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Makur Maker’s basketball journey took a detour, but his story isn’t over

Makur Maker, shown during a 2020 high school game, picked Howard over UCLA, Kentucky and Memphis. (Gregory Payan/AP)

The class is called “How Basketball Can Save the World.” Makur Maker, the guest speaker, listens closely as the professor precedes him with a Zoom lecture about shifting power dynamics in sports. His eyes are glued to the screen. His 6-foot-11 body is frozen. Maker is in a familiar position: learning a lesson, waiting for his turn.

He’s not in a familiar place, though. This is David Hollander’s virtual course at New York University instead of Howard, where Maker expected to shine but played only two games in his freshman season. Back in Southern California, far from Washington, Maker appears with Hollander and answers questions as a favor for a mutual friend. It’s a March day in the middle of an NCAA tournament he didn’t get to experience. But he doesn’t mope.

“Trust your work,” Maker tells the class. “That’s what I am doing.”

When Maker committed to Howard in July, the summer buzz was that he could be a game-changer. Here was a five-star big man with serious NBA potential shunning the big conference programs to join a historically Black university, with dreams of pioneering a fresh way for basketball prodigies to think. His decision made national headlines and inspired think pieces about how young athletes could alter the sport.

Then the season started. Or rather, for the Bison, it never really began. In late November, after Howard lost its first two games, Coach Kenneth Blakeney shut down Maker so he could rest a groin injury. Howard managed just a 1-4 record before it canceled the rest of its season because of coronavirus issues.

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Maker doesn’t want to be seen as a cautionary tale, though. His story isn’t over. He promises you, it’s not over.

“I need you to hate sometimes,” he said, grinning, during a recent interview. “It drives me to the gym and makes me get better.”

At the same time, Maker admits this is a challenging time. He didn’t put together a large sample for NBA scouts at Howard. He played 48 minutes over those two games, averaging 11.5 points and six rebounds while playing through the injury. Now Maker — born in Kenya, raised in Australia, groomed as a basketball star in the United States — must contemplate his next step.

He is back in the Los Angeles area and training with former NBA guard Darren Collison, preparing as if he’s going to declare for the draft. But he has yet to officially do so. He doesn’t plan to hire an agent; if he does, he would be ineligible to return to college. He’s trying to keep his options open, but away from Howard and not in consistent contact with Blakeney, it is clear he’s looking toward the pros. The question is whether, with the coronavirus still a limiting factor, he can make a strong enough impression to improve his stock.

“We’re not rolling the dice with him,” said Ed Smith, Maker’s guardian. “He’s young, and he has a long career ahead of him. We won’t be reckless.”

During his NBA career, Collison — who has been working with Maker for about a month — played with several high-quality big men, including David West, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and DeMarcus Cousins. He was teammates with Kevin Love at UCLA. He knows the skills that translate to the pro game, and Maker has made an early impression with his physicality, quickness and shooting touch. Maker, the cousin of NBA center Thon Maker, is quickly learning the subtle details of pro ball, too.

Collison figured Maker was projected to be a first-round pick. When Smith told him the player wasn’t listed on most mock drafts, Collison was perplexed.

“He’ll be ready to play in an NBA game,” Collison vowed.

Maker’s routine consists of two morning workouts and a film session with Collison every weekday with strength and conditioning in the afternoon. The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is May 30.

He’s aware of what the critics say. He blew it by choosing Howard. He lost a year trying to be different. Instead of scoffing, Maker absorbs the negativity and tosses it away, on his terms.

“I don’t blame them for thinking like that,” said Maker, whose struggles at Howard included testing positive for the coronavirus and enduring a two-week recovery process. “They’re sports fans. They’re supposed to criticize you for stuff that didn’t happen or stuff that was supposed to happen, you know? That drives you to get to the gym and show them what you’re really worth and what you could really do.”

It is easy to be drawn to Maker’s balance and confidence. For a former highly rated prep prospect, he lacks some of the basketball privilege. That’s where his global perspective comes into play. He’s still curious about the path and not just the promise. He doesn’t come across as spoiled, but he’s as competitive as it gets.

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“I know that I’m good,” the 20-year-old said. “I know if we close the gym, I know that I’m going to compete, and I’m going to be the best player walking out. People don’t really look at it like that. So if you look at it and say that I played two games and I didn’t bring what I wanted to bring to Howard, that’s that. I can’t change your mind, but you have to come see me in person. You’ve got to see me play, and that’s definitely going to happen. And I’ll be ready to show you who I am.”

After Hollander talked to Maker for his class, he was left marveling about the young man’s maturity and outlook on life. Maker was thoughtful, honest, deep. He answered questions ranging from the caste system of major college athletics to his views, as someone who grew up in Australia, about racism in America. But he may have best articulated his simple reason for attending Howard, painting an inspiring picture of getting to live in a community of students who looked like him and celebrated one another. He wanted that feeling of Black unity and abundance.

Instead, because of the pandemic, he experienced isolation and disappointment. Still, he’s at peace with the decision and hopes the preseason publicity he garnered made an impact, even though he couldn’t supplement it with stellar play on the court.

“Belonging is where the value is,” Hollander said when asked for his takeaway. “It’s also where, I bet, a young man finds his self-possession and ease to laughter.”

Can Maker next establish a firm place in the game? That’s his focus. He doesn’t know what that looks like right now, but he’s working.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Maker said. “I’ve gotten a lot better, too.”

Maybe, with some luck, he can finally make that case on the court.

What to read about college basketball

Men’s bracket | Women’s bracket

Way-too-early top 25: Kentucky, North Carolina, Houston, Gonzaga, Arkansas and Duke should be in the mix again next season.

Rock Chalk, Jayhawk: Kansas forged the biggest comeback in the 83 championship games to date to beat North Carolina and win the men’s national title.

Gamecocks dominate: The women’s national championship is officially heading back to Columbia, S.C., for the second time in program history after a wire-to-wire 64-49 victory by South Carolina over Connecticut.

Mike Krzyzewski’s last game: Coach K’s career ends with joy and agony in college basketball Armageddon.

One day, two title games: A decade after Title IX, a battle for control of women’s basketball split loyalties and produced two national champions.