Thon Maker's unconventional path to the draft might pay off

Hollis Bennett

HE'S DOING IT all wrong.

He's ignored the guidebook and thumbed his nose at the rulebook, chucking the typical route of a wannabe NBA draft pick in favor of his own convoluted path.

Thon Maker, a 19-year-old 7-footer from Sudan by way of Uganda, Australia, Louisiana, Virginia and Canada, has taken his 7-foot-3 wingspan and slapped conventional wisdom hard across the face.

As a young boy, he put his trust and faith in a basketball-coach-turned-guardian, following the man's advice and direction literally across the globe. At 16, he lived the dream of every social-media-loving teen and starred in a mixtape -- which he hates, and asks that no one mention, noting how much more there is to his game.

Just as he was starting to excel in a U.S. high school, where international hoops prospects long to show their talent, he bolted for Canada. Then, on the verge of a college career, the easiest place to audition for an NBA job, he decided to go pro.

Greeted with an age rule that the NBA protects like Fort Knox, he loopholed his way around it.

Workouts at the NBA draft combine in Chicago? Nope, individual team workouts and a handful of appearances at summits and classics will have to suffice. And no, he's not going on a media blitz to tell his unique story.

Instead, on the 10th anniversary of the NBA's age limit, Thon Maker is going to do everything wrong.

And here's the kicker.

On draft night next week, it just might work.

THE NBA'S DECISION to save future players from themselves, adopting an age rule that requires NBA draft entrants to be at least 19 and a year removed from graduation, prevented high school players from going from graduation to the green room. The now-dubbed "one-and-done" rule began a decade-long debate about the merits, ethics and necessity of such a rule, not to mention a waterfall of consequences, intended and otherwise.

Proponents, including the NBA commissioner, want to extend the minimum age to 20, while critics imply that the rule has racial undertones, arguing that other sports such as hockey and baseball, dominated more by white athletes, have no such rule.

Caught in the middle is a college game that has turned into the NBA farm system and with it athletes who might be ready to compete professionally but aren't allowed. With virtually no recourse, players have been forced to go to college or take risky routes around it (two years ago, Emmanuel Mudiay went to China to play, and prior to the 2009 draft Brandon Jennings played in Italy).

Until now.

With a convoluted international backstory and a guardian/mentor who has made a career out of helping his athletes buck the system, Maker has managed to do the unthinkable -- beat the establishment and convince NBA honchos to find a loophole in their beloved age rule.

Only a year ago, Maker, enrolled at Orangeville Prep outside Toronto, announced that rather than reclassify and go to college with the 2015 class as he'd planned, he would stay another year at Orangeville Prep. Then, presto chango, during that school year, Maker's camp argued that his final year was, more accurately, a postgraduate year. That, they challenged, meant Maker was a year removed from high school graduation and therefore eligible for the draft.

Stunningly, the NBA agreed. (Why? Well ..."The league is the league; they do what they want,'' one source says.)

On Thursday, Maker likely will become the first teenager since 2005 to be drafted in the first round and leap directly to the pros without a season of college, international or Development League ball.

Maker was working out in South Carolina when he found out he was clear to pursue his professional career.

"I had to be humble and know that, 'OK, this is like starting your freshman year in high school,'" he said at the combine in mid-May. "You really gotta go in there and put a big goal in your mind to get better. Now that your foot is in, you have to stay in."

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Maker is intelligent, thoughtful and respectful. Scouts who have seen him work out say he is the antithesis of the coddled protégé: He's a hard worker with a high motor who clearly has studied the game to get better. But even among those who have watched him closely since he became draft eligible, Maker has successfully -- and, in this day and age, impressively -- kept himself shrouded in mystery.

Maker is a living, breathing urban myth, a kid who showed up in a mixtape that led to the 7-1 sophomore being tagged the next Kevin Durant. Two years later, he remains something of a mystery. He isn't hiding -- he played on the summer-league circuit for various teams since arriving in the U.S. -- but he is being protected, even shielded.

