Makur Maker got a great first impression of Calipari
With the 2019 recruiting cycle pretty much complete and more attention turning to the basketball class of 2020, a mysterious talent with a familiar last name is quickly emerging as arguably the nation’s most interesting high school prospect.
The recruiting rise of Makur Maker — cousin of NBA player Thon Maker — has included speculation that he might reclassify to 2019 and play college basketball this season or perhaps skip the college route altogether, instead opting for a one-year pro stint overseas before heading off to the NBA Draft.
Maker’s guardian, Ed Smith, agreed to a lengthy interview with the Herald-Leader at last week’s NBPA Top 100 Camp in Charlottesville, Va., expounding upon the young prospect’s path to the United States, his growing game, and his basketball future.
Smith, who helped guide Thon Maker through his amateur career, also reflected on lessons learned from that process, the level of mutual interest between the Maker camp and Kentucky’s coaches, and the ongoing speculation that Makur won’t play college basketball at all.
“Everybody thinks he’s not going to college,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Ah, Ed’s going to send him pro.’ That’s how it is.”
Smith said that line of thinking is off base, and — if Makur does indeed play college basketball — UK could already be in a prime spot in his recruitment.
Path to America
Makur Maker was just a 1-year-old when he left his native Kenya — his parents had emigrated there from South Sudan before he was born — for Australia, where he lived until moving to the United States and enrolling as a high school freshman at Chaminade (Calif.) in 2015.
He played his freshman season there, and his older cousins — Thon and Matur, another former Top 100 recruit — told Makur’s parents to send the teenager to Canada under the tutelage of Smith, who had been their own guardian before sending them off to pro careers after high school.
Smith said Makur was 172 pounds at the time — he’s around 230 now, standing 6-11 with a noticeably bulkier frame than Thon at this stage in his development — and he played the 2016-17 season in Canada before sitting out the next one with a foot injury.
Last season, Smith took Makur back to California, this time enrolling at Orange Lutheran High School, where he quickly emerged as one of the top recruits in the 2020 class.
247Sports placed him No. 2 nationally in its rankings update earlier this month.
“Makur understands how to play basketball,” Smith said. “He knows a lot about the game at a higher level … He understands the extra pass. He’s not a point guard. People are trying to say he’s a 7-foot point guard. We look at guys like Nikola Jokic, these type of big forwards who can do other things — like facilitate and stretch the floor — but are willing to play around the rim. He’s physical inside. He posts up and presents a big target. But, usually, high school guards are still getting a feel for getting the ball in there. So it’s almost discouraging when you’re telling a kid to keep posting up, and he gets down to the block and then the ball doesn’t get there.
“Then he’ll say, ‘Well, I might as well use my other skills.’ And that’s when the other skills start to happen.”
Along with his size, length and athleticism, Makur brings plenty of energy to the court. He dominated the Adidas circuit this past spring as a high-level rim-runner with perimeter skills, and Smith says he’s already bought in to certain strengths of his game that aren’t always the highest priorities for top-ranked recruits.
“There are some things we have that we say are non-negotiables — rebounding, defending and communicating — those are non-negotiables for a person his size,” Smith said. “To be able to do that, you get some freedom offensively. But if you’re not doing your main job of cleaning up the glass and defending and communicating and protecting the rim — that’s what keeps you with a team. That’s what helps teams win. And people want to know, ‘How are you going to help me win?’
“It’s like Anthony Davis when he was in high school. He handled the ball and did all that. Once UK got him, he had a job to do. It didn’t take away from his skills that he had. When he went to the league, he had a chance to stretch it out and do more. But you have a skill set that you have to do to help teams win games. That’s your primary responsibility as a player. We’re not playing on a damn playground. You’re here to help people win championships, and at the same time help yourself achieve your goals.”
As Makur’s star rose throughout this past basketball season, the reclassification buzz in recruiting circles ramped up.
He was adamant at the Top 100 Camp that he won’t make the move to 2019.
“Definitely staying in 2020. Giving it one more year,” Maker said last week.
Smith told the Herald-Leader that a move to 2019 — which would allow Makur to play college basketball this coming season — is not a possibility, even if they wanted to reclassify. According to his guardian, Makur still has two core classes to complete, in addition to a few necessary electives for high school graduation.
“So there’s no way he’s going to do it,” Smith said. “We’re deep in the summer. He’s not going to get it done. He’s not reclassing.”
Makur could, however, end up on Kentucky’s campus very soon.
When asked last week if there were any schools he planned to visit this summer, UK was the only program the five-star prospect specifically mentioned.
John Calipari and Kenny Payne met with Makur and Smith in California earlier this spring, and the lines of communication have remained open ever since. Calipari, who hasn’t landed a commitment from a top-five prospect since the 2015 class, has also watched Makur play in various camp settings over the past few weeks.
“It was awesome,” Smith said of the meeting with UK coaches. “It was, ‘You gotta come and take what you want.’ And that’s really the message: you’re not given anything. If you want it, you have to take it. But, also, in trying to take it, you have to care about all the other families that have dreams. You have to care about your teammates. You have to care about their success.
“He’s not saying, ‘We’re just going to give it.’ He’s saying, ‘We’re going to compete, but we’re going to care. Sometimes you might have 20 (points). Sometimes you might have 10. Sometimes you’re the leading rebounder or you’re doing other things, but your talent is going to come out by being in such an environment. People are going to know that you’re around talented players.’”
Smith noted that Makur has flourished in the company of several other highly touted prospects on his Dream Vision travel team this spring, and he’s already on board mentally with the kind of role Calipari would be pitching for him at Kentucky.
