an agility standpoint, it only gets better. Maker led all big men in the lane agility, shuttle run (except for Zhou Qi somehow posting a 2.9), and three quarter sprint drills. His shuttle and three-quarter sprint times were both notably faster than that of draft darling Denzel Valentine, and he also beat out other wing players such as Malachi Richardson. This should somewhat diffuse the argument that he won't be able to keep up with perimeter players defensively.
Yes, he does need to cultivate mass, but he's not as far off as you'd think in that department. Donatas Motiejunas comes to mind as a fellow seven footer that plays at around 220 lbs, and he doesn't nearly have the springs that Maker possesses. Maker also weighed in at 225 lbs during this year's All-Canadian game.
Such alarming athleticism should probably tell you that Thon Maker has the potential to become an absolute defensive juggernaut. While it may take some time before he's capable of anchoring a defense from the five spot (more on that later), Maker already exhibits Serge Ibaka-esque weakside rim protection ability. Every one of his games are absolutely littered with blindside ball obliterations:
Maker should also have little trouble handling hybrid fours on the wing given his lateral mobility and 87" wingspan, which make him a perfect candidate for defending the small-ball lineups the league is trending towards. It's tricky to find examples of his perimeter play on defense given he dwarfed so much of his high school competition, but his DraftExpress video has a nice segment that shows some his ability in this respect.
His offensive game is still coming along, but he probably has the best handle of anyone alive over seven feet and he's already shown some willingness to pass and swing the ball. However, what's going to be the most valuable element of his offensive game right away is his shooting range:
Now, while I would argue this is a strength, that's not to say he doesn't have to improve his stroke. Respectable as his range is, he only shot just over 31% from distance in the last year. Fraschilla seemed to concur when he told me, "there's room to improve in terms of his outside shooting. Having been around and watched him fairly closely, it's certainly to his advantage that he's comfortable playing fifteen to twenty feet away from the basket. But I would say my eyes tell me he certainly has room to improve his outside shooting. The fact that he's comfortable being out there is a positive, now the ball has to go in on a consistent basis."
While this is true, if comparable players like Kristaps Porzingis can receive praise for hitting over eighty threes in a season on a measly 33% clip, there's no reason to believe Maker can't obtain similar results. He also personally claims he shot above 90% from the line over the last two seasons, although DraftExpress believes that number is closer to 71%.
As was the case with my previous draft examinee Dejounte Murray, the immediate glaring concern regarding Thon Maker is his weight. Though he plays with a high motor and does not shy away from physicality, Maker still gets pushed around in the post by stronger competition. That's not going to work against teams that look to capitalize on bad matchups. Fraschilla agrees:
"Any NBA strength coach is going to be effective putting on some weight to his frame. Now, how much his body type can handle, that's only a matter of speculation from my perspective. I know that the body type is a concern for teams because if he doesn't get stronger--at 7'1" we're talking 250 [lbs] now to be able to handle NBA players in the low post. If he can't do that, he's going to be resigned to spending a lot of his career as a perimeter big man. It's possible that's where he'll have his most success, but teams would like to see a little more versatility out of a guy that's 7'1"."
"Although the league seems to be going smaller, you still have guys like Zach Randolph, Dwight Howard, [Karl-Anthony] Towns, Andre Drummond, and others who are very physical players in the low post. I don't think that's Thon's defensive strength at the moment. A team that utilizes him is probably going to have him defending on the perimeter, especially when it comes to guarding small ball lineups. He'll spend a lot of time on the perimeter early in his career when he does play." --Fran Fraschilla
For a while, Maker has had the luxury of being able to rely on sheer size to out-rebound opponents. But unfortunately this is an advantage he won't be able to enjoy for much longer, as his frail legs make it tricky for him to effectively box out players he doesn't already have position on when shots go up. Even so, Fraschilla believes, "when you look at his length and his athleticism, it should eventually translate to being a good rebounder some day in the NBA... [but] he'll be a work in progress in that regard."
Then, of course, there's the fact that Maker's serious basketball career is barely five years old, and as a result a lot of his instincts are still developing. He's still too eager to show off his handle by bringing the ball up the floor. Though he's a capable passer from the perimeter and out of the post, when he's on the move he seldom distributes the ball. His play from the post has a ton of potential given his length and shooting, but as of right now is not technically sound by any means. However, when I asked Fran the Man if his inexperience would hinder his potential, he said:
"No, I think he can get better. He's a very bright guy and, again, he sees the game like a thirty year old. I think he's more mature than people realize, so there's room for him to soak up all the NBA knowledge he can to become obviously an even better player than he is now. Right now he's a prospect. He's got the intelligence to become an NBA player some day. But his maturity should help him, the fact that he's a very intelligent young man and will pick up NBA concepts quickly." --Fran Fraschilla
When it comes to Thon Maker and a potential future in Chicago, the questions are less about how he fits in with the system and more about the current roster. At a glance, it would be foolish for a team with three power forwards all capable of receiving rotation minutes to add yet another player at that spot.
