SUWANEE Ga.—Over the past year, five-star phenom Thon Maker has bulked up. He started lifting weights five days a week, began eating seven meals a day, and gradually bumped the scale beneath his already imposing 7-foot-1 frame from a wiry 191 pounds to solid 218.
And yet, over the past month and a half, Maker has been playing as though a huge weight has been taken off his suddenly broad shoulders.
Last week, Maker averaged a double-double (16.5 points, 11.8 rebounds) while powering his Canada Elite team into the championship game of the Under Armour Association 17U Finals in Suwanee, Ga. A week prior, he led all players at the Under Armour All-American Camp in Charlotte by pulling down 12.5 boards and blocking 2.2 shots per game.
This reign of domination started back in June, when Maker garnered MVP honors at the NBPA 100 Camp in Charlottesville, Va. It was also at this event that the native of South Sudan announced that he had scrapped his plan to reclassify and try to graduate high school in December so as to be eligible for college in the second semester of next season. Has the decision to play out his senior year at Ontario’s Orangeville Prep affected the big man’s game?
“Definitely,” says Maker. “Now I really get to focus on the game itself.”
So why the sudden 180? Why risk injury, jeopardizing almost certain rewards in college and the pros? Was there concern over the waning interest from scouts after a lackluster junior year at Orangeville? Or perhaps Maker preferred to be the centerpiece of a recruiting class as opposed to a late addition coming in midway through the season.
Maker’s guardian, Ed Smith, says that his ward’s decision to stay in the Class of 2016 was three-fold. First, it relieves the senior of the burden of crashing out a year’s worth of schoolwork in one semester. “I think he was saddled with a lot of academic pressure,” says Smith. “He could’ve finished over the summer or he could’ve finished in the fall and went to college. He got his core work done. Now there’s just a few things he needs to do and he can stretch that out into his senior year.”
Second, the postponement of graduation gives Maker time to get used to playing in his new body. Despite pressure from scouts and coaches to quickly add mass to reinforce a gangly body, Maker and Smith chose a more deliberate path.
“We did it the way we wanted,” says Maker. “People wanted us to bulk up straight away and get to playing. That would’ve resulted in injuries and bad plays. We took our time. We didn’t worry about others critiquing that I’m too skinny.”
Packing on 27 pounds of lean muscle to his bones has taken Maker from Manute Bol to more of a Kevin Garnett-style power forward that is now much more of a force closer to the basket, bullying his way to rebounds and blocked shots. Add that to Maker’s already formidable defense and perimeter skills—including ball-handling ability and an outside jump shot that is practically unheard of for a big man—and it’s easy to see why Maker is a Top 10 prospect (No. 8 by Scout.com, No. 9 by Rivals.com), with offers from the NCAA elite, including Arizona, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, and Louisville.
The third, and perhaps most important consequence of Maker’s decision is that it will enable him to play his entire senior season at Orangeville with his younger brother, 6-foot-11 junior Matur. The two boys fled civil war in South Sudan together and were taken in as refugees in Australia when Maker was 5. There they grew up playing soccer and basketball until Smith discovered the elder Maker and brought him to the U.S. to play basketball five years ago. Smith eventually brought Matur halfway through Maker’s freshman year.
“When Matur joined him, it changed everything,” says Smith. “All of a sudden there was laughter coming from downstairs. They were cutting up and carrying on. It’s just fun. They love each other a lot.”
The bond is obvious. Matur, who plays on the 16U Canada Elite, is front and center at each of his brother’s AAU games, and vice versa. Next year at Orangeville will be their first chance to play on the same team. It may also be their last—while Matur is a four-star prospect in his own right, drawing early interest from some of the same schools as his brother, there is no guarantee that they will attend the same school.
Maker says the benefit of playing with his brother is more than just sentimental.
“I can’t wait for the season to kick off and play with my brother,” says Maker. “Just competing with him in practice—watching us both get better. We’re both physically bigger and mentally stronger, more knowledgeable of the game. It makes it that much better for us to come at each other.”
This article appeared on USATodayHHS.com