In some circumstances that can be a good thing, and Maker has benefited from it. His life has been neither easy nor normal. Born in Sudan, he left his home country behind at age 6, when his uncle arranged for Thon and his family to escape the war-torn country. They spent a year in Uganda before being accepted as refugees by Australia. He spoke not a word of English when he arrived in Perth and was understandably wide-eyed at the cultural change.

"There was access to whatever you wanted," he said at the combine. "You go to the park, play with kids or go to church and play. You could play in rec centers. There's plenty of parks in Australia, like good ones with good grass."

A cousin -- Chier Maker, who will be a freshman on the University of Portland squad after redshirting last season -- introduced him to basketball and eventually to a man named Edward Smith. Liberian by birth and an alum of the Chaminade basketball program, Smith spent two years as an assistant at his alma mater before relocating to Australia and starting the Next Level Basketball Australia program in Sydney. He worked with kids who, like himself, had emigrated from African countries, helping them grow as basketball players and in some cases relocate to the U.S. to play.

Exactly how the Next Level organization operated and what it did remains a bit of a question in Australia -- "If you figure that out, let me know," says a person formerly affiliated with Australian basketball.

Recognizing the potential in Maker, Smith asked and received permission to become his legal guardian. Smith left behind his academy and the two moved to the U.S. when Maker was 13. After a brief stop in Houston at the International Middle School Combine -- where Maker's first mixtape, from 2011, was born -- they settled in Kenner, Louisiana, and Maker enrolled at Metairie Country Day School as an eighth-grader. Bright and articulate, he had no problems fitting in with the students, but basketball was a no-go. The Kenner address made him ineligible for the Metairie team.

A year later, relocated and with visa paperwork completed, Maker finally was declared eligible to play for Metairie on Nov. 19, 2012. Smith signed on as an assistant coach. In his first three games, Maker averaged 17 points. Nine days later, he was gone.

Smith announced Maker would be transferring to the Carlisle School in Virginia, citing the school's international baccalaureate program and acclaimed academic reputation, as well as Smith's own relationship with coach Jason Niblett.

In two years, Maker excelled at Carlisle, ascending to ESPN's No. 1 ranking in his recruiting class. But just as he started his junior year -- having finally made his way to the top of the critical U.S. recruiting scene -- Smith moved him again. This time, they went across the border to Canada and the Athlete Institute Basketball Academy, a state-of-the-art training facility; students enroll at the nearby Orangeville District Secondary School.

Here too Smith signed up as an assistant coach.

"It was a mutual agreement between myself and his mentor," Niblett said of Maker's decision to leave Carlisle. "He has Thon's best interest at heart as his parent/guardian. You can't fault him for that, whether you like the decisions or not."

BUT IS SMITH a good Samaritan who has directed Maker and other kids like him to a better life, one that will eventually help his family financially? Or is he merely a user, looking to line his own pockets with the profits from Maker's talents?

Talk to enough people and you'll get more confusion than concrete answers (Smith did not return requests for comments).

"I could never figure him out," says one college coach, who asked not to be named. "I could never decide if he was a good guy or not. He was something of a mystery. With Worldwide Wes [legendary basketball power broker William Wesley, who worked as a consultant for Creative Artist Agency], there was no mystery. You knew he was trying to get involved with the top kids, and you knew what he was about. I could never figure Ed out. I got the feeling he wanted to be the guy, but I was never quite sure what that meant."

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who recruited Maker hard, says he jokingly told his athletic director and compliance director, both lawyers, that it was their job to determine whether Maker could even play if he decided to come to South Bend.

But Brey also has known Smith since Smith was a 12-year-old playing in the Metropolitan Area Basketball School in Washington, D.C., back when Brey was coaching summer camps at DeMatha High School. Smith would go on to play summer ball at DeMatha rival St. John's.

