Born in Sudan, 7-1 high school phenom Thon Maker has also lived in Uganda, Australia and Canada. We think he’ll make his biggest impact in the US though, first in college, then the NBA.
Lounging in a hotel room in the La Porte, IN, area, there’s a sense of relief that can be felt through his voice. A stark contrast to the hectic and fatiguing whirlwind the past 30 hours have brought.
It all started with a simple early morning tweet that sent recruiting analysts, media outlets and college coaches alike into a frenzy, followed by an eight-hour bus ride from Ontario, Canada, later in the day that had his Orangeville Prep team arriving at the hotel well past 3 a.m. And then there was the team shootaround just a few hours later at noon that didn’t leave much time for an extended rest.
So here is Thon Maker, one of the world’s most highly touted prospects—regardless of class—back at the hotel after shootaround just trying to catch his breath before a game later in the evening on this frigid Thursday afternoon in late February.
“It’s been real crazy,” says the 7-1 center. “I’ve had to really put my phone away. I still had to use it for alarms and stuff. But I turned the privacy on so that I don’t get the text notifications on my phone. I had already turned my Twitter notifications off.”
What could that tweet have possibly stated that warranted such a response?
“I’m on track to graduate this year but a lot of hard work ahead this summer!” Maker tweeted out from his school’s library on the morning of February 18. He continued, “No shortcuts on this road to success. #built4this”
While the tweet was merely an update on his academic progress, the implications it had on college coaches looking to fill up this fall’s incoming recruiting class and reporters looking to forecast the next few NBA Draft classes quickly became the main focus. Headline after headline focused on Maker having ‘reclassified’ from the junior class of 2016 (where he’s considered by many the top recruit of the pool) into the senior class of 2015. Only thing was, the reports weren’t quite accurate.
“I tweeted it out and then someone sent me a text right after I tweeted it, congratulating me for reclassifying,” recalls Maker. “I was like, I didn’t reclassify—what are you talking about? All I said was that I was on track to graduate. A few others started texting me after that, congratulating me—I got tired of it and had to go to class so I just turned the notifications off and put my phone on silent.”
The week prior to the tweet, Maker’s legal guardian and assistant coach, Edward Smith, held meetings with school officials to evaluate the 18-year-old’s credit situation and gauge how many classes were left in order for him to graduate. More importantly, the main question asked was whether Maker would be able to meet all of his graduation requirements by the time the school year ends on June 23—or, with some leeway, by the end of summer at the latest.
Smith laid out the remaining requirements to Maker and asked him to take a few days to ponder over whether he wanted to load up on the coursework for the remainder of the school year or just take it easy and graduate with the Class of 2016. Maker’s decision, says Smith, was delivered to him that same Wednesday not too far from how the rest of the recruiting world received it.
“I knew he was going to say something that day in terms of what he planned,” recalls Smith. “I just didn’t know what time. And then when all the messages started coming through my phone, I was like, Alright, he did.”
He continues, “The messages were in the hundreds, in terms of college coaches and media reaching out to see what was going on. It was a little bit of a firestorm for Thon, [head] Coach [Larry] Blunt and myself. [Assistant coach] Chuck Martin of Indiana was on it quick. He was the first college coach to reach out. And then [assistant coach] Kurtis Townsend of Kansas was next just moments later.”
Those are just two of the long list of collegiate programs that are courting the Sudanese-Australian teenager, which also includes Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan, Duke and others.
The buzz and excitement around Maker derives from the versatility and athleticism he embodies. He is practically a 7-footer with the skills of a guard—making him that much more of an intriguing prospect to evaluate, and having coaches and fans salivating at what the ultimate final product down the line could end up looking like.
It’s pretty easy to find online highlight reels of him bringing the ball up the floor, putting together a series of moves to shake off his defender and then either pulling up from behind the arc or finishing strong at the rim. Unavoidably, the comparisons to KG and KD have been rampant.
Just as scary as his ceiling is the fact that he only began hooping five years ago.
In order for him to graduate as a 2015 prospect, Maker’s to-do list includes three core classes, as well as finishing 40 hours of community service, meeting the French language requisites expected from all Canadian high schoolers and a literacy exam.
