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What Does Makur Maker Mean For The Future Of HBCU Sports?

In their Howard University dorms in the early 1990s, Milan Brown and his classmates used to discuss how their school and other historically Black colleges and universities could become basketball powerhouses. “You’d be surprised at how many talks we had,” said Brown, now an assistant men’s basketball coach at Pittsburgh.

Brown, whose jersey number is retired at Howard’s Burr Gymnasium, started at point guard in 1992, the last time the Washington, D.C., HBCU reached the NCAA Tournament. And while Howard’s academic pedigree is without question, its men’s basketball team has fallen flat over the past quarter-century. But Brown is ready for his former program to stage a comeback after landing its most impressive recruit, Makur Maker.

“I was so proud,” Brown said of Maker’s commitment in July, “because I know my program can hopefully now make another jump. I’m also glad, bragging-rights-wise, that we can say we have the first. It won’t be the last. But I was also proud because as an alum, I know the power of my university. You know that it’s called the Mecca for a reason, right?”

Maker is the first five-star high school basketball recruit1 to commit to an HBCU since ESPN unveiled its recruiting database in 2007. In doing so, he eschewed offers from college basketball royalty, including UCLA and Kentucky. And so it is that a young Kenyan-born man with professional basketball aspirations chose a program that has lost more games than all but seven Division I teams since 2011.

“I have no idea why it’s been over 40 years that not even one five-star basketball player in the United States has decided to play basketball at an HBCU,” Maker said in an interview with Jerry Bembry of The Undefeated. “But I do know that in this Black Lives Matter movement that’s empowered and assembled many different people across the country and the world that it won’t be another 40 years until it happens again.”

The sports world will be watching for the immediate on-the-court impact of Maker’s signing, with Howard kicking off its season on Thanksgiving. But what can Howard head coach Kenneth Blakeney expect now that his roster includes a blue-chip prospect? Even if the program doesn’t take an instant leap, the off-the-court effects are likely more important. Will Maker’s historic decision create a domino effect for HBCU athletics? Has it already?

It wasn’t a coincidence that Maker made his school announcement in the midst of this summer’s civil rights reckoning. Maker committed to Howard with the hope that his decision would mobilize other elite athletes to play for predominantly Black institutions. That mobilization seems well on its way.

Roughly a month before Maker’s announcement, four-star recruit Nate Tabor withdrew his commitment to St. John’s and committed to Norfolk State. Nojel Eastern, a former top 100 recruit, announced in August that he would join Maker at Howard after transferring from Purdue, writing “For the culture” on Twitter. Cam Mack, a former three-star recruit, left Nebraska and transferred to Prairie View A&M, using the Black Lives Matter hashtag in his announcement post.

Future recruiting classes have taken note. Multiple high-level players in the class of 2023 are considering HBCUs. Most notably, Mikey Williams, the No. 3 prospect in the class of 2023, included five HBCU programs in his top 10.

The movement isn’t exclusive to men’s basketball, either. Korey Foreman, Rivals’ No. 1 football player in the class of 2021, included Howard in his list of top seven schools. “I am a young black man that is happy and proud of my race,” Foreman’s announcement post read. “The Black Lives Matter movement is and forever will be powerful.” Twin volleyball players Bria and Cimone Woodard transferred from Texas A&M to Howard. Earlier this month, Se’Quoia Allmond became the first top 100 women’s basketball recruit in the ESPN era to commit to an HBCU when she signed with Jackson State.

One highly coveted commitment like Maker’s, or even a group of commitments like we saw this summer, doesn’t guarantee the athletic success of HBCUs, said Tyler Does, the co-founder and chair of HBCU Jump. The action network, which launched in June with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, promotes the recruitment of top-tier Black athletes to HBCUs.

“There are no saviors here,” Does told me. “The civil rights movement didn’t start with any singular person. It stemmed from many. One [player] is fantastic, but we want and need more. … We are certainly excited to see the commitments and transfers, but this is just the start.”

Black athletes have typically turned to predominantly white institutions to showcase their talents. And it’s not difficult to understand why.

The USA Today database of athletic department revenues at public universities for the 2018-19 academic year lists 227 Division I programs, and seven of the bottom 10 schools are HBCUs. The median revenue of the 18 HBCUs listed2 was $11.3 million; Prairie View A&M led with $19.7 million in revenue. Meanwhile, 40 major-conference programs are raking in at least $100 million, including the University of Texas, which brought in more than $220 million.

For decades, an overwhelming majority of NBA draft picks have attended major conferences, which boast gargantuan budgets, shiny facilities and countless opportunities for exposure.

Of course, those disparities have ramifications on the recruiting trail. Although the correlation between money spent in college basketball recruiting isn’t as strong as it is in college football, there’s a baseline requirement to even be allowed in the room where these conversations happen.

Craig Meyer wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Kentucky and UCLA, two schools that tendered scholarship offers to Maker, spent more than 10 times the amount Howard did on men’s basketball during the 2018-19 academic year, according to data from the Department of Education. Last season, Howard played two games on ESPN+ while all the Kentucky men’s basketball games were nationally televised.

College athletics is rife with inequities, and breaking up the powers that be in the NCAA has been compared to busting cartels. “The more financial flexibility that Black colleges have, the more things they’ll be able to do,” Brown said. “That’s always been an issue.”

Before the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954, HBCUs were the only universities that allowed Black athletes to play. Football coach Eddie Robinson turned Grambling into such a superpower that the program was referred to as the Black Notre Dame. Though racism continued to keep Black athletes off predominantly white campuses for decades after, top-tier Black athletes eventually began to leave HBCUs behind.

“More and more players decided to go that route,” Brown said. “And not only did that happen, but more and more predominantly white institutions decided to not play HBCUs because of self-preservation. And that hurts.”


Every major recruiting service has a unique methodology for appraising athletes, but five stars represents the pinnacle at seemingly every site.

Just as there aren’t many surefire locks in recruitment, not all stars are created equal — even at the five-star level.

While Maker is ranked among the top hundredths of a percentage point of basketball players in the country at his age, there’s a clear gap between him and the top tier of his class. ESPN projects Maker to be a mid-second-round NBA draft pick at best, while the top four players in the class of 20203 are projected to be selected with the top four picks in the 2021 NBA draft.

To get a feel for what Howard might have on its hands next season, FiveThirtyEight analyzed the first-season impact of every five-star recruit since Rivals began classifying the designation in 2002. It’s hardly surprising that teams with a stockpile of talent are successful. But in the world of five-star recruits, that success is less immediate than some might think.

How much do five-star recruits really help?

Men’s college basketball programs with at least five five-star recruits since 2003, with average change in win percentage and Simple Rating System (SRS) from the season before the recruit joined to the season after

Average change in…
School Win % SRS No. of five-star recruits
Kentucky +0.022 +0.520 48
Duke -0.002 +0.187 35
Arizona -0.008 +0.478 26
Kansas +0.003 -0.335 24
North Carolina -0.008 +0.880 19
UCLA +0.075 +1.275 17
Texas -0.043 -1.054 16
Louisiana State +0.018 +0.064 12
Connecticut -0.077 -1.277 11
Florida -0.047 -3.046 11
Memphis +0.017 +0.554 11
Ohio State +0.025 +2.246 10
Florida State +0.049 +2.201 9
Michigan State -0.001 -0.006 9
Villanova +0.003 -0.954 9
Louisville +0.096 +2.063 8
Alabama -0.003 -0.849 7
Indiana +0.054 +1.691 7
Mississippi State 0.000 +0.493 7
UNLV +0.013 +0.397 7
Oregon +0.021 +1.196 7
Southern California +0.040 +1.431 7
Syracuse -0.073 -2.520 7
Washington -0.155 -4.067 7
NC State -0.009 -0.840 6
Oklahoma State -0.094 -4.172 6
Tennessee -0.130 -1.888 6
Wake Forest +0.098 +2.792 5

Sources: Rivals, Sports-Reference.com

For every national title-winning team like the 2011 Kentucky Wildcats4 and the 2014 Duke Blue Devils,5 there are many more that underachieved. Washington had one season with former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz on the roster, and it was the Huskies’ worst in nearly three decades. Vanderbilt entered the 2018-19 season with two blue-chippers in Darius Garland and Simisola Shittu and went 0-18 in conference play.

Since 2003, teams in the six major conferences6 that added at least one five-star recruit saw a median bump to their winning percentage of 0.027 in the following season. Those teams also improved on average according to Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System,7 but only slightly. Perhaps that’s what one expects when each season brings in a stockpile of talent, but teams touting five-star recruits were hardly guaranteed to cut down the nets or reach the tournament.

Seldom does a five-star recruit commit to a program outside the six major conferences. Of the 439 five-star recruits to play in Division I since 2003,8 only 31 went outside of college basketball’s six major conferences.9 Those teams saw an even smaller median bump in win percentage (0.01).

Maker committed to an HBCU that has been a bottom-barrel program for years. For any losing school, that kind of recruiting success is rare: Only five five-star recruits10 since 2003 committed to a school that had won less than 30 percent of its games the previous season. Howard has usurped the 2017-18 Missouri Tigers as the worst team by percentage of previous-season wins to land a five-star recruit.

Maker told ESPN Daily host Pablo Torre that one of his goals is to get Howard back to the NCAA Tournament, a tall order for a team that won four games a season ago and ranked among the very worst in the country. But theoretically, a one-bid conference that last season rated as the worst of any in KenPom’s ratings should provide the biggest opportunity for a single-player splash.

As Brown put it, “He’s going to have the green light to make history.”

But as Blakeney acknowledged in an interview with The Undefeated, there are limitations on the impact his new player can make.

“Just because we have a young man that’s considered to be one of the top players in the country doesn’t mean that you can change 75 years of, you know, not-great history that we have at Howard University and our men’s basketball program,” he said.


Like the ascension of Ja Morant, whose rise resulted in a gate-revenue spike and sellout crowds for Murray State, Maker’s mere presence is likely to draw more fans and sell more tickets. In his 2015 paper, “The Financial and Competitive Value of NCAA Basketball Recruits,” Richard Borghesi calculated that each five-star recruit generates $625,000 in marginal revenue for his university and attracts academic donations to the tune of $5.8 million on average.

Borghesi told me that Maker’s financial impact will depend on how successful Howard is on the court but acknowledged that it’s difficult to assess Maker’s incoming impact given the unprecedented nature of the situation (and the season). Without having played a single minute of college ball, Maker was picked to earn first-team all-conference honors this year.

The Bison should be able to benefit not only from Maker’s basketball talents but also from his social capital. Maker’s announcement drew national attention on social media, and his platforms spiked as a result. So too did Howard’s.

Maker has nearly 100,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter combined. On Twitter the Howard men’s basketball team has a little more than 3,000.

So what value does Maker’s social capital have?

With name, image and likeness rights still likely at least a year away, Maker probably won’t be able to profit off all that he’s bringing to campus. But if the purported future NIL rules and regulations were in place, Opendorse CEO and co-founder Blake Lawrence calculated11 that Maker’s earning potential would be $4,538 over a calendar year. Given that a lot of that assessment has to do with the university’s lack of revenue and its market size, Lawrence noted that Maker’s annual earning potential could have exceeded $117,000 if he had chosen to enroll at Duke University.


Howard likely has only a few months to turn Maker’s experience into something that will outlast the 6-foot-11 center’s time on The Yard. Something that other star athletes will want to replicate.

“Wherever a five-star lands, we can’t mess it up,” Blakeney told ESPN’s Jeff Borzello. “If we mess it up, we may not have another opportunity to be able to do it.”

Maker could be the first player selected in the NBA draft from an HBCU since Kyle O’Quinn in 2012. Of the 529 players who appeared in an NBA game last season, only two came from HBCUs. If nothing else, Maker’s experience could open a wider pathway for HBCU talent to reach the professional ranks.

Brown believes this trend will have legs in the long term.

“I do think in today’s climate and with the focus that has come regarding racial equality and people wanting to be treated the same way, it’s being thrust to the forefront,” Brown said. “These players are saying, ‘Man, you know what? Maybe we can do something here.’ And maybe they can.”

Footnotes

  1. According to ESPN, Rivals and 247 Sports.

  2. USA Today’s database does not include Bethune-Cookman, Hampton and Howard, which are private universities, along with Alabama A&M, Jackson State and South Carolina State, which are public but did not provide their reports. Savannah State’s 2018-19 figures were included; the school left Division I in 2019.

  3. Jalen Green, Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Jonathan Kuminga.

  4. Which added five-star recruits Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer the previous season.

  5. Which added five-star recruits Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow.

  6. The ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

  7. Which calculates how many points a team was better or worse than the average Division I team in that season.

  8. FiveThirtyEight didn’t include five-star players who skipped college to play professionally (LeBron James), attended junior colleges (Jon Kreft) or never suited up for the program they committed to (Brian Bowen).

  9. Connecticut was a member of the Big East during all but one of its five-star signings: that of Jalen Adams, who signed in 2015 while the school was part of the American Athletic Conference.

  10. Michael Porter Jr., Jontay Porter, James Harden, Lou Williams and Mike Mercer.

  11. Lawrence’s appraisals are based on a decade’s worth of transactional data between businesses and professional athletes, specific to each respective sport. They take into account an athlete’s current audience size, engagement rate and seven other proprietary data points.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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