In 2005, Amir Johnson became the last player drafted into the NBA directly from high school. In 2006, a new collective bargaining agreement required all propsects to be at least 19 years old and at least one year removed from high school, leading to a flurry of “one-and-dones”—elite players who spent a single year in college before bolting to the NBA.
But Thon Maker is a unique case. Born in Sudan, the 7-foot-1 phenom has been playing high school basketball at Athlete Institue in Ontario. He applied for early entry into the NBA Draft because he felt his fifth year at the Institute qualified as something of a post-graduate year, which would meet the NBA’s “one year removed from high school” requirement. Commissioner Adam Silver granted his request, and Maker will become the first high school student in over a decade to go from prep to pro.
Questions remain about Maker’s game and how it will translate to the next level. Though he possesses both the ability to shoot from the outside and dribble the rock, the 7-footer has a stick body and will need to hone his raw skills to match the strength and speed of the men he’ll be playing against. Some experts have opined that Maker should spend a year or two in the D-League before testing his talent in the NBA.
Ahead of the NBA Combine, Maker has been training with Drew Hanlen, a guy whose roster includes Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Bradley Beal, to bring his game up to speed as quickly as possible. Hanlen first met Maker two years ago, when he was asked by Maker’s guardian to train him briefly while Maker was going on college visits.
STACK caught up with Hanlen at his training compound in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where Maker has been working out, to find out how things are going.
STACK: What’s the biggest thing Thon has learned about himself and his body since you first met him?
Drew Hanlen: I think the first thing he did on his own is transform his body. He got a lot stronger and he’s filled out his frame, which allows him to do a lot more things he needs to do to be successful. Bang down low, get good positioning, catch the ball in his spots and attack, back down and stay low. His shoulders broadened, he developed more core strength and he developed the ability to drop his hips and play lower.
Number two, instead of trying to become the next Kevin Durant, he started focusing on trying to become the next young Kevin Garnett. Which means he transformed his game from being a guy that floated around the perimeter to a guy that plays out of the mid-post, the pinch-post and even the low-post, depending on who’s guarding him. He’s figured out how to exploit mismatches better.
And then number three, he has continued to work on his ability to stretch the defense with an improved shot. That’s one of the big things we stated our focus was, being able to expand his game all the way out to the NBA 3-point line so that he could be one of those guys who is very valuable in today’s NBA offenses, working out of the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop or pick-and-short roll situations.
When you started training him, what one thing did you notice immediately that you wanted to fix?
His baseline turnaround and his half-spin turnaround in the mid and low post. His footwork was off. His ball protection was suspect, and he did not know all the nuances of the turnaround jump shot or the half-spin jump shot. After an hour of working on it, he had one rep that was full speed and perfect footwork, perfect ball protection, perfect elevation, perfect recline on his fadeaway and he swished the shot. He had a big smile on his face and said “That’s f***ing unstoppable.”
When we realized maybe one out of 250 reps were perfect, I said just imagine when all 250 go in. This year, Jordan Clarkson is my client so I got to spend a lot of time pre-game watching Jordan warm up, and I had a conversation with Kobe on how to help Andrew Wiggins play. I said, “Moving forward with Andrew, what’s something that I can learn from you that helped you out when you were trying to copy Jordan’s game, because we’re trying to copy your game and Michael Jordan’s game as well.” He said, “Have a move that you can hang your hat on.” So I took that lesson that Kobe gave me in pre-game warm-ups and applied that to Thon.
I told him, “We have one move that’s unstoppable, that we can hang our hats on and have the counter move, so that when defenses take away our go-to move, that’s unstoppable as well. We’re going to have an advantageous situation where the defense can’t stop us.”
What does a typical training day look like for Thon?
In the morning, we’ll do game shots, where he will get 150 game shots he’s going to be able to shoot. Pick-and-pop shots, spacing the floor shots, elbow shots, mid-post shots, all the shots he is going to get in an NBA offense. We finish the morning session with a 250 Drill, where he makes 250 NBA 3’s and we see how many attempts it takes to make.
After that, we go to a weight training session, and he works on his body. He takes the entire afternoon off. We do a night skill session where he works on whatever the topic of the day is. Normally we break it down into three segments. One day we will work on mid- and low-post and pinch post. One day we will work on pick-and-pop, pick-and-short roll stuff. One day we’ll work on NBA offenses the way we think he’s going to get shots in different NBA systems and schemes. We just basically rotate those three skill workouts at night.
After the night session, we come back and watch film of the stuff that we worked on. I have a full time videographer that films all the workouts. We come back and compare it to NBA players’ clips that are similar to him that have been successful using the stuff we worked on.
Thon is such a unique case, because he’s over 7-feet but can move and dribble like a guard. Has he grown into his body, or does he still have a lot of work to do in terms of body control and mastering his frame?
I’ve worked with a lot of guys that are very tall and lean, and sometimes those guys don’t have the capability to put up big weight on the traditional weightlifting exercises. But for Thon, his biggest things are, number one, can he keep his hips low and can he work on strengthening his hips so he can play lower? Number two is, can he get his core strong enough so he can take bumps and hits without being redirected and getting bumped off his line? And number three, defensively, is he quick enough to move around or to stay in front of players that are really quick and use his length as a shot altering tool? Which means his feet have to be in the right position.
So those are the three big areas. I think he still has a ways to go in that department, but he’s an unbelievable worker. Just a relentless worker that studies the game like crazy. He’s very aware of his body and he’s very aware of his game. He loves the little nuances that go into each skill. So being a high IQ player and being a guy that’s highly educated in what his body is able to do, he’s working toward that every single day.
Opinions vary about whether Thon will be ready to play in the NBA right away. Having spent time with him, do you think he’ll need a stint in the D-League first?
I think that greatly depends on the team that drafts him. If he gets drafted by a contender, then it will be great for him to play behind a veteran that can teach him the ropes, that can teach him how to go about being a pro. That can teach him all the nuances that go into his game and kind of help formulate a game plan that will work and make him successful for a long time.
If he goes to a team that isn’t a contender, where he will have to go in and play a bigger role and kind of get thrown into the fire, he’ll go through his rookie roller coaster that so many other rookies do. If you look at rookies, almost every single one of them have big ups and downs. Part of that is figuring out who they are as a player, what’s going to make them successful, because the NBA is such a different game. Compound that with spending an 82-game season with a new travel schedule, and you’re going up against the best players in the world on a daily basis. That’s just something that no training, no lifting, no mental preparation or film study can ever prepare you for. In my opinion it depends on which team drafts him and how early they need him.