Every year, as the NCAA basketball season gets into full swing, the smoke starts to clear around the first draft pick of the upcoming NBA Draft. Last year, presumed number one pick Ben Simmons was being broken down piece by piece as his LSU Tigers struggled through the SEC. Critics used the forward’s lack of a tournament berth as proof against his competitive drive and will to win. Obviously Simmons was drafted first anyway, but he’s yet to step on the court against elite competition, and we aren’t yet sure how right those critics were. This year, the likely number one pick is far less covered, and definitely less known about, so deep research about the best player is all the more important.
Markelle Fultz is that player. As one of very few bright spots for a Washington Huskies team that sits 10th in the PAC-12, Fultz is tasked with carrying an inordinate load of offense for his squad. The Huskies are an offense-first team; defense is neither a priority nor strength for most of the roster. They are certainly a better basketball team than Simmons’ LSU roster, but they also play in a better conference (the SEC is extraordinarily shallow beyond Kentucky) that highlights the flaws in the team. Of the eight players who’ve played 200+ minutes for Washington in 2016–17, only four have a positive box plus-minus (BPM) and two of those four have usage rates (USG %) in the 20-percent range. Fultz, by stark contrast, has been phenomenal. He has 3.7 win shares, leads his team in offensive BPM by a whopping 4.8, and boasts a 29.0 PER.
And while advanced stats are telling, they don’t always look as nice as a traditional stud statline, which Fultz also brings to the table; in 20 games, he’s averaging 23.7 points, six rebounds, and a hair over six assists. In addition, he establishes himself on defense, with 1.7 steals and a shockingly-high 1.3 blocks. The block numbers are especially interesting for a bespoke point guard, because Fultz has the sort of build that could make him a terrifying defensive guard at the next level. If those rejections hint at anything, it’s that he already has a keen instinct for defense in transition, especially at the rim. That bodes well for the 18-year-old, because his above-average athleticism will only carry him so far at the next level of play.
His athleticism deserves a mention though, because it’s central to the way Fultz carries himself in college. There’s a certain ease and smoothness with which he plays the game, and you can instantly draw comparisons to players in the NBA. His pull-up jumper, for instance, is a shot so effortless and instantaneous that you almost wonder how the defender could even be expected to contest it. It’s reminiscent of Jamal Crawford’s buttery pull-up, though Fultz’s dribble attack is less “shake, rattle, and roll” than Crawford’s legendary handle. Instead, he plays with the same assured and measured pace that guards like Shaun Livingston have; he doesn’t rush or fumble the way so many young players do under pressure. Instead, he’ll use a hang dribble or just a bounce (not kidding, the dude doesn’t really take steps. He just bounces) to the side and drop his defender, taking his time to rotate into an easy midrange jumper.
The Husky (husky like the dog, not like Glen Davis) freshman also possesses a stellar body composition at just 18, weighing in at 195 lbs but with a decent bulk from top to bottom. His shoulder width is especially encouraging, because it means Fultz has the capacity to continue adding upper body strength, and it fuses well with his current 6’9.75″ wingspan to create gigantic defensive potential. Mix that in with the aforementioned knack for shot-blocking and there’s no conceivable reason that Fultz can’t be a game-changing force at either basket.
Here are some other guards who put up similar numbers (I used a threshold of 20/5/5 averages for research purposes) during their time at university, and I’ll let you decide how this bodes for Fultz:
Evan Turner | Ohio State | 2009–10: 20.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 6 apg
It’s worth noting that this is the only other athlete from a Power Five conference to make this list. Turner’s college career was legendary, and for many Big 10 fans, he’s infamous. While he’s hardly been as dominant in the pros, Turner has been impactful for almost every team he’s been with. It’s no fault of Turner’s that the game shifted away from the midrange shot just a few years after his drafting, but rather just unfortunate circumstance. Like Fultz, Turner was a big guard in college who could play within himself from an early age, using his size and fluidity to create offense for the junior and his fellow Buckeyes. While this isn’t the worst-case scenario for Fultz, it certainly isn’t his ceiling.
