Coach Kenneth Blakeney, right, and freshman Makur Maker. Credit: Howard University

College basketball teams that go 4-29 typically struggle to generate buzz the following season. But for Howard men’s basketball, the matriculation of five-star recruit Makur Maker has instantly changed the team’s trajectory, and this year’s squad has a chance to make some breakthroughs. Keep in mind the Bison haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 1992.

“We’re going to be one of the most watched teams in the country,” head coach Kenneth Blakeney tells City Paper. “I know we will be one of the most scrutinized teams in the country. We welcome all that … Hopefully we’re playing basketball in March … and with us taking the steps to get better, we have a chance to compete for a MEAC (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) championship.”

Howard has hardly been a power in its league and teams in the MEAC have never signed prospects like Maker, a top-20 recruit and possible future NBA draft pick, until now. With the nationally acclaimed 7-footer, incoming transfers, and a roster that includes more locals, a lot of extra attention is coming Howard’s way as the sports world watches to see how the first five-star recruit to ever commit to a historically Black college and university will perform.

Maker is looking forward to the challenge.

“I wanted to be part of making history here,” he tells City Paper. “With the social unrest and everything that’s going on following the death of George Floyd and many others, it definitely made me break [my decision] down a lot with different schools and then decide to go to Howard.”

Maker announced his commitment to Howard in July. His recruiting process started well before the protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism, but by choosing to attend an HBCU instead of a Power Five conference school, which are predominantly White, Maker made a deliberate choice that has resonated with other top basketball talents.

In fact, he already feels a shift happening and has been a vocal advocate for his peers to consider a visit or accept the calls from coaches at an HBCU.

“There’s [other] Power Five prospects already going to HBCUs,” Maker says, pointing out that Se’Quoia Allmond committed to Jackson State University, becoming the first ESPN Top 100 women’s basketball player to select an HBCU. “The change has already started … We just have to carry on and see how we do this season, see if we can spark it up a little more.”

Star athletes are important to a school because success in a sport like basketball can drive donations, interest from prospective students, and potentially even its academic reputation. Because of the way the NCAA’s hierarchies of power and revenue were developed, however, HBCUs that used to collectively send dozens of players to the NFL and NBA every year saw their hold on athletic talent and their place in college sports slip away over the past few decades.

Blakeney points to two examples as models of success. At Georgetown University, he sees an example of a school whose basketball program came up in a big way and saw its academic reputation rise alongside it as well. He also cites Tommy Amaker, the head coach at Harvard and a fellow D.C. native who has developed the Crimson into an impressive program at the prestigious institution. Blakeney refers to Amaker, who was on the staff at Duke while he played there, as his mentor and offers praise for the late John Thompson, Jr., architect of the program at Georgetown.

“For me, growing up in D.C., John Thompson was a hero of mine. I’m using the things that he did at Georgetown to help build our program,” Blakeney explains.

One of those things the D.C. native credits Thompson with is a commitment to recruiting local players. He noted that when he took over the Bison, the roster had one player from the area. Now, it has ten players hailing from either D.C., Maryland, or Virginia.

“We’re really proud of that,” Blakeney says, expressing a deep appreciation for Washington’s rich basketball culture. “We want to do a conscious job of connecting our basketball program back to the city.”

Wayne Bristol, Jr., a sophomore guard, hails from Upper Marlboro. He returns to the Bison after a freshman campaign in which he earned the MEAC Rookie of the Year honors and averaged 12.6 points per game. The team added nine new players in May, including two transfers—one from Drexel University and another from Howard County Community College—that both played in D.C.-area high schools.

“We have a whole new squad this year. Just getting to know everybody personally, getting that on-court chemistry, has been great,” Bristol tells City Paper. “We want to win really badly, turn that record around.”

So far Bristol has been impressed with Maker, the team’s highest-profile recruit.

“He’s gonna bring a lot to the table,” he says. “What he can do, not a lot of people can do. It’s going to be a special year for him.”

Despite making his commitment in July, Maker had previously declared for the NBA draft and kept his name in the pool after his commitment. It was not until August that his decision to stay at Howard became public. 

On the court, Maker is described as a matchup nightmare. 247Sports’ national recruiting analyst Josh Gershon called him an “extremely unique post prospect with legitimate perimeter skills” who has “range to three,” “handles the ball very well,” and has “elite end-to-end speed for his size.”

His presence on the team has also led others to play with an extra bit of motivation.

“Him being a nationally-acclaimed player, a guy who’s a five-star recruit, and us having some very young talented guys, [they] wanted to show him that they can play as well,” Blakeney says. “That kind of competition, especially early on, galvanized our team in a way that I think made us play at a higher level.”