Thon Maker has traveled the globe further than all of the basketball players he was projected to wait behind in the NBA Draft. He has journeyed approximately 19,474 miles over three different continents (Africa, Australia and North America), separating from his family to follow his passion. A passion he never pondered early in life due to circumstances he couldn't control and partially because he liked soccer more than basketball.
But now he's Coming (back) to America and making another stop on his basketball expedition. Milwaukee made a shocking move Thursday, drafting Maker with the No. 10 overall pick after most projected him somewhere between the mid-first to early second-round — further showing how little we in the media actually know.
A lean 7-foot-1, Maker impressed the Bucks during his pre-draft workout not just with his physical tools and skill set, but also his work ethic and character. Instead of heading to dinner with team officials right after his workout, he opted to go back on the Bucks' practice court for an extra hour and 45 minutes with members of the coaching staff.
"We got in the car (after the workout)," Bucks general manager John Hammond described, "and I said 'Thon, if you get drafted, you just got a taste of what's going to happen with you."
Still, none of the traits that made Maker an intriguing prospect would've come about if it weren't because of the journey that led him to Wisconsin.
Escaping Sudan's civil war, Maker fled to Uganda with family members at six years old. A little over a year later, he moved across the Indian Ocean after being accepted as a refugee in Australia. He spent time living in Perth and Sydney — two parts of the continent located opposite of one another — over the next six years. And then one day, his talents were identified.
Majok Majok, a former collegiate big man at Ball State University, called up American expat Edward Smith and raved about Maker's game, letting him know about the kid everyone called "long body." Smith ran a basketball academy in Sydney and decided to go see Maker's frame (and game) for himself. Maker was getting knocked around by adults — he came close to 140 pounds at that time, much skinnier than his current weight of 223 — in a pick-up game when Smith became fascinated with his game. His shot was contorted and it wasn't too hard to notice other mechanical flaws, but his lateral movement, athleticism and competitiveness enamored Smith.
That pick-up game eventually led to Maker taking his talents to the United States, with Smith serving as his legal guardian. Stops in Louisiana, Texas and Virginia began to spark Maker's buzz as a basketball prospect, with most of it coming from mixtapes and his two years at Carlisle School, a private academy located in Martinsville, VA. However, Smith was convinced that Maker needed to avoid the promotion in the U.S. and get away. He set up a plan: If people want to see Thon Maker, they can travel to Canada, and Maker could do the same for U.S. events and come back. Smith wanted Maker to avoid high school powerhouses such as Oak Hill and viewed Canada as a safe haven to continue his development. No distractions, just basketball.
Maker and his brother, Matur, moved to Canada in the fall of 2014 when they enrolled at Orangeville Prep outside Toronto to continue training. Though a long way from Virginia, Canada wasn't altogether new for the Makers. Thon emerged onto the scene in 2013 after excelling in the OVO Bounce basketball tournament in Toronto -- which just so happens to be sponsored by a local Canadian hip-hop artist named Drake. Raptors big Amir Johnson was stunned to find out Maker was only 16, and future #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins caught his eye from the stands. Moving to Canada a year later, Maker ended up gaining 27 pounds in two years in Canada and even played in Orangeville alongside Jamal Murray, the No. 7 overall pick by the Denver Nuggets in the draft.
While his draft experience in many ways capped off Maker's decade-long journey, his support group missed two vital people on Friday. Maker's parents unfortunately couldn't attend the draft due to problems with their visas, so they were not able to experience the festivities. Nonetheless, Matur — who Smith said might move to Milwaukee to be closer with Thon — was with Maker on draft night in Brooklyn to share the memorable moment with his brother. Smith, whom Maker describes as a "father figure," beamed throughout Friday's press conference while rocking a green Bucks cap. His plan worked. Three members of Maker's agency were also present on Friday.
"I'm far away from home, so I've had to lean on them and find the motivation and support from them," Maker said.
Each person had a significant role in helping Maker's dream to play in the NBA become a reality. His experience came true on an unlikely night that only became better as it went on. Maker said he got a text of congratulations from Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been overseas training with Greece's national team but knows firsthand what it's like to go from "mystery man" to first round pick.
Maker once visited Milwaukee on the AAU circuit, but didn't get a chance to explore the city until his draft workout. During the draft process, he said he heard negative things, but he got his first look at the downtown area while on his way to dinner with Hammond and enjoyed it.
Thon Maker has been moving his entire life, and his stop in Milwaukee is the next one in a purposeful and taxing adventure. Maker and Bucks fans alike will be hoping it's one he can call home and find the stability his life has often lacked. Another place where he can say he's from, and the one that could put his mark on the NBA map.