(Photo: Gregg Pachkowski/Special to The News-Press)

Thon Maker begins basketball journey in South Sudan



When Thon Maker plays in the NBA, it will mark just another chapter in the making of one epic basketball journey.

Maker, a 7-foot-1 center for Orangewood (Ontario, Canada) Athlete Institute, has been described as “an NBA prospect from 200 years in the future.” So the 18-year-old’s destiny to professional basketball’s highest level does not appear to be in question.

But, for now, the origin story of Maker remains somewhat of a mystery.

Maker and his high school team are featured in the Signature Series of the 43rd annual Culligan City of Palms Classic and will play for the four-team bracket’s title at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Bishop Verot High School’s John J. Nevins Gymnasium.

Edward Smith, 49, is Maker’s legal guardian. Although he has shared many details of Maker’s journey, he is holding some of them back for the future.

“There’s a documentary in the works,” Smith said. “So I don’t want to spoil the full story.”

Smith, a native of Liberia, and Maker, a native of what is now South Sudan, first connected in Sydney, Australia, in 2010 after Maker and some of his family fled the civil war-torn, African nation.

Smith operated a basketball program and camp in Sydney from 1996 until moving with the Maker brothers to the United States in 2011.

“It’s very different,” Thon Maker said of his life story. “It will definitely catch some attention. People will see how I got to where I am right now.”

Right now, Maker is poised to play elite, Division I college basketball. Kansas, Indiana, Arizona State, Notre Dame and St. John’s are in his final five potential destinations, Smith said. Maker also projects as the 24th pick in the 2016 NBA draft by nbadraft.net.

The same college programs are also recruiting Matur Maker, who at 17 is a year younger and at 6-10 stands three inches shorter than Thon. Their biological father is about 6-6 and their mother 5-11.

Thon Maker stood almost 6-8 as a 13-year-old. By age 14, he measured 6-10. He speaks English, Spanish and Dinka, the language of a large (4.5 million people) ethnic group in Sudan and South Sudan that also included the late Manute Bol, one of the tallest players in NBA history at 7-7.

“Thon had gone to a middle school combine,” Smith said. “He did really well. So from there, I thought about some of the kids I had sent to the U.S. A lot of them, it takes a longer time for them to acclimate and also to the pace of the game.

“So I thought if Thon were able to come here when he was younger, he would have a better chance.”

So Smith uprooted his family of five biological children and moved with them and the Maker brothers to Metairie, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans.

Thon Maker spent his eighth grade year at Metairie Park Country Day in 2011-2012. He had been on an AAU team, and one of his teammates played at Country Day

“We went there for a year,” Smith said. “It was a different environment. My family wanted to get to the east coast area. So we went to Virginia.”

Maker spent 2012-13 and 2013-14, his freshman and sophomore high school seasons, playing for the Carlisle School in Martinsville, Virginia.

“It was a great community and a great school,” Smith said. “Academics were really strong.”

But Smith said he wanted to have Maker in an environment geared more toward developing him into a NBA player.

“Most kids would go to an Oak Hill (Mouth of Wilson, Virginia) or a Montverde Academy or a Finday Prep (Henderson, Nevada),” Smith said of three traditional high school basketball powers, all of which have been a part of past City of Palms Classics.

Smith did not want Maker going to those programs.

“Part of this was the whole hype machine behind Thon,” Smith said. “I wanted to get him away from it so he could focus. I wanted him to get away from the craziness and have him enjoy his high school years.

“For me, I feel you become a player by pulling more weight. We didn’t want to go to a team that was stacked.”

In his first City of Palms Classic game, Thon Maker scored just eight points on 2-of-11 shooting. He grabbed eight rebounds and blocked five shots. His shots weren’t falling, Athlete Institute coach Brandon Lesovsky said, but they normally do. At practice Monday morning at the Fort Myers YMCA, Maker swished 10 mid-range jump shots before finally missing one.

“He’s a unique talent,” Lesovsky said. “He can go inside and out. He’s really good around the rim. He’s pretty athletic. All of those things.”

Clark Francis, a talent evaluator for Hoop Scoop, has seen Thon Maker play about 100 times and ranked him No. 3 in the nation behind Josh Jackson of Detroit Consortium and Harry Giles of Oak Hill Academy in the senior class.

“Thon Maker is an incredible talent,” Francis said. “He has big-time athleticism, and length. He’s got superstar written all over him. He has great explosiveness. However, when he wants to be a perimeter player, that negates what he could do best as a shot blocker and rebounder. He doesn’t shoot the three great, but he has a great shot from mid-range. He’s also very fluid around the basket.”

Thon Maker said he took all of his praise and criticism in stride. He did not want to be portrayed as someone who approached basketball as an end-all, be-all. Asked how he handled the lofty expectations placed upon being “an NBA prospect from 200 years in the future,” he smiled.

“I just have to keep on working,” he said. “That’s not where I’m at. That’s where they’re predicting I’ll be at. It’s the hard work that gets me the attention. So really, I’ve got to stay motivated, and I’ve got to keep on working.”

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