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Prepare to Meet Your Maker: Introduce Yourself to Basketball’s Platonic Ideal

Here’s a basketball debate you’ve all had, fundamentally unanswerable and unresolvable, though far from pointless: given the existence of a time machine, who would win in one-on-one, Wilt Chamberlain or Shaquille O’Neal? Would peak Kobe beat peak Michael? Could the 1995-96 Bulls emerge victorious over Red Auerbach‘s Celtics?

The correct answer, as far as I’m concerned, is always in favor of the more recent team. The athletes that competed nearer to the present have been blessed by their placement in the fabric of the cosmos, available to receive and implement the best of the collected wisdom, tactics, and conditioning methods from the totality of all generations before them. It’s a hard and maybe impossible concept to numerically quantify in a game like basketball, where the competitor’s performance can only be measured against the efforts of their transient opponents (of fluid and ever-changing effectiveness). But when you examine sports where the athlete competes against the unchanging, universal measures of time or distance, the pattern is immediately clear: the forward progress of humanity produces better and better competitive techniques and results. Even the greatest, most transcendent sprinter of the 1960′s could not keep up with a pack of moderately ranked sprinters of the 2010′s. The competitor of the sixties is effectively trapped in amber. Because even if they possess a “grittier” spirit or more prodigious work ethic than the athlete of today, sixties-guy is basically sitting holding a wooden club in a cave lit by candlelight compared to the quality of coaching, facilities, and tactics that 2010′s-guy has. The gulf in results are obvious even to the untrained eye when watching tape of the runners, heaving themselves chest-first towards the finish.

There is a reason that even a simple competition like the sprint captures the sophisticated, modern imagination in the same ways that it engrossed the Greeks: Every sprinter is not just sprinting against the seven competitors who share the track, but also against every sprinter who has ever and will ever compete against a clock’s impartial march. They are also competing against the limits and boundaries of what this mortal species is capable of accomplishing. It feels safe to say that no human will ever traverse 100 meters, using nothing but their own legs, in a one-second span. But what can the human do?

With Usain Bolt’s current record standing at 9.58, sprints of 9.5 and 9.4 seem more or less inevitable, if you’re patient enough to wait. What about 9.1? Under 9? 8.5? Where is the gray edge of physical impossibility? We’ll never be able to answer definitively, so elite sprinting competitions will attract worldwide audiences for all time foreseeable.

Due to the nature of the game of basketball there will never be such a coolly left-brained answer–a singular, unarguable number–as to when human potential has reached its basketball limit, reached its cumulative endpoint. But enough of us are watching that we feel like we know what it looks like to see possibilities get expanded when we see it. Michael Jordan stepped in previously unknown landscapes or human capability when he played, we can universally agree. Depending on your personal views, perhaps Kobe Bryant and/or LeBron James (and/or maybe Kevin Durant) have also ventured to or past Michael’s more or less spiritual endpoints. Sure, we’ve all allowed all sorts of lesser basketball players closer to our hearts than these supernovas. But while, say, Matt Bonner‘s career is an eccentric and beautiful maximization of his own unique gifts, we can at least agree that nobody else has continually attained access to the outermost dimensions like these select few, necessarily promoted to “worldwide brands” on the basis of their abilities.

All of this brings us to Thon Maker, the sophomore starting center for Carlisle School in Martinsville, Virgina. Here is a mixtape, released on YouTube last month, that you may have seen before, of some of his highlights for Carlisle and at other prospects’ camps. I have to advise that you find yourself a solid, sturdy seat before starting the following video, because it may leave you weak in the knees, as it did me:

By now we’re used to, probably even numbed to, seeing videos of 13-year-olds equipped with handles that could put veteran guards in spin cycles. We’re used to seeing wing players eternally airborne over their high school scrub opponents, or rangy centers clumsily gathering offensive boards for put-backs as if unaware of the mop-topped 6’4″ dude below them, futilely leaping for the ball.

This video is none of those things because it is all of those things, all of those things at once, entangled dimensions of elite talent branching into fractal networks that we’ve never really seen or comprehended, not even in all our years of watching the professional game.

