‘Mystery Man’ Maker gives Pistons something to think about with the 18th pick

Thon Maker
Thon Maker, 19, will be part of the NBA draft despite not having spent a year in college.
Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images

On April Fool’s Day in 1985, Sports Illustrated caused a sensational stir with a cover story on an out-of-nowhere baseball phenom named Sidd Finch whose fastball exploded radar guns at 168 mph.

It was a hoax, of course. But Thon Maker is real – and generating nearly as much buzz in the weeks leading to the NBA draft.

Born in Sudan and raised in Australia, Maker has been known to NBA scouts for quite a while but seen rarely. And not at all as a college player. Thus the common reference to him as the “mystery man.”

“I don’t know why they gave me that name, but I hear it a lot through interviews,” Maker said Friday after working out for the Pistons. “I tend not to read all that.”

He applied for the 2016 draft after considering various American colleges because he was 19 and a year removed from high school – the NBA agreed that the past season spent at an Ontario prep school was, indeed, a post-graduate year – and is now causing the lights to burn late at night in NBA offices from Boston to Los Angeles.

The Pistons are clearly interested. Maker met with Stan Van Gundy and his staff at the NBA draft combine last month in Chicago and on Friday was part of a six-player workout at their practice facility heavy on big men.

Afterward, Maker said that the buzz surrounding him includes NBA personnel executives.

“So far, teams, they’ve been able to see how I perform and most teams are getting very excited in terms of what we can do with him. ‘Oooh, like, man, we can’t wait. If we get him, we’ll get to use him this type of way.’ I don’t really care about that, to be honest. I just play basketball right now.”

What would make teams excited about Maker? The tale of the tape is a good start. At the combine, he measured 7-foot-¾ with a 9-foot-2½ standing reach. That’s an inch better than Andre Drummond in both instances. He also has a shooting touch that suggests it won’t take him long to develop NBA 3-point range.

But if Drummond had a 3-point shot he’d have been the No. 1 pick coming out of UConn four years ago. And if the NBA really believed Maker was Drummond with a 3-pointer there would be no Ben Simmons-or-Brandon Ingram debate for Philadelphia with the No. 1 pick.

So what’s the other side of the coin? Well, he’ll never be mistaken for Drummond in a crowd with only 216 pounds on that lanky frame. One of Drummond’s legs equals both of Maker’s. While he might be a fluid athlete for his size, he’s not an explosive one.

But the major concern with Maker is the lack of basketball he’s put on display and the sense scouts have gotten from those glimpses that he’s a long way from contributing. Remember when ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said of Bruno Caboclo when Toronto stunningly selected the unknown Brazilian with the 20th pick in 2014 that he was “two years away from being two years away?”

Maker could fit that description as well. But the Pistons are picking in a similar range – 18th – and Maker might represent the same level of risk and upside. The upside for the Pistons would be pairing Maker someday at power forward alongside Drummond, giving them two athletic rim protectors and a floor-spacing 7-footer to make them powerful offensively and impenetrable defensively.

“I’ve seen it. I envisioned it. It’s a successful vision,” said Maker, who also envisions himself blossoming into a Kevin Garnett-type player, of playing next to Drummond. “You get to see he can do damage on the inside, so you can stretch the floor out a little bit more, therefore there won’t be that much doubling. If he’s on the block, you’ve just got to move. You need a mover around him with my type of quickness and speed and having me around him would keep the defense really alert.”

When the Pistons acquired Donatas Motiejunas from Houston in February – a trade eventually rescinded over concern for Motiejunas’ back – Van Gundy’s vision included a 7-footer with shooting range to pair with Drummond or use as a floor-spacing center in lineups where the Pistons would have five shooting threats.

They’ll be in the market for a proven veteran who can give them as many of those qualities as possible this off-season. But drafting Maker to potentially challenge for that role in a year or two appears to be under consideration based on the two known interactions already between the Pistons and Maker.

Drafting Maker surely would be a test of Van Gundy’s patience, a quality he admits he lacks in abundance. Raptors fans were giddy at the mysterious potential of Caboclo two years ago, too, but they’ve seen him play a total of 66 minutes in 14 games so far. If the Pistons were to draft Maker, chances are fans of the Grand Rapids Drive would see far more of him next season than those at The Palace.

At the other end of the spectrum, Milwaukee rolled the dice with the 15th pick three years ago on Giannis Antetokounmpo, now emerging as one of the league’s most dynamic players.

The Pistons aren’t counting on immediate help from their 18th pick, but neither are they so loaded they can afford to gamble recklessly with it. As the Pistons study what little is known of Thon Maker over the next 2½ weeks, they’ll have to decide if he’s more Antetokounmpo, Caboclo … or Sidd Finch.

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