GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — You don't have to watch Thon Maker play basketball to get at least an inkling of how special he is and what he might become.
The slender 7-foot physique. The arachnoid limbs. The gliding gait. The disarming demeanor.
These are all useful clues for forming a fitting first impression of him. But it's not until you see Maker in motion on the hardwood that his limitless potential becomes apparent, if not blatantly obvious.
The fancy footwork. The smothering defense—be it on the perimeter, at the rim or any place in between. The smooth shooting out to NBA three-point range. The quick, tricky handles. The persistence in the paint. The leadership from end to end.
His frame belies his game. His game belies his age (17). And his age belies the journey that's brought him from the farmlands of South Sudan to the cities of Australia to the top of his high school class at Adidas Nations.
The Origins of a Sensation
Maker's remarkable past explains his extraordinary present. Like Manute Bol and Luol Deng, he's descended from the Dinka people, one of South Sudan's largest ethnic groups and one of the tallest in the world.
Maker's parents are no exception. His mother measures around 6'3". His father checks in at 6'8". His younger brother, Matur, has been marked between 6'10" and 6'11".
And, "He’s got a lot of tall uncles," Edward Smith, his coach and legal guardian, told Bleacher Report.
Thon was already 6'8" himself by the age of 13, when Smith first spotted him on a soccer field in Perth, Western Australia—eight years after Maker's family moved from South Sudan to Australia to give their children a Western education.
"I never considered him as a basketball player," said Smith, who founded the Next Level Basketball Academy in Sydney in 1996 and has taught basketball to Australia's Sudanese community for years. "It was just soccer. It was like, 'That’s a tall guy playing soccer.'"
It wasn't until he got a tip from another of his Sudanese pupils, former Ball State forward Majok Majok, about a kid known as "Longbody" that Smith took a more serious look at Maker.
"He was really raw, but he was tough," Smith said. "He was wet clay. No bad habits, so I could build his shot. I could build his fundamentals, his footwork, but he had all the other intangibles that you want in an athlete."
At first, Maker was reluctant to leave the soccer field behind to focus on organized basketball.
"I said no, not because of him, but just I didn’t want to play basketball," Maker explained. "But after trusting in him and going along with the plan, he said, 'Trust me, trust me.'
"After I see the results, I’m like, 'Wow, OK. Let me pick his brain. Let me listen. Let me slow down. Let me just go along with the game plan and see where else it takes me.'"
Smith's plan took Maker to the United States. With the permission of Maker's parents, Smith became not only Thon's coach, but also his legal guardian.
Smith's first inclination was to put Maker on a star-studded squad at Sierra Canyon High School in Southern California. But he ultimately decided against it.
"L.A.’s a big place, and you can get caught up here," Smith said.
Instead, Smith brought Maker to the Metairie Park Country Day School in Louisiana for his eighth grade and part of his ninth grade years. Maker didn't set foot in a competitive game for the school's basketball team during that first year. Rather, he focused on his academics and acclimated himself to his new surroundings.
Maker was already on the American basketball map by then. He'd turned more than a few heads while starring at the John Lucas Camp in Houston in May 2011 at age 14, as seen in the video below:
Building a Better Basketball Player
The burgeoning all-court skills that Maker displayed came not at Smith's behest, but rather at Thon's. Smith asked Maker how he wanted to play, and when Maker replied that he wanted to "have the complete game," Smith obliged.
"He said, 'I want to be like [Kevin] Durant, Kobe [Bryant] and [Kevin] Garnett combined,'" Smith recalled. "I was like, 'Whoa.' I said, 'Well, you have the body type.'
"If you learn the guard skills now, I can teach you the post skills later… He was too skinny to be a post player at that time, but he could be a big-ass guard and he could handle the ball."
So, rather than throw Thon to the wolves on the interior, Smith transformed the 6'10", 165-pound kid with size 15 shoes into an assassin off the bounce.
"My game is built inside-out," Maker noted. "I’ve got to attack first, weaken the defense and just foul the team out, basically, is what I’m trying to do. Then, that opens up the lanes, and then also it sucks the defense in and leaves the outside open."
Many of Maker's remarkable prerequisites—foot speed, balance, coordination, vision and understanding of passing angles—can be traced back to soccer fields. His upbringing in a game that demands ball movement and teamwork has made Maker surprisingly unselfish for a player of his size and skill, particularly in an AAU basketball culture that so often fosters and caters to the me-first mentality.
"Some people think I should be selfish every single time," Maker quipped.
In some ways, Maker is, though largely on the defensive end. His long limbs and lateral quickness allow him to cover more ground than most.
There are times when these attributes work to his club's detriment. He'll overcommit on occasion to help out his teammates, leaving his own man wide-open as a result.
For the most part, though, Maker's honest defensive efforts yield eye-popping results. "One time, we watched him defend five different people on the play," Smith recounted.
Said Nima Zarrabi, a longtime contributor to Slam who's been tracking Maker since his first appearance at Adidas Nations in 2012: "Did you see him guard a guard out on the perimeter?! Holy crap!"