Picking Maker would have to be a move for the future, but such planning wouldn't quite require as much roster reconstruction as one might initially think. The first thing to consider is that there's a considerable amount of good a year in the D-League could do for Maker given his lack of experience against supreme level competition. He would have an opportunity to improve his game and get stronger under a far less intense microscope than if he played on an NBA team right away. Fraschilla told me the odds are about "80/20" that Maker ends up spending some amount of time in the D-League in his first season. Also, it would certainly be to the organization's advantage to have a benevolently controversial player at the core of the Windy City Bulls' inaugural season to sell merchandise and put butts in seats.
Like this summer, the following one poses a lot of questions for the Bulls' frontcourt. Taj Gibson is an unrestricted free agent, both Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio are restricted, and Bobby Portis can currently only be described as an optimistic question mark. The Bulls would be much better equipped to handle a mass departure of their talent at the four spot with Maker waiting in the wings after garnering a year of consistent competitive experience. From there, Thon could enter the 2017/18 season ready to contribute to the Bulls' rotation, and could see an expansion of his role with the team as his comfort level increases.
The last point I want to make is on the draft itself this year. On paper, it's not a good draft for what the Bulls are looking for given where they are picking. The point guards of the class are presumably weak after the lottery picks, the athletic 3&D wings are sparse, and there aren't any particularly intriguing big men within striking distance for Chicago not named Deyonta Davis. If there were ever a first round pick worth investing in a foggy talent that could prove to be something substantially special in this sport, it would be the 14th overall in 2016.
My guess is as good as yours when it comes to telling the future of Thon Maker. He could end up a hall-of-famer or a wall-of-shamer, or end up just being a very good role player. A serviceable starter or an an all-star talent. He could end up never playing a single NBA game in his career... but I sincerely doubt that.
Maker's ceiling is the stars and his floor is the basement. If you ask me, I believe he's far more likely to end up towards the former given his remarkable dedication to getting better. This was showcased in his draft express interview: How many prospects at nineteen years old give answers like this:
"When I'm on an NBA team I'm going to get my apartment five to ten minutes walking distance to the practice facility. I'm going to live in the gym. I'm just ready to go to work every day. I want to be picked early, but I also want to go where it is a good fit."
"If you put me in a wide pin down, Iverson cut, stagger double, horns action, or any pinch post action I can score or help my team score. I can hit the trailing three or pick and pop off the ball reversal.... Making shots consistently in the future won't be a problem. If you consistently work at something with a purpose, you can perfect it."
"I still remember the feeling of winning the 8th grade AAU Nationals with DunkDog, winning the State Championship with Carlisle high school, and winning the OSBA Canadian Championship with AI Prep. Those were better than all the MVPs, rankings, or awards I've won. 3-5 years of doing what you love? How can't you be great?"
"The sky is the limit on what I can become and what I can do. In the league you have access 24/7 to the best teachers in the world. All you have to do is listen and work and live in the gym. My routine will be the same everyday no matter the day. Look at Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler. That's just work. Even look at Kobe from when he first got to the league to now. You have to work and love it."
Think about what Fran Fraschilla told me about the journey Maker has endured to get to this point, how he set historical marks at the NBA Combine, and how he already approaches the game as if he's an NBA veteran. Think about how Maker was nothing more than an over-sized Western Australian soccer player a little over five years ago. Think about how he's never forgotten where he started from on any level, how he knows critics have written him off as merely a mixtape dream, and how many people have told him he can be a generational player if he realizes his potential.
In terms of Thon Maker's talent and work ethic, I see Kevin Garnett. The potential defensive ability clearly parallels, and while he may not have the post prowess KG possessed at the same age, he makes up for it with even greater shooting range. Maker also projects as a dynamic offensive player with the athleticism and length to become a consistent rebounding force. But perhaps most importantly, he clearly has the will and intelligence to maximize his gifts. Garnett became a sure-fire hall-of-famer due to his DNA telling him it was counter-intuitive and soft to miss even a single practice. Seldom do we see athletes with that level of commitment to their craft, but its hard to read Thon Maker's interviews and not draw comparisons between the two in terms of where their priorities lie with respect to getting better. I would imagine being teammates with Jimmy Butler would only further draw out those qualities.
Oh yeah, and Garnett only weighed 215 lbs. coming out of high school.
We'll finally find out where Maker is headed in less than two weeks. I would be over the moon if he becomes a Chicago Bull, but even if he's not selected at pick fourteen, you had better believe Thon Maker is on his way to becoming even more of a household name in basketball than he already is thanks to YouTube. Write him off at your own risk.