Thon Maker was a national commodity years before a highlight mixtape produced by Ty Kish of CityLeagueHoopsTV started popping up all over the Internet last weekend. The 7-foot high school sophomore was already touted as one of the top players in the class of 2016 by the folks who decide such things: ESPN ranks Maker the No. 1 sophomore in the country, while Rivals and Scout put him No. 3.
Maker was at Duke's Midnight Madness to begin this season and already has scholarship offers from Arizona, Georgetown, Miami and Virginia, among others. For college scouts and people who obsess over the subjective categorization of teenagers not old enough to legally drive a car, Maker has been on the map at least since he was in eighth grade. This means that Maker, who began playing basketball in 2010 when it became clear he was too tall to continue with soccer, has been identified and sought after from just about moment he blocked his first shot.
For all but the most committed basketball fans, though, the mixtape that circulated last weekend was the first time anyone heard his name. That name was accompanied in headlines next to the 25-year-old who's currently on some otherworldly scoring binge in the NBA.
On Deadspin, the headline read "7-Foot-1 High School Sophomore Plays Basketball Like Kevin Durant". The Big Lead wrote that he "looks like a cross between Kevin Durant and Kevin Garnett." Another site claimed: "At best, he turns into a Kevin Durant-Chris Paul combo in Dikembe Mutombo’s body."
All of this is high praise for a player who shot 40 percent from the field and was third on his own AAU team in scoring a year ago, albeit while playing against older competition. Even for scouts, the sight of Maker's name next to Durant's was difficult to digest.
"I just think it's ridiculous the standard that we're placing on our high school basketball players, specifically sophomores," said Scott Phillips, a national AAU scout who has worked for NBC, Rivals and Scout. "It's unfair to the kids, first of all, who are just playing. And they aren't producing these mixtapes themselves for publicity. They aren't trying to emulate their games after certain people. They're certainly not trying to add pressure to themselves.
"Thon Maker isn't really even that close to Kevin Durant, in terms of how they model their games after each other. He's more a long, 7-foot, skilled, active presence, who you could probably compare at the recent college level more to (Baylor big man) Isiash Austin. With his physical limitations in terms of his strength, it still makes him a question of how good he projects at the next level."
Whether comparing high school underclassmen to professionals is fair or not, it's certainly nothing new. A year ago, just as Andrew Wiggins became regarded as "the best high school basketball player since LeBron James" based on the strength of his own mixtape, a 14-year-old was already drawing similar praise. That would be Seventh Woods, who places just behind Maker in those Class of 2016 recruiting rankings.
To be clear, Maker's mixtape certainly is impressive. There aren't many 7-foot 16-year-olds in the country, let alone ones skilled enough to take their peers off the dribble with a quick crossover for a driving dunk or pull-up three-pointer. That's exactly what Maker's mix shows.
There's a broader question at the center of all of this, though. What effect does this have on kids still years away from attending prom? Is it detrimental for a prodigious basketball talent to see his name in headlines next to millionaires and future Hall of Famers? It only takes one viewing of the Lenny Cooke story to know the perils and likelihood of flaming out early.
While it may not feel right to everyone, high school basketball mixtapes have a big audience. The people who make them certainly don't feel bad about it. What isn't immediately clear to the public is just how much work goes into producing one mixtape. For those videographers, it's largely a well-intentioned labor of love.
Scott Comeau is based in Chicago and works for Ball is Life, perhaps the most recognizable of the mixtape manufacturers. He made his first mixtape of Maker when the player was in eighth grade.
You have likely never talked to a person as enthusiastic about basketball as Comeau. The excitement in his voice when talking about the players he produces mixes for is undeniable. He doesn't find mixtapes and the culture they've helped produce as damaging as some of the other facets of high school basketball. And he makes a pretty good case.
"All positive, no negative," Comeau says when asked about his work. "We don't do rankings. We don't do recruiting gossip. Right now, we're just kind of keeping it all positive. It's entertainment. Being on the South Side of Chicago, there's plenty of negative stuff. If I can just be part of this tiny, little positive thing, I'll go with that.
