Thon Maker, the NBA Draft's fascinating mystery, out to make his own mark

Thon Maker, the NBA Draft's fascinating mystery, out to make his own mark

Thon Maker walks through the hallways of Quest Multiplex, taking small strides relative to his nearly 7-foot-1 frame. He's stopped by a member of the NBA's social media team, who shows the 19-year-old Maker a video on his phone.

Maker smiles as he watches a video on loop of his 36.5-inch max vertical leap, the highest recorded mark for a player taller than 6-foot-11 in combine history.

It's been an impressive day for the teenager attempting to be the first high school player drafted in more than a decade. In addition to his record-setting vertical, Maker finished first among big men in the lane agility drill (11.15 seconds), the three-quarters court sprint (3.33 seconds) and shuttle run (3.09 seconds).

Following his workouts the Sudanese-Australian who most recently played basketball in Canada - and can no longer count the number of places he's lived - spoke candidly with reporters for more than 15 minutes about the unique journey that's led him here.

A few tables over from Maker, AP Player of the Year Denzel Valentine also spoke with the media about his storied four-year career with Michigan State. North Carolina forward Brice Johnson did the same, recalling his All-American campaign that helped lead the Tar Heels to the national championship game two months prior.

The conversation was far different for Maker, the NBA Draft's biggest mystery. In lieu of wins, postseason awards or televised runs through the NCAA Tournament, Maker appeared on the national stage after a mixtape two years ago labeled him as a "revolutionary" player at 17 years old.

It's why the interviews Maker had last week in Chicago - he met with 12 NBA teams - and the workouts he'll eventually have with others - he skipped the drills and scrimmage at the combine - will be more important for Maker than any player in his class.

Like the video of his vertical leap shown to him, Maker wants to be known as more than a flashy highlight reel.

"People got to stop with the mixtape stuff. That’s not me," Maker said during Friday's media availability. "I bet those people that put out those mixtapes haven’t really sat through a whole game of mine and watched and saw my defensive rotation, the way I communicate with my teammates, the way I pass the ball.

"They probably got the bad passes, the one-hand passes, and didn’t get the fundamental two-hand, jump stop or skip passes. They don’t get to see all that stuff. Some people use that to identify me – the mixtape – and I just told (NBA) teams what it is, and that’s not me."

What Maker is, and what he'll need to convey over the next five weeks, is a project worth the risk.

Maker's whirlwind path to the NBA has taken him from South Sudan, where he was born, to Uganda, Australia, Louisiana, Virginia and Canada. He even jokes that being so well traveled will allow him to acclimate to any city he may be drafted to in the NBA.

"I lived in Canada. It can't get any wose than Canada in terms of the cold," he said. "And it can't get any hotter than South Sudan."

Along that journey he made a name for himself on the AAU circuit. By 2014, Rivals ranked him as the top player in the 2016 recruiting class. His peculiar situation allowed him to graduate from Orangeville Prep in Canada in 2015 and elected to stay another year as a post-graduate student.

That gave him both requirements needed by the NBA to declare for the draft: Maker was 19 years old and one year removed from high school graduation.

But where college programs were well aware of Maker's skill set and vast potential - in January he narrowed his list of potential schools to St. John's, Indiana, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Kansas and UNLV - he's a relative unknown in NBA circles.

Since his move to Canada 15 months ago he has added 27 pounds, checking in at last week's combine at 216 pounds. He models his game after Kevin Garnett, noting that he will bring "intensity, leadership and hard work that's contagious and is going to rub off" on his teammates to an NBA organization.

He considers his outside shooting a strength and "a bonus," a trait becoming more important each year for big men in the ever-changing NBA, and added that "defensive presence" will be a part of his game as well.

He'll need time to develop his frame and could see time in the D-League. But wherever he winds up, his work ethic won't be an issue.

"I just know that as soon as I get in there I've got to work my butt off. That's all I can do," he added.

Projections on where Maker may land during next week's draft are still hazy. Draft Express has him mocked No. 40 to the New Orleans Pelicans. NBADraft.net has him slotted at No. 33 to the Clippers, while Sports Illustrated has him sneaking into the first round at No. 28 to the Phoenix Suns.

All that can - and for such an unknown, will - change drastically in the coming weeks. The urban legend known to most through YouTube mixtapes, highlight reels and Vines understands that, now in the draft process, all that unwanted hype that surrounded him at an early age is a distant memory. Now it's time for Maker to prove his value to NBA teams and make his own mark.

"Nothing is...given," he said. "You've just got to work for it. Mentally, I've got to focus in on my goals and then just be determined, be patient and find ways to get better."

Three Things to Watch: Bulls-76ers

NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Bulls-76ers

The Bulls square off against the Sixers tonight on NBC Sports Chicago, with coverage beginning at 6:30 with Bulls Pregame Live. Here are three things to watch as the Bulls begin the stretch run of their regular season.

1. The new rotation: Most of the Bulls’ rotation looks the same, but the addition of David Nwaba, Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne will have a different feel. The Bulls clearly want to get a look at these guys before the end of the regular season, meaning they’re not just going to get sporadic minutes. They’ll have to play through their mistakes, play out-matched at times and be put in uncomfortable situations. But the Bulls need to see what they have, especially in Payne, who has missed the entire season to this point with a broken foot.

2. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons: They’re quite the 1-2 punch and have the Sixers looking at their first playoff appearance since Derrick Rose hadn’t yet torn an ACL. Yeah, that’s a long time. Embiid just finished his first All-Star appearance (starting in his second year) and Simmons is the front runner for Rookie of the Year. The Bulls will have their hands full with these two. Luckily…

3. Kris Dunn is back: The Bulls wanted to get Dunn some run before heading to All-Star Weekend to play in the Rising Stars Challenge, and he looked healthy in that thumping against the Raptors last week. The good news is John Paxson says Dunn won’t be on a minutes limit, which means he’s healthy. That, of course, is more important than how he’s playing. It’ll be fun to see him, LaVine and Markkanen play together down the stretch. Their numbers together aren’t great, but the Bulls are 2-2 with all three in the lineup, and tanking or not…it’s more fun to watch when those three are rolling. 

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Of Bulls and Blackhawks, which team will finish with higher draft pick?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Of Bulls and Blackhawks, which team will finish with higher draft pick?

On the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast, Patrick Finley (Chicago Sun-Times), Hub Arkush (ProFootball Weekly) and Jason Goch (SB Nation) join Kap on the panel.

The guys debate which team will finish with a higher draft pick when the season ends: Bulls or Blackhawks?

Plus, hear their reaction to the MLB’s new pace-of-play rule change.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here: