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The NBA’s loss could be UCLA’s gain if Makur Maker opts for college

Makur Maker is shown when he played for Orange Lutheran.
Uncertainty about this year’s NBA draft has Makur Maker debating whether to forge ahead with professional basketball or try another avenue.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

In any other year, Makur Maker would be able to play his way into the NBA.

Showcase events such as the Nike Hoop Summit and the Allen Iverson Roundball Classic would have allowed the 6-foot-11, 235-pound international prospect, who combines a fearsome physical presence with a velvety shooting touch, to show that he was worthy of being drafted in the first round.

“I was planning on killing it at those showcases,” Maker said.

Further opportunities to enhance his standing usually would have come in the draft combine and in workouts for individual teams. But the cancellation of all those events amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty surrounding a draft that could be pushed back from June 25 have left Maker debating whether to forge ahead with professional basketball or try another avenue.

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The NBA’s loss could be UCLA’s gain.

UCLA has agreed in principle to hire Boston College’s Martin Jarmond as its athletic director, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.

Should Maker opt for college basketball, the five-star recruit might just make the short commute from his home in Yorba Linda to Westwood.

“UCLA’s leading right now in my opinion, I feel like,” Maker said. “UCLA would be a great fit for me. It’s in my backyard, it’s right near my house, only about an hour’s drive and staying home and staying in the West and UCLA has produced a lot of pros — Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love, everybody’s been through there — so it’s a great environment.”

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A native of Kenya who spent most of his childhood in Australia, Maker, 19, is familiar with UCLA having spent a handful of years in Southern California after emigrating from Australia. He played his freshman year at West Hills Chaminade High and also spent time at Orange Lutheran after taking a detour to Canada to play at a prep academy before it shut down.

Maker is completing his high school coursework at Pacific Academy in Irvine before submitting his paperwork to the NCAA Clearinghouse in hopes that he can obtain college eligibility if it’s needed. It may help that the NCAA has significantly relaxed its admissions standards in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Other suitors besides UCLA have included Kentucky, Oregon, Auburn, Memphis and Howard. They all could lose out if Maker thinks he could go high enough in the draft. Maker and his guardian, Ed Smith, said the cutoff point would probably be early in the second round, provided they think the team selecting Maker would put him in a situation to thrive.

“He’s going to wait for feedback and they’re going to tell you, ‘OK, we feel you’re at this level, you need college,’ or, ‘We want to take you right now and we want to work with you,’ ” Smith said. “So they have to have a level of confidence in you before you just jump in there. I’m not going to push him into a situation just to get him to the NBA that’s not favorable for him.”

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ESPN projects Maker outside its top 60 prospects, meaning he would risk not getting picked if he went in the draft. He is not considering the new G League academy that is luring top prep prospects, including former UCLA signee Daishen Nix, as a one-year stopover complete with six-figure salaries.

The coronavirus outbreak has kept Kedon Slovis in Arizona, but that isn’t stopping the USC quarterback from improving his game or finding a new hobby.

Maker, whose cousin Thon Maker plays for the Detroit Pistons, is a stretch big man who can initiate the offense and make three-pointers. Defensively, he’s known for switching with ease on the pick and roll and protecting the rim with his length. When it comes to pace of play, he has a heavy stylistic preference.

“With or without the ball, I like to get out and run,” he said. “I stretch the floor very well, I hit shots at a high clip and also get downhill and get my man in foul trouble.”

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Maker helped his Phoenix-based team, Hillcrest Prep, win consecutive tournaments last season but also suffered a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for more than a month.

He has been on UCLA’s radar even before coach Mick Cronin arrived, having been recruited by predecessor Steve Alford. Maker was impressed with the way Cronin helped guard Chris Smith become the Pac-12 Conference’s most improved player last season and liked the system the Bruins ran.

“It mirrors some of the NBA actions in terms of it’s an open-flow system with a lot of reads,” Ed Smith said, “and he feels he can slot in all over the floor over there.”

Maker is also intrigued by the possibility of matching up head to head with incoming USC recruit Evan Mobley, widely considered the nation’s top high school center. Mobley is rated the No. 3 player in the nation by 247Sports and ESPN; Maker is rated No. 15 by ESPN and No. 16 by 247Sports.

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It could be awhile before Maker knows whether he’s going to spend next season facing collegians or professionals.

“He’s not going to be rushed with the process,” Smith said. “He’s not going to just jump to go to the NBA to go to the NBA, you know?”


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