Can Top Recruit Makur Maker Impact College Recruiting Like Jackie Robinson Did for Baseball?

Can Top Recruit Makur Maker Impact College Recruiting Like Jackie Robinson Did for Baseball?

Makur Maker #21 of Team Jimma shoots over Chet Holmgren #15 of Team Zion during the SLAM Summer Classic 2019 at Dyckman Park on August 18, 2019 in New York City.

SourceMichael Reaves/Getty

Why you should care

Because if he goes to a black college, other NBA-bound recruits just follow in his footsteps.

Rarely does a basketball prospect’s official college visit turn heads beyond recruiting obsessives. But when Makur Maker visited Howard University’s celebrated homecoming festivities this month, you could feel the ripples across the sports landscape — and the world of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

With their precious few participants in March Madness almost always losing their first game, HBCUs do not see much of a cut of the NCAA’s multibillon-dollar TV deal with CBS and Turner Sports. The conferences in which its schools play, such as Howard’s Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, don’t rake in hundreds of millions per year from launching their own TV networks, like the ACC or Big Ten.

And maybe Maker doesn’t completely understand the complexities of those deals. But the No. 10–ranked player in the high school class of 2020 (per ESPN) knows he can change the perception around Black schools. And if enough people like him trade traditional powerhouses for HBCUs, the economics of college sports — and higher education more broadly — would shift.

“Just me considering Howard University really shocked people,” says Maker, a 6-foot-11 center. “Just me going there would definitely change the culture. And other top guys are following my lead,” he adds, referring to No. 12–ranked Joshua Christopher of California, who also visited Howard.

To be clear, Howard — or any other HBCU — stands little chance of competing with schools such as Kentucky, which is also on Maker’s list, anytime soon. The five richest college basketball programs pull in more than $30 million per year in revenue, led by Louisville with a $52 million average revenue and $30 million average profit, according to Forbes. Howard would not reveal its athletic revenue, but it likely brings in a fraction of the big schools.

The program hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1992, when it squeaked into the Big Dance as 16th-seeded. It’s in the middle of the pack in the MEAC, finishing 17-17 last year.

But best believe, Howard has as good a shot of landing Maker — who was born in Kenya and raised in Australia — as any school. For starters, Maker’s guardian and coach, Edward Smith, has African — he was born in Liberia — and D.C. roots. A longtime trainer and coach who ran his own basketball academy in Australia, Smith brought Maker to America at age 13, enrolling him at Chaminade High School in California. Smith had previously mentored and trained Maker’s cousins Thon Maker (selected 10th by the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks in 2016) and Matur Maker (who skipped college to go pro and is now playing in Slovenia). And Howard’s new head coach, Kenny Blakeney, is a former McDonald’s All-American who played at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski.

10.12.2010 year 6 graduation

Maker (center) with a friend and his mother at his sixth-grade graduation dance.

Most importantly, Maker, whose basketball upside is scary, is going to the NBA anyway. His choice of college is almost a formality.

“The opportunity to be at Howard University … might not have the impact of a Jackie Robinson [integrating baseball], but you’re changing the perception,” Smith says. On the court, he compares Maker to Ja Morant, who was the No. 2 overall draft pick this year out of mid-major Murray State.

Maker would surely stand tall — and out — at Howard, but it’s important to know that this great migration to HBCUs isn’t new talk. Former Michigan “Fab Five” star Jimmy King has said he and teammates Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, Jalen Rose and Chris Webber — on their way to back-to-back national title games in 1992–93 — talked at one point about transferring en masse to an HBCU. “I wondered if we would have been called simply the ‘trendsetters’ on a Black campus instead of ‘thugs’ on Michigan’s majority-white campus?” King wrote for Scrap Sports in 2018. “We could have also made an emphatic statement endorsing the importance of Black colleges and proving that Michigan, Duke or Kentucky did not have a monopoly on providing professional opportunities on or off the court.”

FS1 commentator Chris Broussard has also called for more great Black athletes to flock to HBCUs. “It would be tremendous,” Broussard says when asked about Maker’s possible signing at Howard, “because it would be an example … especially for the one-and-dones. If you know you’re going to the league anyway, why not go to an HBCU?”

Still, it’s going to be hard for Maker to not be intrigued by the greener grasses of schools like Kansas, Kentucky and Oregon, with the best facilities and a track record of sending kids to the NBA. Top-tier programs also mean regular national TV exposure — all of which could affect Maker’s marketability, development and draft status.

Sounds like a lot riding on a kid who turns 19 next month, right? “No pressure at all,” says Maker, one of eight children of South Sudanese parents. “I feel like I always dare to be different. So I feel like if it definitely started trending, other athletes would definitely consider it.”

14.10.2011 (2) copy

The Maker brothers, from left: Maper, Makur, Monpieng, Ajoung, Mathiang and Dut (front).

When pressed to describe his game, Maker blushes before saying no one player quite fits. “I’m part Kevin Durant … how he pulls up in transition, part LeBron James for his power and part Kobe Bryant for his tenacity,” he says. The answer is the opening to a quiet confidence that gets louder the more he speaks. “I know I’m the best player in my class,” he says. “I’ve seen all the top guys and most of them ran away from me when we were matched up.”

Howard’s pitch is a little different from those of the other schools chasing Maker. “The reason those conversations are positive is because it’s Howard — because of [alums like] Thurgood Marshall, Kamala Harris, Chadwick Boseman, Dr. Charles Drew and Ta-Nehisi Coates and the footprints that they left on campus,” Blakeney says. “You’re talking about one of the most successful bunch of alums from any school in the country.”

And before long, there might be an NBA player on that list.

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