The one-and-done era has seen five-star recruits flock to blue-blood programs like Duke and Kentucky. In recent years, some of these prospects have sought the professional route, going overseas until they are age-eligible for the NBA, and now some are taking the money the G-League is offering for its select team.
There are more options for these elite-level players — and now there may be a new one.
Makur Maker — the cousin of NBA forward Thon Maker — is hoping to show attending a historically black college and university (HBCU) is a viable route. In July, the 6-foot-11, 235-pound forward made national headlines by committing to Howard of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference over the likes of UCLA, Memphis and, yes, Kentucky.
“I dare to be different, and I always consider myself to be a leader,” Maker said after his announcement. “I want to change the current culture and climate that has kept five-star athletes like myself from viewing HBCUs as a viable choice.”
The decision will shine a bright light on Howard and the 20-year-old Maker, raising both the player and the program’s profile. The Bison won just four games a year ago, yet expectations from the outside are now through the roof. There aren’t players like Maker in the MEAC — someone capable of handling the ball, blocking shots and shooting from the perimeter with his size and strength. He was ranked 18th in his class by 247Sports.com and was voted to the MEAC’s preseason all-league first team by the conference’s coaches. He’s a legitimate NBA prospect.
“There’s nothing on the court he can’t do. He has every skill set that a 6-5, 6-6 high-level player has,” said coach Kenny Blakeney — who is entering his second season at Howard after serving as an assistant at Columbia, Harvard, Seton Hall and Delaware following his career as a player at Duke. “He passes the ball better than I anticipated. He shoots the ball better than I anticipated.”
“I think he’s going to dominate that league,” Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Rob Cassidy added. “They are going to play him at five positions. Sometimes he’ll play point guard. He can handle the ball pretty well for his giant size. He’s a freak athlete. Dropping him in that league, if he doesn’t dominate there will be something wrong.”
His guardian Ed Smith wasn’t surprised Maker — who was born in Kenya, grew up in Australia and came to the United States for high school — took this path. In high school, Maker opted to attend Orange Lutheran in California instead of established powerhouse Mater Dei Prep. He wanted to be integral in building something rather than joining the party already in progress. That was part of the reason he chose to go to Howard — that, in addition, to the opportunities he saw for himself at the school.
At a time of social unrest and the Black Lives Matter movement, Maker was attracted to the idea of playing at a black college and for a coach like Blakeney, who had begun recruiting him when he was an assistant at Columbia. He liked the thought of attending the same school that produced the likes of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, late actor Chadwick Boseman and recently-deceased civil rights activist and politician Elijah Cummings. Blakeney and his staff put on a full-court press, emphasizing the value of Maker playing in a big market in Washington and utilizing his versatility, giving him freedom to show his entire skill-set, providing him and his family with a package of more than 100 pages explaining the value of Howard and their plans for him.
“Consistent across the board was the ability to change the narrative, that you can come to an HBCU, you can be successful, you can be a lottery pick,” Smith said. “[They told us], ‘We’re going to showcase Makur as a modern day big. We’ll play him in the post. We’ll play him on the elbow. We’ll play him in transition.’
“They were like, ‘It’s a chance to make history.’ ”
Blakeney has already seen improving recruiting results since Maker’s commitment. He landed Purdue transfer Nojel Eastern in August and recently received a commitment from top-100 forward Kuluel Mading. Top-150 forward Duncan Powell, meanwhile, committed to fellow MEAC school North Carolina A&T.
Four- and five-star recruits have reached out to Blakeney about wanting to be recruited by Howard. Maker, his coach said, has made it cool to be recruited by HBCUs. Premier Class of 2023 guard Mikey Williams listed five HBCUs in his top 10 and hasn’t been shy about the potential of attending one.
“A lot of recruits want to see how it goes,” Cassidy said. “There are a lot of kids that would like to do it, but it’s kind of a gamble. No top-level kid has ever done it.”
Even if Maker thrives, leads Howard to the NCAA Tournament and is a top-five NBA draft pick, Cassidy doesn’t expect this to become a common occurrence. Top recruits aren’t going to suddenly flock to HBCUs. It could, however, lead to improved recruiting for those schools.
“You can see a trickle effect,” Cassidy said.
Maker could be a trailblazer, someone who creates a new path for elite prospects like himself. But that’s only if he succeeds. He’s expected to dominate. There will be so much focus on him from the start. How he performs could determine if his decision to go to Howard is an anomaly or starts a trend. Since Maker’s commitment, his social media profiles have received more than one billion impressions, according to Blakeney.
“Obviously, there are going to be a lot of eyes that are going to be paying attention to what we’re doing this year,” the Howard coach said. “But we embrace that.”