A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
LET'S TALK ABOUT the video, the three-minute mixtape that catapulted a skinny kid with an oversized game onto the national stage. Thon Maker has been on college basketball's radar since 2012, when the Sudanese refugee first arrived, via his adopted homeland of Australia, on the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, outside of New Orleans. A seven-foot teenager with guard skills doesn't stay anonymous for long, and Southern newspapers brought local attention. But it wasn't until Deadspin posted a highlight video in February (headline: 7-FOOT-1 HIGH SCHOOL SOPHOMORE PLAYS BASKETBALL LIKE KEVIN DURANT) that Maker was properly introduced to a wider audience. The clip, which showed Maker executing an array of windmill dunks, alley-oops and crossovers, has since reached nearly 100,000 page views. Interview and autograph requests have increased exponentially—all for a player who's two years away from wearing a college uniform.
The attention is deserved. At a lean 205 pounds, the 17-year-old possesses both Durant's body type and a raw version of his skill set. As a sophomore last season he led the Carlisle School (in Martinsville, Va.) in almost every major category: 21.3 points per game, 13.3 rebounds and 4.2 blocks. He blends an array of hooks and over-the-shoulder post jumpers with a polished midrange game and an emerging three-point shot (28.0%). Rivals.com, Scout.com and ESPN rank him among their top three sophomores, and he's being recruited by the likes of Arizona, Duke, Kansas and Kentucky.
How has a raw refugee developed in three short years into one of the most intriguing college prospects in recent history—what one D-I assistant calls "clearly a high major college player and a potential pro"? The answer lies in a leafy Northern Virginia suburb, where on a chilly afternoon last month Maker answers the door dressed in a white T-shirt, black shorts and flip-flops. Clarification: a Maker answers the door. Thon's younger brother, 16-year-old Matur, is a similarly slender 6'10", and he greets a visitor in the foyer of the modest two-story house that the siblings share with Edward Smith, a development coach who discovered Thon in Australia in 2010, became his legal guardian in '11 and moved with him to the U.S. a year later. Take note, college recruiters: Maker's backstory is complicated.
IN THE EARLY 2000s, Sudan was immersed in a bloody civil war. Fighting and famine had cost the East African nation millions of lives and forced countless more to flee the country. Among those refugees were the Makers, who migrated to Uganda in '02 and then, a year later, to Australia, which has become a safe haven for an estimated 20,000 Sudan-born immigrants.
It was there that the Makers met Smith, a former basketball player and grad assistant at Chaminade who'd abandoned his pursuit of a master's degree in Japanese business science ("I was sitting at a desk thinking, This isn't what I want to do with my life," he says) to coach basketball.
A bit of a nomad himself, Smith had moved from Hawaii to Hiroshima to Sydney, where he grew fascinated by Australia's hoops culture. There, high school ball is played at a club level, with elite players—such as Dante Exum, a projected top five pick in this year's NBA draft—being invited to enroll and train at the Australian Institute of Sport. Smith saw an opportunity: He'd work with players who weren't quite at the AIS level. But his offers of help to local clubs were met with something less than enthusiasm. "The first team I went to told me they didn't need help from Yankees anymore," he says. Instead, Smith struck out on his own, opening Next Level Basketball Program in Sydney.
Over the past two decades Smith has helped develop an array of players who have made the jump from Australian clubs to U.S. colleges. Luke Martin, a point guard, went on to play at UTEP; shooting guard James Wang became the No. 4 alltime scorer at D-III Williams College; forward Ater Majok started 22 games at Connecticut. All three played professional ball overseas.
In 2010, Smith was working with Chier Maker, a 6'7" forward who he believed had a shot at making the same move, when he heard about Chier's cousin Thon—a gangly 6'5" 13-year-old in Perth known as Long Body. He "had this ugly two-handed jump shot," says Smith. "But you could tell, with his speed and the way he used his body, that he had potential."
Smith was surprised when Thon initially declined an offer to train with him. Maker is as intelligent as he is athletic—he's fluent in English and Dinka and speaks a bit of Arabic—and he had other goals in mind. "I want to work in information technology," Maker says. "Eventually this world is going to move entirely on computers, and I want to be in that field."
"He told me he wanted to be the black Bill Gates," Smith recalls with a laugh. "If you play in the U.S.," the coach told Thon, "you can do both."
