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."

We've officially found the biggest Michael Jordan fan ever

We've officially found the biggest Michael Jordan fan ever

There are diehard Michael Jordan fans.

And then there's this guy.

Forget anybody getting a tattoo of their favorite team's championship trophy. Forget the people who wait for hours in terrible weather just to catch a glimpse of their favorite player.

This dude has a constant, 24/7 reminder of "His Airness":

Yep, that is a full tattoo of a Jordan "23" jersey on his back, complete with a Michael Jordan "autograph" in the middle of the "2." 

Dedication at its finest.

Couple questions: 

A) Does it carry over to the front at all? And if not, is that a plan for the future?

2) Will one of his buddies get a "45" Jordan jersey tattoo or are we just gonna continue to pretend that era never happened?

D) What will that tat look like in a few years? That guy better stay away from the Doritos...

Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of centers to begin career


Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of centers to begin career

Don't tell Wendell Carter Jr. the center position is a dying breed.

The 19-year-old rookie hasn't exactly been able to ease into the NBA, finding himself up against a handful of All-Stars and powerful frontcourts just five days into his career.

It culminated Monday night with a date against Mavericks center DeAndre Jordan, and once again the seventh overall pick held his own. It was much of the same as it was against Philadelphia's Joel Embiid and Detroit's Andre Drummond last week (and Nikola Jokic in the preseason finale): some good, some bad, plenty of poise and zero backing down. The NBA is unforgiving, but this could very well be the toughest stretch Carter faces all season.

"He’s playing against top level centers now," Fred Hoiberg said before Monday's game. "It’s a great experience for him. He’s going to learn and get better and he plays within himself, we will continue to look for him to be more aggressive."

He was as aggressive as the Bulls have seen him against Jordan and the Mavericks. He blew by the 20 and 18 minutes he played in the first two games of the year, totalling 32 minutes. His final line won't tell the story - 4 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and a block - of a Carter who defended well at the rim, picking and choosing his spots on when to attack shots and when to simply use his verticality.

He wasn't credited for a block but he contested a Jordan dunk that turned into a Bobby Portis dunk on the other end. Plus-minus isn't always a good indicator of a player's worth, but Carter was a +5 in a 14-point Bulls loss. He even attempted a corner 3-pointer early in the shot clock, showing no hesitation. Carter's had his moments, but it's also apparent he's got a 19-year-old body going up against veterans each night. That'll come with time in the weight room. For now the experience is 

"I appreciate the fact I’m able to play against these very talented bigs early in my career," Carter said after the loss to the Pistons. "What I need to work on is I have to get stronger; that’s the first thing I recognize; just being up against the best. I love the competition. It’s always a great feeling going against the best."

What the Bulls are finding out is they have a player mature beyond his years. As he progresses he'll continue to get more difficult assignments. He had his rookie moment late in Monday's loss, committing a turnover in the backcourt after the Bulls had cut the deficit to five with 35 seconds left. The fouls are also an issue, as Carter has committed 10 in three games (after committing 17 in five preseason games).

That doesn't necessarily seem important for a Lottery-bound team, but considering the continued struggles of Robin Lopez (and Cristiano Felicio is entirely out of the rotation) it is. Lopez had 2 points and 1 rebound in 10 minutes while committing five personal fouls. In three games he has 11 personal fouls and 11 points, and also has more turnovers (five) than rebounds (four). If the Bulls are going to compete until Lauri Markkanen returns, Carter will need to hover around the 32 minutes he played Monday.

He'll get a much easier test on Wednesday when the Charlotte Hornets arrive in town. Cody Zeller doesn't exactly have the credentials of a Jokic or Embiid, meaning Carter may have a little more room to work. 

The Bulls know they have something in Carter. It'll be abother month until they can deploy him alongside Markkanen, but if the first three games are any indication, Carter won't have any problems matching up with some of the league's best.