Bulls

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."

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Anyone who lived through the Michael Jordan Bulls remembers those games when he was putting up tons of points, but the Bulls were still struggling overall.

Steve Kerr referenced one of those games to give advice to Kevin Durant during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. The TNT broadcast caught the conversation and aired it late in the third quarter.

"When MJ was with the Bulls, we had a playoff game," Kerr began the story. "He kept trying to score and he was scoring, but we weren't getting anything going. Phil Jackson said 'Who's open?' He said, 'John Paxson.'"

Paxson famously hit the game-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals to clinch the series. Kerr, who later hit his own championship-winning shot on an assist from Jordan in 1997, was trying to get to get his teammates involved.

"I want to trust your teammates early," Kerr said. "What you're doing is you're getting to the rim and then you're trying to hit him. I want you to trust the first guy and then move. Still attack, still look to score, but trust these guys, OK?"

Watch the video above to see the interaction.

Durant scored 29 points in Game 5 to lead the Warriors, but Houston took a 3-2 series lead with a 98-94 win.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

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USA TODAY

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

John Calipari's 2017 recruiting class featured five McDonald's All-Americans and Hamidou Diallo, a former five-star recruit who nearly jumped to the NBA the previous year. It also included a lanky 6-foot-6 point guard named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And for the first part of the 2017-18 season, the Toronto native who played his final two high school years in Tennessee, appeared to be a nice fit off the bench for Calipari.

But something flipped. Gilgeous-Alexander was inserted into the starting lineup for good on January 9 and never looked back. He played his best basketball beginning in late February to the end of the season, a span of 10 games against eight NCAA Tournament opponents. In those games Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 19.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists. He shot 51 percent from the field, 50 percent from deep and 84 percent from the free throw line, and added 1.4 steals in nearly 38 minutes per game for good measure. He was one of the best players in the country, and on a team with five McDonald's All-Americans, he was Calipari's best freshman.

"I knew with how hard I worked that anything was possible," SGA said at last week's NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. "It was just a matter of time before it started clicking and I started to get it rolling."

That stretch included a 17-point, 10-assist double-double against Ole Miss, a 29-point showing against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament, and 27 more points in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Buffalo. Even in his worst game of the stretch, a 15-point effort against Kansas State in the Tournament, he made up for 2 of 10 shooting by getting to the free throw line 12, converting 11 of them.

It made his decision to make the jump to the NBA an easy one - that, and another loaded Calipari recruiting class incoming. He stands taller than just about any other point guard in the class and might have as good a jump shot as any. He's adept at getting to the rim, averaging 4.7 free throw attempts per game (that number jumped to 5.6 after he became a starter, and 7.5 in those final 10 games of the season. He isn't the quickest guard in the class, but he uses his feet well, is able to find open shooters due to his height and improved on making mistakes on drive-and-kicks as the season went on.

"I think I translate really well to the next level with there being so much more space on the floor and the open court stretched out," he said. "It only benefits me and my ability to get in the lane and make plays."

There's something to be said for him being the next in line of the Calipari point guards. The ever-growing list includes players like Derrick Rose, John Wall, Tyreke Evans, Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Murray and DeAaron Fox. It's the NBA's version of Penn State linebackers or Alabama defensive linemen. The success rate is nearly 100 percent when it comes to Calipari's freshmen point guards; even Brandon Knight averaged 18.1 points over a three-year span in the NBA.

"That’s why guys go to Kentucky," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "It prepares them for the next level. Coach (Calipari) does a really good job, especially with point guards, getting them ready for that next level in a short amount of time."

Gilgeous-Alexander didn't test or play in the 5-on-5 scrimmages, but he still came out of Chicago a winner. He measured 6-foot-6 in shoes with a ridiculous 6-foot-11 1/2 wingspan, a full three inches longer than any other point guard at the Combine. He also added, rather uniquely, that he watches of film Kawhi Leonard playing defense. Most players don't mention watching film on different-position players; most players aren't 6-foot-6 point guards.

"(It's) obviously a more versatile league and playing small ball. And with me being able to guard multiple positions, a lot of teams are switching things like the pick and roll off ball screens, so me being able to switch and guard multiple positions can help an organization."

Gilgeous-Alexander's arrow is pointing way up. He appears to be teetering near Lottery pick status, though that could go one way or the other in private team workouts, especially if he's pitted against fellow top point guards like Trae Young and Collin Sexton. But if his rise at Kentucky is any indication, he'll only continue to improve his game, his stock and eventually his draft position.