Next Cats: Hard-working 7-footer Maker impossible for top programs to ignore

broberts@herald-leader.comMay 20, 2014 

Back in January, the man handling the recruitment of African basketball star Thon Maker said he hadn't even started asking college coaches if his player had scholarship offers from their schools.

Maker — a 7-footer with one of the most remarkable skill sets in the country — was in the middle of his sophomore season of high school then. His guardian, Edward Smith, was already having regular conversations with college coaches, but he and Maker were more focused on developing his game than leaping into the recruiting process.

That's starting to change.

"It gets serious now," Maker said Friday night. "Your junior year, that's basically the year where you really have to assess schools and work on your decision."

He'll have a lot to think about.

Now Smith is asking coaches about offers, and the list is getting long. Duke, Kansas, Louisville, Arizona, Indiana, Memphis and Georgetown are just a few of the schools that have answered in the affirmative.

UK assistant coach Kenny Payne called Smith this month and said the Wildcats would like to start recruiting Maker. Payne told Smith that he would be hearing from Coach John Calipari soon, and a scholarship offer could be extended during that conversation.

"He said when Coach Calipari steps up, he'll be speaking about what the plans are and what he has to do to get ready to be there," Smith said.

Maker was born in the Sudan — in an area that is now part of South Sudan — and left his home country at the age of 5 to escape a civil war.

He and his brother — 6-10 Matur Maker, a class of 2017 prospect — ended up in Australia, where they met Smith, a former college assistant coach from the United States who was running his own basketball academy.

More on the NextCats recruiting blog

Smith recognized Maker's potential and moved him to the United States just before his eighth-grade year. They settled at the Carlisle School in Virginia, and Maker has emerged as one of the best high school basketball players in the country, regardless of class.

"For his size and his age — he's very active, he's very mobile," said analyst Evan Daniels. "And I think that's one of his biggest strengths — his ability to get up and down the floor. He's a very good athlete. And he's skilled, man. On the offensive end of the floor, he can really do some things. He can step out and make jump shots, he can score on the block. He's going to need to get stronger, but he plays the game with energy and he plays the right way."

Smith said Maker talks to his parents — now living in Australia — every week, and they're pretty hands off about his college recruitment and the direction of his basketball career. Their main focus is academics, and Smith said Maker is a 4.0 student at Carlisle.

"As long as he's happy where he is, they're fine with it," he said.

Maker smiled and laughed during an interview session with reporters covering the Adidas Gauntlet event in Indianapolis last weekend.

He said he's put on about 15 pounds since the beginning of his high school season, but he's still rail thin in that 7-foot frame. Opposing players were as physical as possible with him, trying to rough him up at every opportunity to limit his game.

That's about the only way to stop him.

Maker's offensive game is still developing, but he already has enough post moves to dominate against smaller opponents. His shot-making ability extends all the way to the three-point line, and he never takes a play off.

On the other end of the floor, he's a matchup nightmare.

"Defense is always going to take care of itself," Maker said. "If you can't defend, you can't play anywhere else. That's automatic. But offensively, that's where you just have to put things to the test. The things you work on in practice the most."

Like seemingly every high school player these days who is 6-9 or taller with a jump shot, Maker said his favorite NBA player is Kevin Durant. But he added that he must have the "killer instinct" of players like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett to succeed at the next level.

It's that attitude that Smith says college coaches like most about him.

And it's that same attitude that — if Maker's body keeps developing — could turn him into one of the best basketball players in the world someday.

He's already made many sacrifices through a journey that has spanned three continents, and he's not about to stop working now.

"I stopped being normal, as people say. I just have a straight-up dream and block out everything else and just try to get to it the best I can."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216. Twitter: @NextCats. Blog:

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