Sports

Who Is Thon Maker, The NBA Draft's Gangly Mystery Man?

Thon Maker is 19 years old, 7'1, and star of one of the most memorable mixtapes on YouTube. In the NBA Draft, none of that will matter as much as how he can play.

by John Wilmes
May 17 2016, 2:20pm

Image via YouTube

The only people on Earth whose lives can be changed by a great mixtape are rappers and basketball prospects, and every year around draft time it becomes debatable which is No. 1 and which is No. 1a. Mixtapes quickly take on mythological qualities for NBA prospects, and none has caused more Zapruder-like consternation or raw awe in recent years than Thon Maker's.

In this brief, wordless movie about a player whose name and game both evoke Marvel, we see a 7-foot-1 Sudanese teen who runs, dribbles, passes, spins, dunks, and sometimes even shoots like a dominant modern wing. Maker looks the part of a destroyer, with his famous video's title promising basketball revolution, and some of its more than two million viewers leaving comments about its star being an unfair NBA2K creation made real, or an alien sent to us from the future of sports. These mixtapes tend to be as sensational as—and even less indicative of what's to come—than movie trailers. Everyone knows they aren't reliable as scouting reports. But there was still something jarring about seeing a dude this big and this young move and execute like that.

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But the 19-year-old Thon, who declared his eligibility for the NBA Draft last month, came into the NBA Combine in Chicago shrugging off the legendary video, which is now over two years old. "People gotta stop with the mixtape stuff," he told the pod of reporters swarming him around a table too little to fit his knees beneath it. "That's not me. I bet the people who put that out haven't really sat through a full game of mine and watched it, so they haven't seen my defensive rotation, the way I communicate to my teammates, the way I pass the ball. Some people use the mixtape to identify me, but I told the teams I interviewed with—that's not me."

The catch here is that the mixtape, however hyperbolic and selectively edited, constitutes a large portion of what American basketball knows—or thinks it knows—about Maker. Maker's family fled the Sudan at the age of six, settling in Australia before moving to North America when Maker was 13. He's lived in a multitude of places since—so many, in fact, that he claims he can't remember or provide a tally for them all. Those stops include two homes in Louisiana, one in Virginia, and an eventual landing in Ontario, where for the last two years he's played for the Athlete Institute. "I've experienced every weather condition," he said. But he hasn't experienced much in the way of a steady, highly competitive basketball situation.

As a result of all this bouncing around, Maker has more of a mystique than a scouting report, to the point where he is discussed more as an entity than an actual basketball-playing human in NBA circles—it's as if he's a top secret Apple product, of unknown but potentially earth-shaking function. His relatively low participation in the events at the NBA Draft Combine only served to exacerbate this aura; he is as astonishing a physical presence as advertised, even among the giants and lesser athletic gods of the NBA Draft class, but not much less abstract for all that.

Maker cleared all the bars of the high jump with ease, requiring evaluators to place a riser placed under the standard in order to assess his limits; Orlando Magic sensation Aaron Gordon caused the same problem for high jump proctors, two years ago. Maker also talked, of course, and did a dash around some cones that's meant to test agility in the lane. On his first lap, Maker knocked a cone over. It was hard, in that moment, not to wonder how many tens of thousands of dollars can be lost to a single knocked-over plastic cone.

International man of mystery. Image via YouTube

Maker did not play in the afternoon scrimmages, however, and it's unclear whether he even touched a basketball during his time in Chicago. The NBA bent its eligibility rules to let Maker enter the draft straight from high school due to the fact that he graduated in 2015, which made 2016 a "preparatory year;" the flip side of that exception is that his draft value, as it stands, is somewhat dubious. From the perspective of league front offices, one of the benefits of preventing high-schoolers from entering the draft over the past decade has been that even one season of college basketball tells scouts and general managers a hell of a lot more than zero, or the All-Star Game/mixtape/combine drill package that most prep prospects offer. The high variability for a player as unique as Maker makes his lack of college exposure an even larger hurdle than usual. Many recent draft projections have Maker falling all the way out of the first round, although that could change dramatically before the draft.

Despite this, or because of it, Maker still has a unique mystery about him. People want to know who he is, and while his presence was the most magnetic force at the combine, reporters were surprisingly timid when Maker sat down for questions, and eschewed the usual shout-over-each-other approach. Maker's interlocutors really didn't know where to start—as one of them, I'll confess that I didn't quite know, either—and the uncomfortable moment before his first question lasted much longer than usual. When they finally came, Maker answered them with a gentlemanly reserve, in a quiet voice with a distinctive international accent that barely retains an African tinge; it is not an accent from any one particular place, and something like an aural representation of his well-stamped passport. Maker says he's inspired by Kevin Garnett, but stops short when asked if he can trash talk like K.G. "I won't get into it to a point that I'm talking about their mother," he says in a serious tone.

Maker can seem to be from everywhere, and also mentions that he has what he considers to be two families—a biological one and what he calls a coach family. Edward Smith, who he describes as his guardian, found Thon as a teenager and brought him first to America and then Canada. Smith has been perhaps the most important member, in recent years, of Maker's family tree, which has roots around the world. Skeptics treated Smith's decision to have Maker play in Canada as a hint that he was too far from ready for American competition; that school of thought made Maker's decision to join the NBA early all the more surprising.

Though he's added 27 pounds over 15 months and settled some of the front office anxiety about his stringbean frame, Maker still has a ways to go before proving that he can cope with NBA-level physicality anytime soon. He has that in common with most 19-year-olds on earth, but risk-averse teams tend to approach unknown quantities like Maker with a prerogative not to believe. This helps explain why Milwaukee Bucks stud Giannis Antetokounmpo, a similarly freakish athlete and physical specimen who'd also barely seen any real basketball tests, fell to No. 15 in a weak 2013 draft. Many general managers see a corresponding regret in their rearview mirror these days, watching the 21-year-old morph into one of the best young two-way players in the game.

In the coming weeks, Maker's workouts with NBA teams will give him his best opportunity to allay doubts him, and make decision-makers sweat. Or, he'll raise newer skepticism yet. These sessions, much more than a toppled cone at the combine, will have a huge impact on where he lands in the draft. But those moments will be private, which will leave the rest of us to more speculation and wonder about who and what Thon Maker might be, or might become, as a player. It's foolish to judge any player by his mixtapes, but with so little else to go by, and with so much there to dream on, it stands to reason that Maker's mixtape will get another few (hundred) thousand more spins before the draft.

Maker acknowledged that his workouts are of greater consequence than anyone else's because of how little he's been seen, but he seemed confident in how his stock will fare as a result. He is at the center of a whirlwind of hype and hope and speculation, but Maker's confidence appeared not just unshaken but extraordinary. When a reporter noticed that the Larry O'Brien trophy adorned Maker's phone's background settings, he smiled. "I love trophies," he said. "I collect them in my room. Take notice." Whatever awaits Maker, getting noticed shouldn't be a problem.