For fans, the NBA Draft is typically a time of excitement, hype and anticipation about what young players might become in the future. For players, it's typically the culmination of years of hard work -- from AAU to high school to college, where they've labored under the bright lights and scrutiny of fans, scouts and NBA decision-makers from a young age.
When it comes to Thon Maker however, nothing is typical. Whether it's his freakish physique (7'1" tall, 7'3" wingspan, 36.5" vertical), the way he plays on a basketball court, or the circuitous route that led him from war-torn South Sudan through Uganda, Australia, the United State and Canada, Maker has been decidedly atypical ever since bursting on the US hoops scene a few years ago. For better or worse, draft night was no exception, as the Bucks' decision to draft him with the tenth overall selection led to a mixture of shock and awe.
In our latest pod, Eric Nehm and I dive into the Bucks' decision to draft Maker, including what we might expect of him both now and in the future, and what to look for when the Bucks open summer league play in 10 days in Las Vegas. But first, we also delve into the mysterious circumstances surrounding Maker's age, a topic that has become something of a flashpoint since rumors spread on draft day that Maker -- though listed at 19 -- could in fact be multiple years older.
It's important to begin by noting that the Bucks have insisted since the draft that Maker is in fact 19, and (perhaps more importantly) that they are comfortable with Maker's age and presumably whatever ambiguity that might exist around it. Note that those are two different things: if his Australian passport and visa documentation indicates he's 19 -- and certainly that would seem to be the case if he's going to legally work in the US -- then there's zero incentive for the Bucks to ever say otherwise, even if they might privately believe he could be older.
However, keeping the party line is different from ignoring the potential issue altogether, and NBA teams have long had to cope with ambiguity on that front. Players born outside of North America have regularly been accused of understating their age in order to gain an advantage in their careers -- Ersan Ilyasova, Yi Jianlian, Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo are obvious examples -- and in most cases there's no 100% fool-proof way to ever validate their birthdate. Teams are thus left to evaluate whatever paper trail might exist and focus more effort on a player's physical and social maturity, while attempting to project how their age may or may not matter for their development going forward. The Bucks have been careful to note that they expect Maker to continue to develop physically, which also hints at one of the main reasons why age is typically so important in the first place: the younger you are, the more likely you are to develop both in terms of skill, athleticism and stature.
Still, what makes the rumors around Maker's age so bizarre is that they don't fit the typical pattern for how ages are typically skewed. Neither the Bucks nor any other NBA team would say it publicly, but it likely wouldn't shock anyone if Maker's family had reported his age incorrectly when he emigrated from Sudan to Uganda before ultimately landing in Australia; that happens and often it's done to give kids who don't speak English a better chance to assimilate in new school systems completely foreign to them. And once it's official with the Australian government -- and you can bet the Bucks have seen Maker's passport -- there's really no going back.
But the source of controversy that has been blowing up in our comments section, on Reddit, and on RealGM isn't about Maker's Sudanese immigration story -- at least not directly. Instead, the story that "broke" on draft day suggests Maker graduated from his high school Aranmore Catholic College in Australia as far back as 2010, only to then reappear in the US as a high school freshman in 2012. If true, that would seemingly then put his real age in the early 20s, which from a projection standpoint is obviously substantively different from 19. It would also be an absolutely crazy scheme to pull off, especially given the amount of scrutiny a player of Maker's caliber would attract from school administrators, immigration officials, NBA teams, etc.
So is there any explanation for it, and how much does it matter in Maker's case? On draft night, Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress expressed surprise at the rumors given Maker's physical development over the past four years seem more consistent with a player in his late teens than one in his early 20s, and in many ways that's how teams like the Bucks would have to evaluate any player with age concerns. While age is a great proxy for how much a player may still mature and grow both physically as well as skill-wise -- all things being equal, younger is always better -- there's also no doubt that it varies significantly from player to player. For instance, if Maker was in fact 18 or 19 when he started making waves in 2013, you'd conclude that he was also very underdeveloped for his age in terms of strength. We're not talking about a Greg Oden-sized guy beating up on high schoolers.
Moreover, on Monday Givony tweeted that Maker's guardian Ed Smith had previously indicated that he attended the school in question as an English language student, which at least offers some possible explanation for the yearbook story.
Before the draft, Thon Maker's guardian Ed Smith told me that reddit yearbook photo was from an English school in Perth, not a high school.— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) June 27, 2016
So everyone at that school (and on that yearbook photo page) were different ages, and nothing to glean from Thon being next to 23 year olds.— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) June 27, 2016
Just adding in the info I have. It's noteworthy that no one is denying that the person in the yearbook photo is indeed "that" Thon Maker.— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) June 27, 2016
On its website Aranmore does offer English language classes, and that's the only real explanation we've heard to date that would neatly reconcile Maker's listed age with the yearbook conspiracy theories. How a kid with a passport showing he was born in 1997 -- something that seems rather certain -- graduates from high school in 2010 also makes little sense. You'd imagine this is something that could be corroborated or disproven by Aranmore Catholic College's administration and the many students who would have attended it, though for now we're still waiting to hear anything more conclusive.
Whether Maker's camp actually tries to address the issue further isn't clear; as we discuss on the podcast, it's a slippery slope for both Maker and the Bucks, who had to factor in the age ambiguity issue simply by virtue of his refugee background. Regardless of what his records may or may not say, the Bucks appear to have gotten comfortable with a) the physiological and medical data they were able to gather from their workout/testing as well as b) whatever background work they did. Whether they knew everything that's come up in the last few days isn't clear and likely never will be -- especially given the veracity of the evidence is still in doubt. Moreover, even if the age issue were real, don't expect a mea culpa given the legal implications it might have for his immigration status and even his draft eligibility (if he's 23, he would be a free agent). As a result, all indications are that the Bucks made the pick knowing it wasn't an open-and-shut issue, and on the basis of Maker's existing physical tools, skills and character seemed comfortable taking the risk.
The only thing we know for sure: it's now on Maker to prove he can be the player the Bucks believe he can be, and going forward the scrutiny on him will be higher because of the age concerns. He'll have to deal with the questions and heckling that comes with it, but ultimately this pick will be praised, scorned or shrugged at based on what Maker has accomplished on the court, not when he may have been born.