Thon Maker has lived in three continents, in four countries and played basketball for three high schools. When you’re 7-1 and have the basketball skills Maker has, it doesn’t matter where you play, people will expect great things.
This weekend, the power forward from Athlete Institute in Ontario will play in the Spalding Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass.
It’s not just fans with their eyes on Maker. The No. 10 player in the 2016 class according to 247Sports.com’s composite ranking, Maker said last month that he plans official visits to Arizona State, St. John’s, Kansas, Indiana and Notre Dame.
At the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Fla. in December, he dropped in 31 points in a 58-53 loss to Hamilton Heights Christian (Chattanooga, Tenn.), making 11 of 16 shots, including five slams and three three-pointers, while pulling down 11 rebounds.
That was vintage Maker, doing something you rarely, at least at the high school level, see players his size do: pull down a rebound, lead the break off the dribble and finish, whether with a long jumper or with a slam. But it was what Maker did in a 46-43 defeat of Potter’s House Christian (Jacksonville, Fla.) earlier in the tournament, when he had only nine points and eight rebounds, that made Ed Smith, his guardian and assistant coach at Athlete Institute, smile.
Facing Udoka Azubuike, who is a burly 6-11 and 270 pounds, Maker held his own in the post. He blocked several of Azubuike’s shots and kept Azubuike from backing him down, eventually fouling out the Potter’s House center.
“The main thing what you saw today is strength,” Smith said. “I was proud of him because it showed that the weight room is working. Forget about the points.”
He is listed as 223 pounds, so he still gave away nearly 50 pounds to Azubuike, but that’s a far cry from the 194 pounds Maker weighed as a junior.
“He was bigger than me before when we played,” Maker said. “I just had to stay low on his hip and push him out.”
While everyone oohs and aahs about Maker’s skill set, at some point in college and in the pros, 7-1 players are expected to defend and rebound in the post and that’s hard to do when you’re getting pushed around. That’s why Skal Labissiere, considered the No. 2 recruit by 247Sports.com’s composite rankings of the 2015 class, is only playing seven minutes a game at Kentucky while averaging 7.9 points and 3.3 rebounds.
“The thing that I was concerned with most about college is his strength,” Smith said. “Skal came in to college at 215 or 216. Thon is going to come into college at 230. That’s a big difference and you saw him handle Udoka and he’s as big as it gets.”
Other elite prospects have often reclassified up a grade, the sooner to reach college (and a potential NBA free-agent contract). Maker decided to stick around another year after initially saying he would reclassify to the Class of 2015.
“I decided to stay because I wanted to play one more year with my brother (Matur, a 6-10 junior on the team) and also get a little stronger and just keep on working on my game,” Maker said. “I always look to get better every day. It wasn’t just for basketball. I wanted to finish my academics so I could go when I was ready.”
Smith said that Maker’s core subjects are all in order, but he wanted to make sure there will be no questions about his ability or academics, as there were with Kansas forward Cheick Diallo, another African-born player whose eligibility was held up months for academic concerns. Complicating Maker’s academic record is he has played at two other high schools. As a freshman, he played at Metairie Park Country Day (Metairie, La.). As a sophomore he was at Carlisle (Martinsville, Va.).
“We’re confident the NCAA will see him as a player,” Smith said. “I don’t like for kids to worry. We’re confident in what we’re doing in terms of that. His academics really got taken care of over the summer. I just wanted him to be more confident going into college. Last year, I don’t think he had a rhythm with the ball. We had great guards then (including Jamal Murray, who’s now at Kentucky), so Thon had a different role. I wanted him to play with his brother for another year and have fun. At times, last year was work for Thon.”
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Maker and his brother are originally from South Sudan, but their family emigrated to Australia when he was eight. Smith, originally from Liberia, met Maker in 2010 when Maker was a 13-year-old soccer player who was already 6-8. Maker got his coordination and fitness level from soccer, but Smith has been his mentor for basketball and is frank in that the ultimate goal is to get Maker to the NBA.
“Everybody says, ‘Oh, he’s trying to be (Kevin) Durant.’ That’s not an educated perspective,” Smith said. “He’s trying to be basketball player who makes plays for his team. When he’s bringing the ball up court, he’s trying to make plays for his team or for himself. When you look at the NBA, the skill guys who are big are so valuable because you can run the offense through them. Draymond Green can take the ball off the board and push it. When you get other pros around him, you’ll see how good he can be.”
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Smith said it makes sense for Maker to get his seasoning in college, rather than as a professional in China or in Europe.
“He’s going to look at what schools are recruiting him, what ones he likes and what fits best for him,” Smith said. “He doesn’t want to go to Europe. He doesn’t want to go to China. That doesn’t always work. I think China is good for guards, where you can have the ball in your hands. Europe, if you’re not established for a while, they are going to take care of the kids who are there. The NCAA makes sense for him.”