PF/C | 7’1 | 216 | Athlete Institute
Best Case: Kevin Garnett
Most Likely: Jonathon Bender
Worst Case: Saer Sene
PF/C | 7’2 | 218 | Xinjiang Flying Tigers
Best Case: Healthy Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Most Likely: Manute Bol
Worst Case: Nikoloz Tskitishvili
These two tall drinks of water are a natural pairing: 7 foot beanpoles with pretty shooting strokes, helpside defensive instincts that should make front offices salivate and questions about whether they’re really as young as they claim. Qi is the more agile prospect, Maker has more bounce. Neither has played against particularly high level competition, though Qi at least has an established record as a high level shot-blocker in the CBA. So who is the pick of this pair?
Qi has truly freakish length, with the 2nd longest wingspan and a standing reach tied 3rd best in Draft Combine history. He puts this to good use – racking up 3.2 blocks and 1.2 steals a game last season in the CBA. His shot-blocking production is consistent across each and every stage he’s played on – in FIBA age group competitions he’s averaging 4.4 blocks per game. With impressive agility and decent explosiveness, there’s little reason to think that this weakside swatting prowess won’t translate to the NBA.
It would be unfair to describe Qi as a one trick pony however – he grew into a solid rebounder and was a properly efficient scorer his last two seasons with the Flying Tigers. His scoring efficiency is born of a combination of elite finishing, solid free throw shooting and a low turnover rate. I’m less confident in Qi translating his rebounding and scoring to the NBA, as he’ll find a level of strength and athleticism on the interior that he’s only seen in brief spurts in China. Nevertheless, his ability to finish and create a little for himself in the mid-range and driving to the basket could become bankable skills if he bulks up.
The primary question with Qi is whether he will be able to bulk up or not. As with many Chinese prospects, there are questions surrounding his age. A lack of growth since he came onto the scene as a 6’11 15 year old has only added fuel to that fire and if he turns out to be 22 or 23 rather than 20, concerns around his frame only become more pronounced. While both Maker and Qi are skinny, only Qi seems truly frail. He has broad shoulders that suggest he should be able to add bulk, much like his countryman Yao Ming did in the NBA, but it seems certain that he’ll be bullied on both ends unless he does. Add in cultural and language adjustments, along with questions over his mental fortitude, and I think you have the ingredients for a bust candidate rather than a breakout one.
Maker carries similar strengths to Qi – his max vertical reach of 12’3″ was an NBA Combine record and this again is reflected in elite shot-blocking numbers throughout his HS career. In his last season with Athlete Institute, Maker averaged 29 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks. His scoring efficiency was strong despite a 31% mark from deep and the only real stain on his statistical record was his 6 turnovers per game. This highlights a risk with Maker – will he try to do too much as an NBA player? Given he’s not going through the usual ego check that college can provide HS superstars, it’s a legitimate concern but one that for me is allayed by his mental approach to the challenge ahead of him. Listening to Thon Maker conduct pre-draft interviews is eye-opening – he’s measured and thoughtful while providing insight into how he feels he fits with an organisation but also seems truly interested in attaining all his potential affords him the opportunity to.
Maker being well adjusted and mature doesn’t guarantee success, but when added to elite physical tools and a relatively high skill level for his age, it makes him a tantalising prospect. Maybe he’s two years away from being two years away, a la Bruno Caboclo, but I’d suggest his ability to play above the rim and stretch defenses will allow him to make an impact more quickly than many project. While he isn’t as broad as Qi, the bulk he’s already added to his shoulders and arms suggests Maker has a wiry strong frame in the mold of a Tyson Chandler or Kevin Garnett. Both of those guys settled in around the 240lb mark and I expect Maker to do likewise. The fringe aspects of Maker’s game – handling the ball full court, crossovers beyond the 3pt line and a tendency for flashy passes – made him a youtube phenom but will need to give way to consistent shot-selection and a focus on using his physical talents on the interior. As with Qi, Maker will get bullied until he adds the required strength to be an NBA calibre big man but I feel he’s further along this path and has a better chance of ending up primarily playing PF, where agility and versatility are becoming more vital than bulk.
So here we have two prospects who thrived in wildly differing settings, both against lower level competition. Neither covered themselves in glory at exhibition events such as the Nike Hoops Summit and have sufficient questions about their physical and mental makeup that we’re discussing them as fringe first round prospects. Nevertheless, I feel very differently about these two. Qi seems like he has too many physical and psychological hurdles to overcome for me to want to bet on him. Maker has the hurdle of redefining himself in a post-hype future but I feel he has the mental makeup to harness his gifts and become something special. Kevin Garnett is a ridiculous best case to give for a possible 2nd round prospect but something about Maker’s game and approach gives me a glimmer of hope that he could get to that level. As a result, I’d be pretty pumped if the Blazers took a flyer on him.