Maker was in. In 2011, Smith brought his new pupil to Houston to participate in a camp run by former NBA coach John Lucas. Maker quickly became the talk of the camp, dazzling coaches with his defense and ballhandling.
Though Maker had the size to dominate in the post, he worked tirelessly with Smith to develop a well-rounded game. His daily drills included shooting from the elbows, midpost and beyond the three-point line. "I don't want to be the traditional African center that runs up and down the court, sets screens and blocks shots," he says. "It's easy to play the post—it's footwork. Basketball is like chess. You have to give your opponents different looks."
Smith began reaching out to American high school coaches about his protégé, and as Maker's eagerness to compete in the U.S. grew, Thon says his parents agreed to make Smith his legal guardian. "I knew that every hanger-on would try to pull the family in different directions," says Smith. "I explained to them: I want to make sure there are no outside influences, that we focus on basketball."
"It was tough leaving my family at first," adds Maker, "but I told them I wanted to do this. They told me to get to work."
In 2012, Maker moved with Smith to Louisiana, where he enrolled at Metairie Park Country Day. One year later Maker transferred to the Carlisle School in Virginia. ("Country Day wasn't the right fit," says Smith, whose wife and five children joined him in moving.) In 2014, Maker was named Virginia's D-II player of the year and led the Chiefs to the state title. Carlisle blew out its state-tournament opponents by an average of 25.3 points.
NOT EVERYONE HAS been happy with Maker's success. His migration to the U.S. rankled Australian sports officials, who would have preferred that he develop in their programs. Others point to Smith as little more than a human treasure hunter. "He's got Thon moving around the country; I find it hard to believe he's looking out for Thon's best interest," says Ian Stacker, a former Australian senior national team coach. "It's pretty clear that Ed thinks Thon is his meal ticket."
Smith writes off such attacks as the frustrations of losing a potential star. "Australia's is a government-run basketball system," says Smith. "They're paid to produce talent." He also points to the presence in his home of Matur—who joined Smith and Thon last year and is now a freshman at the Carlisle School—as proof that the family supports him. "If there was a problem with the parents, why would Matur be allowed to come here?" he asks. "They are completely supportive." (Thon's I-130 papers, which allowed him to enter the U.S. as Smith's ward, are not public record, and Smith declined to share them with SI.)
Maker shrugs off the controversy. At home in Martinsville he appears completely at ease around Smith, whom he refers to as Coach and to whom he defers any questions about his future. He says that his parents (who speak primarily in their native Dinka) have moved from Australia back to Africa but that he stays in touch with them over the phone. "And you know what they would say if they were asked about me?" he poses. "They would say, Talk to Coach Smith."
As Maker's game grows, so too will the attention. In a tournament last summer he put up 15 points and collected 10 rebounds against highly-rated Duke-bound prospect Jahlil Okafor (sidebar). In the state championship game last month, Maker led Carlisle with 26 points and 16 rebounds. And yet he refuses to look too far into the future. He isn't thinking about colleges yet—certainly not the NBA. He's focused instead on honors chemistry and his computer science class. He's worried about maintaining his 4.03 GPA. He's busy thinking about ways that he can help repair his war-torn homeland.
For Thon Maker, a bright basketball future can wait a little while longer.
"I don't want to be the traditional African center that runs up and down the court, sets screens and blocks shots," says Maker.
Maker still has two more high school seasons remaining, but these NCAA freshmen-to-be will storm college courts in November. Here are SI's top five recruits.
Arguably the best center prospect since Dwight Howard, Okafor blends NBA size (6'11", 260 pounds) with a polished post game and an ability to dominate the glass.
Seven-foot, 240-pound defensive stopper has superior shot blocking skills. A perimeter scorer, he's so far showcased a nice pick-and-pop game.
Burly 6'9", 240-pound forward lives in the paint. A rugged rebounder with a rapidly developing post game, he has soft hands and a nice touch around the rim.
Combines a diverse repertoire in the post (6'10", 245 pounds) with an advanced perimeter game. His strong ballhandling makes him an intriguing point-forward prospect.
The best wing player in his class, Johnson (6'6", 225 pounds) is constantly on the attack, overpowering opponents with his size and ability to score through contact.
Photograph by KELLY KLINE
As an eighth-grader in 2012, Maker soared over high-school-aged competition at the Under Armour Grind Series camp.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
KELLY KLINE (TURNER)