He said his conversations with Smith were always on the up and up, even though it was clear that Maker's goal was to get to the NBA, not necessarily a Final Four.

"Ed's a businessman, and what I mean by that is he was marketing the kid, putting him in the right places to get to the NBA," Brey says. "We never got sideways with him. I know people have said he always has his hand out, but we never experienced that. Would we if we had gone further? Maybe. I don't know. He moved him around a lot, but he was never looking for a deal from us."

Maker is not the only player Smith has aided. Majok Majok played at Ball State, and Gorjok Gak just recently committed to Florida.

Before Maker, Ater Majok was arguably Smith's best shot at an NBA prospect. The 6-10 power forward started at the Heat Basketball Academy (another institute that outsources academics) and ended at Connecticut. But the heralded recruit's time in Storrs was pockmarked by an NCAA inquiry into his high school transcripts that cost him an entire year and a strange and sudden departure from the school after just one uninspiring season.

Now playing in Beijing -- the latest stop on the journeyman's career that has included Belarus, Poland, Korea, Israel and Taiwan -- Majok is still guarded when asked about his tenure at UConn, his decision to leave the school and, above all else, his relationship with Smith.

On the one hand, he acknowledges that he could not have made it without Smith's help, but when asked to elaborate on his relationship, he says, "I don't think it's the right time to open up."

"The decision I made in my path for my career, separating myself from Ed Smith, it turned out pretty well," Majok says. "I felt like it was time for me to move in a different direction. Focus on a different path, focus on a different light. Everybody is a good guy and a bad guy, depending on how you view him."

BUT THE NBA isn't drafting Edward Smith.

Guardians, hangers-on and extended posses come up in conversations with potential draft picks -- Maker said he was asked about Smith and the various moves during his high school career -- but this isn't the NCAA. There are no amateurism rules to violate or concerns about eligibility. The NBA will draft Maker on his own merit.

Which cuts to the core of all of this intrigue and the real mystery of Thon Maker: After everything he has been through -- traversing the globe, switching schools and challenging the NBA age rule -- just how good is he?

"We don't know," one scout says. "He's this kid no one has seen, but his reputation is so grand."

He has impressed in most of his team interviews, his level of basketball intelligence and intellect shining through. But his high school, compared with U.S. schools, is an unknown in terms of its competitive level ("We know what Oak Hill is," one scout says). He did not play collegiately, so there is no measuring stick based on 30 games of head-to-head competition. And Maker declined a chance to play at the NBA combine in Chicago.

Many scouts base their assessments on actual game play -- and with Maker they don't have much to go on. He played in last year's Hoop Summit but was disappointing: Going head-to-head against Skal Labissiere, who played one year at Kentucky, Maker had two points and 10 rebounds to Labissiere's 21 points, 6 rebounds and 6 blocks.

"The concern for anyone is no one has ever seen him play," another scout says. "That Hoops Summit is the barometer. I would say (he's a risk). The less you get to see, the less information you have, the increased risk you feel like there is."

At a pre-draft showcase in New York City in late May, Maker was part of a large group that went through drills for close to 100 scouts. Most agree that he was, as he's often been, good if not jaw-dropping. His outside shot was decent and good for a guy his size. He made a fair share of 3-pointers, had decent ballhandling skills -- especially for a 7-footer -- and was obviously an athlete. "On a scale of 1 to 5, if 5 was a freak, he'd be a 4," a scout says.

But ...

Maker, who did complete the measurable assessments at the combine, set records for men 6-11 and over in the standing and max vertical. He was near the top among big men in the three-quarter sprint drill and shuttle run.

Which explains why, despite the curious steps and questionable decisions, concerns about his guardian and weighing of risks, things might turn out just right for Thon Maker on draft day.

"He's a 7-foot mystery," a scout says. "But he's a 7-foot mystery. I guarantee you someone will take the guy."

Baxter Holmes and Chad Ford contributed reporting.