TORONTO — The carnival mirror reflecting Thon Maker's NBA potential has produced wildly varying images over the years. At 16, he was once viewed as the game's next Kevin Durant. At 18, "scouts weren't seeing it" with him, according to ESPN's Fran Fraschilla. Just this past summer, we heard he's a "high lottery pick" after a few standout performances at the NBPA Top 100 Camp and Under Armour All-America Camp.
And this is all before he's played a single college game.
Currently a senior at Orangeville Prep in Canada, Maker has mesmerized with his upside and disappointed with flaws. He's already one of the most polarizing NBA prospects in recent memory.
A 7'1" power forward with a 7'2 ½" wingspan and the ability to face up and score, it's clear what makes him so intriguing. In Toronto this past weekend, Maker was named to the All-Tournament team at the Basketball Without Borders Global Camp, where coaches and scouts packed a gym filled with young international up-and-comers.
His maturity is also beyond reproach.
In a brief interview, I asked Maker what he wanted to prove in the showcase event, and his authenticity—or, rather, desire for authenticity—was striking. "Just try to play hard to win games and to be versatile. And also be a great teammate. I'm not faking anything I'm doing out here," Maker said. "I'm being myself. I'm not faking anything."
It's also easy to understand what fuels the skepticism. He's a skinny 222-pounder who turns 19 years old at the end of February. Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles, two Duke incoming freshmen and projected 2017 top-three picks, are both 17.
At BWB, Maker mostly converted easy buckets during five-on-fives over the three days, thanks to size, length, athleticism and hustle. Energy is the first thing anyone mentions when discussing Maker's strengths. It was clear why, Friday to Sunday, as he consistently sought to beat the defense down the court.
At one point, he finished an alley-oop in transition after blocking a shot and running the floor. Despite lacking well-documented bulk, he competed defensively in the paint.
On the other hand, Maker struggled offensively in the half court, showing little ability to separate into high-percentage looks out of the post. And though confident in his perimeter game, he was brutal from outside, having missed almost every jumper he took.
"It's way better than what I showed," Maker told me after the final session in Toronto, referring to his jump shot. "It's funny because I got in here, I was making shots early in the morning, and then we got into game situations, and I don't know what happened. I'll keep working, though."
The challenges ahead for Maker are obvious: Will he be strong enough to thrive down low or skilled enough to threaten the defense outside?
One scout talked about Maker's green light in high school—which allows him to take any shot he wants—and how it hasn't done him any favors. But the scout also addressed his improved body and tireless work ethic before predicting the Australian big man would eventually find the 2017 lottery.
The Durant comparisons are now gone, however. We're no longer referring to Maker as the game's next big scorer. Instead, the idea that his motor will drive his value has become the more accepted assessment.
"I want that to be part of me, not just something as a label," Maker said, referencing his energy. "I want to make it contagious and rub off on my teammates."
Regardless of where he's at fundamentally, his tools and effort should naturally translate to impact play right away at the Division I level. With his college recruitment in full swing, he told Scout.com's Evan Daniels that UNLV, St. John's, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Indiana and Kansas remain in play for next season. According to ESPN's Jeff Borzello, St. John's and Arizona State are "making the hardest push for him."
Quite frankly, I'd be worried about Maker joining a team that didn't offer adequate talent to complement his skill set. He'd be better off playing to his strengths alongside established scorers and playmakers rather than stepping into a high-usage role that could potentially expose weakness.
For that reason, Arizona State and St. John's both seem like questionable fits. If freshman center Stephen Zimmerman Jr. and sophomore wing Patrick McCaw both returned, UNLV would be an interesting option. The Rebels are tied for No. 19 in pace, per Sports-Reference.com, a stat that suits Maker's mobility well.
Despite Bill Self's lack of patience with freshmen, Kansas would also be intriguing, given its high-low offense, which allows the bigs to play around the elbows. Becoming a Jayhawk could give him the best chance to showcase his inside-out versatility.
Still, Maker's college decision is unrelated to his long-term potential, something everyone seems to measure differently.
He just isn't the superhero his sophomore mixtape portrayed, another victim of the modern media's urge to identify the next great star. Scouts are now recognizing his strengths may hold value in areas of the game that aren't typically synonymous with NBA stardom.
It's just easier to envision Maker the energizing NBA role player, rather than Maker the mismatch.