So what’s the rush to graduate so soon?
For starters, it brings him a step closer to fulfilling his dream of playing professionally. If Maker graduates with the Class of 2015, he can enter the NBA as early as 2016. Furthermore, playing another year of high school basketball just won’t provide the same kind of challenge, preparation and competition that moving on to the college ranks would.
“I’ve been getting ready for the next level so staying back would just take the energy and enthusiasm out of it,” says Maker.
Adds Smith on why expediting things is the logical option, “At the high school level he’s been good. But now you say, OK, he needs a bigger stage and a bigger challenge—more physical bodies. And so now we’ve said let’s try to move the process up so that he’s able to get to college sooner.”
Nonetheless, as Maker’s tweet carefully articulated, he’s stopped short of calling it a reclassification just yet. As he increases his workload, the “a lot of hard work ahead” part of the announcement revolves around getting it all done in a short period of time.
“I would say 70 percent chance right now that I can do it,” says Maker, who’s gone from a fragile 165 pounds to 211 now. “I just want to keep it open toward June so that I have both options. I don’t want to just be locked into the 2015 class and then not finish. I want to make sure that when I get closer to graduation time then I can make a decision.”
The second oldest of four brothers, Maker moved with his family from Sudan to Australia at the age of 5. There, he mostly played soccer. That was until 2010, when he met Smith and they began working. By May of 2011, his name began to circle the US prep scene after competing at the John Lucas Middle School Combine. That fall, he enrolled at Metairie Park Country Day in Louisiana as an eighth grader, with Smith serving as his legal guardian.
After winning the 2012 8th grade AAU Boys Nationals as a member of the Dunk Dog Elite, Maker returned to Metairie for ninth grade before transferring to the Carlisle School in Virginia a month into the new school year. As a sophomore, he led Carlisle to the Virginia Independent School Athletic Association Division II state title in 2014—averaging 21.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.2 blocks and 1.7 steals, and ultimately earning Gatorade state Player of the Year.
In the fall of 2014, many in the grassroots scene were stunned when Maker and Smith announced their departure from the United States for Canada’s Orangeville Prep. Historically, it’s been Canadian hoopers crossing the border into the States, not the other way around.
The move, though, was an upgrade by every measurement. Orangeville Prep uses the state-of-the-art Athlete Institute training facilities, whose perks include having catered meals, physical therapists, masseuses, ice-bath tubs and weight and cardio rooms, among others.
Additionally, not belonging to any state athletic associations, the team doesn’t have practice restrictions and can therefore do so year-round.
More so, it plays a rigorous schedule that has taken the team coast-to-coast throughout America. At times, even back-to-back games in different states—such as during MLK weekend, when they were in NYC for a Saturday night game at the Big Apple Basketball Invitational before partaking in a matinee on Sunday at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, MA.
“Everything that the pros have, we have here,” says Smith. “Thon wanted access to that. We’re playing a national schedule so we’re not ducking anybody.”
But not everyone was so keen with the decision, as some reporters took to Twitter to question the move.
“With Twitter, you can have a quick voice and people can forget about it real quickly,” says Smith. “You don’t really have to do your homework. So it’s not like someone’s going to hold those people accountable. So what I say to them is, basically, Don’t hate. Jeff Goodman [of ESPN], you should come and see this place for yourself. Have a little more patience and come see what it’s about before you come to a conclusion.”
In hindsight, the worries of Thon having to convince his parents that allowing him to cross the ocean at such a young age would be a good idea now seem so far and unwarranted.
“Now every time I talk to them, they always tell me, ‘Keep going. You’re doing a great job. We hear about you guys in the news,’” says Maker, whose younger brother Matur is a 2017 prospect at Orangeville. “When I decide to do something, it just makes me fully focused. I was just automatically locked in. This is the life I chose and this is the route I’m taking, and therefore we have to stay at 100 percent. It wasn’t in my DNA to be homesick. I was ready for it.”
Franklyn Calle is an Assistant Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @FrankieC7.