“He gets it, yeah,” Smith said. “It’s part of development, too. Because when you go into the league, everybody’s talented. So if you understand how to play the game, make the extra pass, and still be talented — and it is about passing the ball, especially at this high school level. Kids don’t pass the ball. Kids hold it. They think, ‘Oh, I’m going to go 1-on-5’ and do things like that. So you want him to stay within the team concept but, then, when you need to go, ‘Go.’”
Kentucky’s coaches said they wanted to get Makur on campus for a recruiting visit, and Smith said he planned to check in with Payne after the Top 100 Camp to hammer down a date. He said Makur would not be doing anything on the court between now and next month’s live evaluation period, and a first visit to Lexington could very well fall within that time frame.
Smith added that they would also return to Kentucky for a game at Rupp Arena sometime this season.
This will be Smith’s third go-round with the Maker family and the recruiting process.
Similar things related to a college future were said during the recruitments of Thon and Matur, but neither of those players ended up playing college ball before starting their pro careers.
Smith said there are stark differences between those recruitments and Makur’s path.
“I learned a lot from that experience,” he acknowledged.
Thon also bounced around as a high school prospect, with academic stops in New Orleans and Virginia before settling at Orangeville Prep in Canada. At one point on UK’s radar as one of the top-ranked recruits in the 2016 class, Maker was eyeing schools such as Arizona State, Indiana and Kansas toward the end, before eventually declaring for the NBA Draft right out of high school due to a loophole in the league’s eligibility requirements.
Smith said he had planned for Thon to attend college first, but it’s still unclear if he would have ever gained eligibility. A five-star player from the previous class with a similar background, Cheick Diallo, missed time as a freshman and never really clicked in one season at Kansas after a lengthy eligibility battle.
“I’m not a record-keeper type of person,” Smith said. “I’m just focused on getting the kid better. Getting him the best academic situation — and he went to really great schools. I’m not a person who was thinking, ‘How did you get down to this camp?’ I wasn’t versed with the NCAA handbook about, ‘How did you get to this camp?’ I got him to where he could get better. ‘Did the camp fly you down? Did they give you this?’ Nah, I wasn’t going through all of that.
“I watched what happened with guys like Cheick Diallo and everything like that. I was like, ‘I don’t want these guys having to sit and go through all this. And worry about if I’m going to play or not.’”
Thon’s younger brother, Matur, had similar eligibility questions along with what Smith called a “late start” academically. He said the NCAA wouldn’t have cleared him for immediate eligibility, so they decided to go overseas.
The Milwaukee Bucks selected Thon with the 10th pick in the 2016 draft, and he has since been traded to the Detroit Pistons. Matur played this past season in Europe and has been working out with NBA teams this spring in anticipation of taking the G League route this winter.
Smith said Makur’s recruitment shouldn’t be bogged down by any eligibility issues with the NCAA.
“Now, Thon just flies us everywhere,” he said. “I can show you the credit card receipts. But back then, I didn’t even think about it like that. … I think with Makur it’s a lot more simple, because Thon’s backing everything in terms of that. So it’s relatively simple with him.”
Preparing for the future
While Smith said that Thon would never trade being the No. 10 overall pick in the NBA Draft, he acknowledged that — during that first season with the Bucks — he would sometimes get calls from the young NBA player saying he had been hanging out at local Marquette University.
“He was still young,” Smith said. “Those were his peers. So you gravitate toward that. Plus, we didn’t move out there with him. I told him ‘Thon, if you were going to college I wouldn’t move out there with you. I want you to grow. Grow on your own.’ … Everybody has a different path. I think that’s the most important thing in this.”
Makur is still just 18 years old — Smith hit back hard at speculation that he is older, saying they have plenty of supporting documentation — and will not turn 19 until Nov. 4 of this year.
Smith said he’s looking forward to the college experience, and he sees many aspects of that level that will help with his basketball future, on and off the court.
“If you look at what college did for Zion (Williamson) — the marketing that happened with college basketball for Zion, the opportunity for people to see him and for him to play high-level games, competitive games in an environment with a lot of pressure — there’s a lot to say about that preparation for the next level,” Smith said.
He noted that Thon had already played hundreds of competitive basketball games — in AAU ball, as part of a high school team with a national schedule, and in countless major-camp settings — before he jumped to the NBA. Makur hasn’t played nearly as much.
“Thon was different. Thon had a lot of games under his belt,” Smith said. “I think Makur needs more reps, more meaningful games, more meaningful situations. He’s just scratching the surface now. What he will be next year, and then going into his freshman year — it’s just a process. And with Thon supporting him, he doesn’t have any rush to go anywhere. There’s no economic rush for him to go anywhere. No pressures on that situation. There’s none of that.”
Thon has indeed taken a hands-on role with Makur’s basketball development and is likely to be a voice in his recruitment, as well. “Oh, yeah. Big time,” Smith said. “From talking, mentoring, support — everything he needs. He’s made sure he gets everything he needs.”
During this high school season, Makur will continue to focus more on his skills in the paint. Though he’s already gained YouTube fame for his perimeter abilities — like Thon did before him — Makur’s future is in the post, and he’s embracing that role.
Smith listed Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina, Auburn, Oregon, Alabama, Southern Cal, Washington State and Nevada among the many college programs that have been inquiring about Makur’s recruitment to this point.
Not everyone in basketball circles is sold that he’ll actually end up playing college ball, and Smith said he understands the doubters. Over the next several months, everyone will see where Makur Maker’s basketball future leads.
“Everybody thinks he’s not going to college, but they’ll be trying to come in late when they figure it out,” Smith said with a laugh. “Then they’ll be behind the game.”