"I'm not a scout. I never played basketball at a high level. I don't know how else to say it: No one watches more high school basketball than our group of people. Because we go to the games. We film it. We go home and watch it again. Every day. I'm not a scout, but I see a lot of games."
Ball Is Life isn't Comeau's only gig, but the schedule of his day job is flexible enough to allow him to go to high school basketball games almost 365 days a year, he says. Comeau will often go to two high school games a day, as he did when I met him last week at a Whitney Young High School watching the nation's No. 1 senior, Jahlil Okafor.
There isn't anyone else behind the camera or the editing process for Comeau's videos. It's all him. His mixtapes are the result of taping the same players over and over again for years. It doesn't happen if he's not in the gym. Sometimes, it feels like he's the only one there.
"We do this because we want to," he says. "I don't have the ultimate goal of doing A, B, or C. Most of these games I go to are at 4:30 on a Tuesday in a snowstorm. Half of these games I went to for Jabari Parker's entire high school career, there's like under 50 people there. But that video now has millions of views. That's what I get a kick out of.
"That's how you get those super awesome videos made by one person. That's how you get that crazy Jabari Parker video that was made by one person. Every single thing in that video I made. All around the country for six months."
If there's a downside to mixtapes, Comeau doesn't see it. He says that before he produces anything, he clears it with the player, the parents and the coaches. If a kid wants a mixtape taken down, he'll gladly do it.
It's easy to focus on all of the things mixtapes don't capture. Comeau doesn't think they're a particularly good scouting tool. None of his mixtapes feature a player setting a good screen, tipping out a rebound to a teammate or making the extra pass. This is by design, and he doesn't see anything wrong with it.
"It's entertainment. Don't take it too seriously," he said. "Is anyone going to click on a video of Allen Iverson's turnovers? 'How many turnovers did Allen Iverson have?' But people want to see Allen Iverson's ball handling skills.
"These are highlights videos of high school basketball. I don't think we're trying to say it's something else. We're trying to make these kids look great."
Comoau says he found his way into this niche partially out of boredom. He's a baseball obsessive who was raised near Boston and went to college in New York. He's a season ticket-holder for both the Cubs and the White Sox, and started following high school basketball while looking for something to do during the MLB offseason.
The movie "Hoop Dreams" piqued his interest, so he started attending games at Marshall High School, where much of the film takes place, on Chicago's west side. After a while, he found himself going to games almost every day, talking to people in and around the schools. Eventually, he bought a camera and started taping what he saw.
When I talk to Comeau on Tuesday, he'll be leaving shortly to go to another game. It isn't a high school game, though. Comeau is set to watch Ariel, a junior high team he says features "six of the nine best eighth graders in Chicago." Next season, these kids will be the best high school freshman on the traditional powerhouse teams throughout the city. Right now, they're all on the same squad.
The crown jewel of that team is point guard Chase Adams. Comeau made a video of Adams as a seventh grader that has three million views on YouTube. He's already working on his eighth-grade mix.
"He's this little, little, tiny, tiny thing. He has crazy, literally unreal, basketball IQ. You watch it and it's like a video game. No special effects were used, but he's tremendous."
"Those stupid websites ranked him the No. 1 eighth grader in the country. He's 5-feet tall. I don't even know how to wrap my head around that. Is that my fault? I don't know."
Thon Maker is hardly an exception. In a business as big as professional basketball, it's no secret that players will continue to become commodities at ages almost comically young. It's going to happen every year. It's not going to stop.
Whether Maker is the next Kevin Durant is likely besides the point. Adams, for all of his 4-foot magic dribbling the ball, won't graduate high school until 2018. Time will tell just how good these players turn out, and no mixtape is going to predict the future.
The mixtape is indeed in the eye of the beholder. What's left is the footage. It's your choice what to make of it.