The Journey Continues
Smith moved to Virginia in 2012 to be closer to his wife and five children, and he brought Thon with him.
Maker enrolled at the Carlisle School in Martinsville that fall. The following spring, Maker's team was in the state championship game. A year later, Maker carried the varsity squad to its seventh state title.
In between, Maker spent his summers seeking out a niche in the AAU world. Last summer, Maker played on the Nike circuit with the renowned Boo Williams club. This time around, Maker joined Team Loaded on the AAU circuit, and he plans to return next summer.
Maker was the star of this year's summer frenzy. He shined with the American squad at the Adidas Eurocamp in Treviso, Italy, in June and propelled Team Lillard to an undefeated run to the championship at Adidas Nations, despite hobbling on a tweaked ankle during the latter.
"He plays hard the whole time," said Scott Garson, a former assistant at UCLA who coached Team Lillard. "He’s just got a tremendous leadership quality about him because he’s got a great attitude."
Maker also happens to be a thoughtful kid who takes his studies seriously. His grade point average is just under 4.0, even amid a schedule littered with honors and International Baccalaureate courses.
"It’s Thon’s approach to things," Smith said. "He’s very methodical with everything. He’s the only guy that folds his wet clothes at an AAU game."
It helps, too, that Maker has a support network behind him. He regularly keeps in touch with his parents and occasionally visits them in Australia. Last November, Maker's younger brother Matur joined him under Smith's roof in Virginia.
"He works hard and, at the same time, I’m helping him out and he’s helping me out," Maker said of his younger brother. "And he’s improved a lot, too."
So much, in fact, that Matur, a member of the high school Class of 2017, has already fielded a scholarship offer from Indiana, per 247Sports.
He's Got Next
Maker has the talent to become the next basketball prototype: someone who's big enough and skilled enough to do everything better than most on both ends of the floor. It's a torch that's been passed between the likes of Magic Johnson and LeBron James.
Maker's long, fluid body and all-around game have evoked similar thoughts from observers this summer. As it happens, Maker might be even better equipped to thrive in today's shooting-obsessed, Europeanized NBA than even his idols were and are. He thrives in structured environments, where passing and cutting take precedent over the flashy ball-handling and daredevil shot-taking of AAU ball.
At present, the NBA remains at least three years away for Maker. There's no shortage of work for him to do in the meantime, particularly on his body. Playing so much competitive basketball has made it difficult for Thon to keep weight on his 7'1", 205-pound build, much less add any. As such, Smith has suggested that Maker won't be partaking in his high school team's full slate of games next season.
Without the proper bulk, Maker has some difficulty taking full advantage of his height. To some, that's rendered Maker "rim adverse." To Smith, Maker's never been afraid to mix it up.
"He likes the contact," Smith stressed. "That’s what I saw when I first saw him play. He was skinny as hell. He kept throwing himself in there and I’m like, 'This kid is going to kill himself!'"
That tenacity was on display during Maker's first game at this year's Adidas Nations against Team Africa. He got to the free-throw line 11 times, knocking down eight, and practically forced two of his opponents to foul out on his own.
Not that Thon was perfect. He committed 18 turnovers during Team Lillard's six games, registering the highest turnover rate of anyone who played at least 30 percent of his squad's minutes, per Late Night Hoops.
There's no rush for Thon to reach perfection. At this rate, he'll have another two years of high school and one in college to pack on the pounds and refine his skills. The coming years, though, could be replete with the distractions that so often derail the careers of basketball phenoms.
"The only thing I’d say is stay humble and stay hungry," said former NBA superstar Tracy McGrady, who's no stranger to what Maker is going through. "That’s it. Those are the two things you have to do.
"If you stay humble, all the press clippings and the attention that comes your way, just stay grounded. And stay hungry because there’s always somebody out there working just as hard as you."
So far, Maker's worked hard enough to set himself up for college. He's fielded athletic scholarships from nearly every major Division I basketball program in the country and has already visited a sizable swath of them—Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, UCLA, Indiana, Arizona, etc.—with plans to trim his list of schools before September.
He'll be just a junior in the fall, though at the age of 17, he fits more snugly with the rising seniors in the Class of 2015.
Maker could reclassify in due course, just as prep stars like Andre Drummond, Nerlens Noel, Andrew Wiggins, Noah Vonleh and Karl Towns have. Whether Maker takes that leap will depend on a host of factors, including the local and state rules regarding reclassification, his remaining coursework and his physical development.
As far as basketball is concerned, the point of college for Maker will be to showcase his skills for the NBA. Thon had ample opportunity to do just that at Adidas Nations, with NBA scouts sneaking peeks from the sidelines.
"You’re always on the stage," Smith remarked. "You always want to perform in moments like this and measure yourself. … These are all steps toward where you get recognized."
What those scouts saw was a tall, talented, tough kid with the requisite skills, as both a basketball player and a leader, to thrive in today's NBA.
Said Smith: "If he gets drafted by the [San Antonio] Spurs, he’ll be an All-Star."
And if you watch Thon Maker play basketball, you just might say the same.
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