Here’s some wisdom for assessing the NBA draft: Nobody knows anything for certain. Seriously. Not anymore. The days of proven, graduating-senior twenty-somethings like Bill Walton and Patrick Ewing are long gone. In their place is an era of young players who are often long on hype and short on résumé. With rare exceptions like LeBron James, every draft pick is a bet placed with the hope that a rookie will blossom into something extraordinary.
The most fascinating bet from this year’s draft may be Thon Maker, whose backstory is one of the most improbable in league history. Born in war-torn South Sudan, Maker fled as a refugee with his family when he was 5. Their first stop was Uganda, followed by Perth, Australia, where Maker, still in his early teens, was discovered by a coach named Edward Smith. With Smith as his guardian, Maker’s basketball odyssey took him to Sydney, then Louisiana, Virginia and eventually a high school in Ontario. That’s where the Milwaukee Bucks found him and took him, at age 19, with the 10th pick of the 2016 NBA draft.
The draft was a remarkable moment for a kid who, not long ago, had written imaginary TV commentaries starring himself into a notebook. “Maker with the ball…he dribbles…crosses over…shoots…bam!” he recalls, laughing. Maker is easygoing and unfailingly polite; in a car ride to a photo shoot, he scrunches his 7-foot-1-inch frame in the passenger seat to make room for me in the back, and at the shoot he signs autographs for passersby who aren’t even sure who he is. He’s comfortable being the new guy in town—a role Maker has played many times. “The biggest secret?” he says. “Just be yourself. I am always myself.”
Maker’s skilled ballhandling, passing and even three-point shooting make him an asset in today’s NBA, where big men must do more than simply hang out under the basket. Growing up, Maker studied NBA masters on YouTube: Hakeem Olajuwon’s footwork, Kobe Bryant’s killer instinct, Carmelo Anthony’s face-up jump shot. “I tried to pick something up from those guys,” he says. “I wanted to do everything on the court.” When he arrived in North America, Maker became a YouTube sensation himself—a 7-footer who could dribble up the court like a point guard and dish like Magic Johnson.
The Bucks are preaching patience; they want Maker to add muscle to his 220-pound frame and sharpen his explosive but still-developing skills. Milwaukee’s success with players like Giannis Antetokounmpo—a former unknown from Greece who has become one of the NBA’s brightest young stars—gives them confidence. “We liked what we saw in Thon as a player,” says the team’s general manager, John Hammond. “But the more we got to know him, the more excited we became. He’s a very extraordinary person.”
When I ask Maker where he thinks he would be if he hadn’t moved with his family to Australia, he pauses. “I don’t know,” he says softly. “I literally have no clue.” Though reaching the NBA represents a major accomplishment after such a long and unusual journey, Maker is humble, insisting the journey is only beginning. “I want to be great,” he says. “And I know the whole path just started again.”