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CHICAGO — From South Sudan to Australia to Virginia to Canada and every stop in between, here sat Thon Maker, ringed lightly in sweat and heavily by questions. A couple dozen reporters left no breathing room for the young 7-footer, confined to a table the size of a school desk, asked to teach some complex history: his own.
Maker, of course, is the guy who beat the rules this year, leaping from prep school in Ontario straight to the NBA at age 19 as a player whose most well-known body of work is a two-minute, 42-second mixtape from February 2014. It’s all most people know, including some of the media members surrounding him. The video spawned headlines deeming him a Kevin Durant/Chris Paul hybrid, and the headline-grabby, click-baitey internet basketball culture chalked up a victory, perhaps at his expense. But even as his high school star diminished a bit, established college stars drew lesser crowds around the room. The world wants to know about Thon Maker, and he seems mostly okay with that.
He gently dodged questions on Friday about interviews with teams, and where he would have gone to college. He gets asked to describe himself in the third person, and obliges. He discussed the merits of English soccer club Arsenal. He says his on court role model is Kevin Garnett and that he hopes to bring the same tenacity and leadership, tried draft-prospect tropes, but personal statements nonetheless. Any self-seriousness came with a sly sense of humor. “[I can’t] talk trash like [KG] does ... but I’ll get into it,” Maker says, “to the point where I start talking about their mother.”
How many places has he lived, total? “I don’t know,” he jokes. “Do the research.” Maker left South Sudan at six, came to the states at 13 and headed for Canada four years later as a spindly high school superstar and REVOLUTIONARY 7 FOOTER. Now, here, he’s just another guy with upside, wingspan and standing reach, hoping to make it.
“People gotta stop with the mixtape stuff,” Maker says, with a hint of exasperation. “That’s not me.” He continues.
“I bet you those people who put them out haven’t sat through a whole game of mine and watched it. My defensive rotation, the way I communicate to my teammates, the way I pass the ball,” Maker says. “They probably got the bad passes, the one-hand passes, not the fundamental, two-hand, jump-stop, they don’t get to see all that stuff. Some people use that to identify me, and I told the teams what it is.”
“I said I like Durant as a player. They said I think I think I’m Durant.”
Nobody will mistake Maker for Kevin Durant any longer, nor will most point to Garnett as a touchstone for his potential. NBA scouts and front-office types have treated him with an air of skepticism, the precluding hype an undeniably quiet undertone. But he’s a topic of conversation, here at the combine where few of the draft’s biggest stars bothered to show face.
Teams are curious, and perhaps warming to Maker the person, not the concept. He’ll run through private workouts for the next several weeks in controlled settings. Maker has been working out with Brandon Ingram and apparently has fared well one-on-one against the potential No. 1 pick. His size, shooting touch, shot blocking, defensive intensity and apparent mental approach are all notable dimensions. Somebody will be rolling the dice.
“It can’t get any colder than Canada,” he says. “It can’t get any hotter than South Sudan. I’ll get accustomed to anywhere I go. I just want to stick in the NBA.”
The Process Evolves
Holding impromptu court with the media Friday was new Sixers president Bryan Colangelo, who’s been running interviews, scouting players with the 24th and 26th selections in mind and generally reframing his organization in a post-Sam Hinkie context all week. He said meeting with player agents had been an especially productive process. “They want to talk about who they have in the draft, general issues about the organization, the direction, they want to know and understand where we’re going with it. It’s helpful in that way.”
Colangelo said he recently held a three-day session with all of the team’s scouts in Philly, and that he really respected the organization’s preparation to date, noting that he’d opted to kept the front office mostly intact. He added that he’d read almost all of the reports in the team’s database, in addition to his own research during the season and a pair of trips to Europe. He commended Brett Brown for “keeping the ship afloat,” and affirmed that the head coach deserved the chance to run the show after all the losing the Sixers have endured.
He also spoke like a man more than willing to make a deal. “With so much flexibility, we’re a team that everybody wants to talk to,” he said. “We’ve got good, young developing pieces and we’ve got draft picks and those assets are equal value, and value, options and alternatives equal conversation, [and] sometimes stimulates that activity.” Prodded further, Colangelo conceded that “everything’s on the table.”
“We’re just not good enough right now as a team to hold anything back,” he explained. “But we need to make sure any decision that’s made, whether it’s existing players being traded, or picks, you need to do it in a prudent and pragmatic way. We’ve talked about not racing out to the middle and getting stuck. We’ve talked about taking incremental steps. That theme is going to be consistent throughout this whole process, and it’s not just the next few weeks leading up to the draft, it’s going to be over several years that we’re taking these steps. ”
The Sixers have plenty of diligence left to do as owners of three and possibly four first-round picks. They’ll get the Lakers’ pick, in the event L.A. is bumped out of the top three, and can swap with the Kings, if Sacramento lucks out and leapfrogs them at the top. The lottery is Tuesday, and Colangelo called winning it a “euphoric feeling.” Philadelphia has the best odds.
“It’s a big day,” he said. “We’re going to know where we are, and no matter how it comes out. We’re at least gonna know where we stand and what we have to play with with respect to building this team.”
PHOTOS: Every No. 1 NBA draft pick in the lottery era
Thursday’s column highlighted several players who stood out in the five-on-five, and hold intrigue for teams from the middle of the draft to the second round. Picks 20–40, and perhaps even further down, are filled with potentially valuable role players. From that angle, it’s a pretty good draft. Here are three guys who stuck out on Friday.
The late-blooming Gbinije, coming off an unlikely Final Four run, continues to turn heads with his playmaking ability and defensive instincts at 6' 7". The Syracuse star turned in 17 points, four assists, four steals and a pair of threes, and versatility will be the calling card for one of the oldest players in the draft (he turns 24 in June). He worked out for the Spurs in private before the draft, and strong individual workouts in the next couple weeks will strengthen his case as a second-rounder. There are few pure point guards in this draft, and Gbinije isn’t one of them, but there are plenty of ballhandlers with upside. Put him in that category.
Finney-Smith told me on Thursday he spoke with teams including the Wizards, Knicks and Heat this week. According to a source, the Hawks are showing interest, and he worked out for the Celtics and Spurs prior to the combine. He checked out well physically (just under 6' 8" in shoes, nearly 7-foot wingspan) and after earning his combine invite with a good showing at Portsmouth, had 16 points in Friday’s scrimmage and shot 36% from three as a senior. He continues to appeal as a high-energy, glue-guy sort of forward.
It seems like at least one freakish athlete makes a name for himself around this time every year, and this week, Bolomboy looked like that guy. The 6' 9" Weber State product turned in the combine’s top recorded lane agility time and ranked in the top 10 for shuttle drills and three-quarter court sprint. His standing vertical of 37.5" was tied for second-best, and his 40.5" max vert put him sixth. Test results always come with a grain of salt, but when they’re consistently high all around, one notices these things.
The combine was a significant win for Bolomboy: His ability around the rim (he had a couple of stunning dunks) and intriguing skill set stood out during both days of five-on-five. He averaged 17.1 points and 12.6 boards as a senior while shooting 36% from three for a strong mid-major program. He’s a bit of a tweener offensively at forward, but appears one of the more unique prospects available, especially in the mid-to-late portion of the draft. This looks like the type of guy that somebody is going to take.