Last month at SB Nation, Ricky O’Donnell advised a pumping of the brakes, a sane and level-headed caution against comparing any 16-year-old, which is how old Thon is, against established professionals like Durant. The unfair and shoulder-crumpling burdens of expectation and all that. O’Donnell loses the opportunity to profoundly critique the supposedly detrimental effects of high school basketball rankers by profiling a high school basketball mix-tape maker (which there is evidently a fine but definitive ethical boundary between the two professions). The attention is surely imposing for the individual high school player, yes, and while I would have an existential crisis trying to handle such attention myself, basketball games aren’t and can’t be played in closed gyms. If a talent this outstanding is going to exist, possessed by a kid or an adult, it’s going to be seen, and ranked, and by many.

But O’Donnell is entirely correct in advising we all nix Durant comparisons. Thon Maker is not the next Kevin Durant. He’s not the next anybody, which is the entire point. The reason the video is so exciting is, even if Maker doesn’t get selected in the 2017 lottery or doesn’t make All-Star Games or doesn’t win fistfuls of championships, is that Maker will always, every minute he’s on the basketball court, threaten to create something we’ve never been too greedy to imagine could be real. Durant is the maximization of certain perennial skills, primarily the jump shot. Maker emerged from a mad scientist’s lab where the game’s history was doused in chemicals and incinerated so that Naismith’s original edicts could be seen anew, and then bent to the brink of distortion.

The following interview that DraftExpress conducted with Thon last June has a small fraction of the views that the highlight tape above has, pudding-embedded proof that we’re more interested in Thon Maker The Skillset than Thon Maker The Person (as if the two don’t exist in indivisible symbiosis). Thon’s mind exists in a place that’s efficiently laid-back, creating the simplest and most direct answers to every question, funneling down his globetrotting and potentially disorienting young life to an answer so clear and fundamental it’s aesthetically cleansing. He ends each response with an affirmative “Yup,” something of an indication that the complete and total answer has just been given.

The most important answer that Thon gave during the interview (although his identification of the Spurs’ play in last spring’s playoffs, mentioned before any other NBA team or player, feels titillating) came during the following exchange about positions:

Q: What kind of basketball player are you?

A: [Heavy sigh.] Right now I’m playing the 5. You know, I gotta get the toughness down, that’s first. And then, um, eventually work my way to a…uh…you know, point–ah, what’s it called, small forward. You know, play the 4. 

Thon named four out of the five possible basketball positions. It’s a stumbling and convoluted answer, from a person composed and spiritually centered enough to describe his move to a new continent (Australia to Virginia) as: “The weather’s a little different, but everything else seems normal.”

It’s not that Thon doesn’t have intelligence, whether real-world or basketball-specific. More like: knowledge of positions has never been and never will be of much use to him. He doesn’t have a position. (And not in the way that, say, Anthony Bennett doesn’t have a position, via getting pinned uncomfortably by his own deficits against the boundaries of two rival job descriptions.) Maker’s game excites because it’s a previously undiscovered route to transcend all the positions. The resounding blocks do not come at the sacrifice of feathery jump shots. The buttery crossovers are as breathtaking as the high-altitude dunks. His low-block finesse doesn’t preclude fast break hustle and ingenuity.

Frankly I’m terrified for Thon to enter the college game, that domain controlled by the anal-retentive, tie-choked, screamy old guy: Attempt to hammer Maker’s game and mind into the shape of orthodoxy and you’ve got yourself a center—maybe even a really good one, but still just a center. Characters with the flippant genius of a Don Nelson and/or the tenacious mysticism of an Idan Ravin will need to find their way into Maker’s orbit for him to maintain his shot at re-locating the outer lodes of basketball possibility. (Also do not sleep on Thon’s teammate and brother Matur, who is in fact younger than Thon’s 16 years and has already shown inklings of a similarly daunting ability.)

Maximum human basketball, that equivalent of a 9.2-second sprint, looks something like this, a place beyond and above positions and expansive in all dimensions. What could truly be next? Where can the game travel to, beyond this level of play but still contained in reality?

Root for Thon Maker. Get excited for his expansive future. Because even if Thon never reaches the revered stratospheres of basketball accomplishments that our beloved all-timers once inhabited, he has already gifted us with a glance at what the terrain approaching infinity looks like.

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