Anfernee Hardaway | Memphis | 1992–93: 22.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 6.4 apg
What a ceiling this would be for Fultz. Hardaway is best known for being one of the NBA’s greatest “what-ifs” for his meteoric rise and tragically swift downfall, but his college career at Memphis more than earned him the third overall draft selection. As a junior, the 6’7 (he was quite tall in an era when Muggsy Bogues was a relevant point guard) playmaker dominated the Great Midwest Conference with a stellar blend of out-the-gym athleticism and exceptional ball creativity. Once he hit the NBA, there was only more of the same, as Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal partnered to form one of the most potent young duos of the 20th century. It seemed “Penny” could do no wrong; he was a defensive stalwart that swallowed smaller guards with his length, spread the ball with a flair that kept defenses guessing, and could score from just about anywhere within 25 feet of the hoop. While a slew of knee injuries and Shaq’s departure would cap the Memphis product before he got a ring, Hardaway played enough to prove that he had the talent (though lacking the durability) that warranted his early selection.
Norris Cole | Cleveland State | 2010–11: 21.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.3 apg
That’s “two-time NBA Champion Norris Cole” to you, buddy. Coming out of a wildly unimpressive conference, it’s not as notable that Cole dominated the field, but the stats still compose a sound collegiate résumé. The point guard also averaged over two steals in his senior year, while turning the ball over only 2.7 times per contest. For a combo guard whose strength wasn’t in playmaking, that’s impressive. Speaking of strengths, Cole’s was scoring in college. It hasn’t translated well to the NBA, as the former Viking has NBA career splits of 41/32/74 on roughly eleven shots per game. To make matters worse, Cole is still floating around unsigned after his most recent stint in New Orleans. This is probably Fultz’s floor, barring catastrophic first-year injuries. The inconsistent shooting that plagued Cole has been a huge issue for Fultz too, but he’s a better and more natural playmaker and a more gifted athlete. Hopefully those advantages will help him avoid an NBA career like Cole’s — though the two rings would certainly be nice.
You may have noticed that none of the players mentioned were freshmen when they put up these stat lines. That’s because aside from Fultz, only one freshman guard has put up 20/5/5 averages or better. It was Wyoming’s Ladrell Whitehead, who never put up the same numbers again during his four years of NCAA play and averaged laughable shooting splits of 39/35/78 during the first season.
Career comparisons are all well and good, but it’s worth mentioning that Fultz is more than capable of blazing his own trail. He’s already proven that to some degree; the Maryland native picked Washington over bigger programs like UConn, Arizona (who thumped the Huskies only a week ago), UNC, and his hometown Terrapins. While Washington has struggled throughout the year, Fultz has shown no real signs of anger or a lack of effort like some accused Simmons of doing. Instead, he’s calmly tried to shoulder more and more of the burden that games in the PAC-12 demand. That has led to some awesome highlights, whether in the form of creating looks for teammates, blowing by in transition, or using his remarkable ball handling to get open shots. While it’s come at the cost of his shooting efficiency, the loyalty of a young man with no real stake in this team is encouraging to see. Like Jamal Murray, who got legitimately emotional following Kentucky’s March Madness elimination last year, Fultz’s commitment is a sign of good character and work ethic in the face of adversity — two things which, when not present, can greatly diminish the potential of rookies at the next stage of basketball. It takes one look at players like Hasheem Thabeet, Andrea Bargnani, and Darius Miles to understand: caring about the game is important for any sort of sustained success at the professional level. During Jonathan Givony’s interview with Fultz at the 2016 Nike Hoops Summit, the guard continually came off as someone who was committed to doing what it takes to win.
That’s not to say Fultz is a perfect player. There are times (very rare times) when his shot selection is less-than-advisable, but that’s part of carrying a weaker team. His shot form itself is still a work in progress, and his percentages have fallen off as of late; the biggest issue is consistency in motion. On occasion, you can catch a slight dip inward at the knees mid-release, and sometimes the ball seems to slip out prematurely. There’s no doubt it looks better in college than in high school, and these things have happened less frequently, but he will definitely need some shot coaching at the pro level. That’s not a gigantic drawback. Shawn Marion was an impact player even with a jumper that was ugly as sin. In addition, Fultz will still need to add a bit of size and aggression to succeed in the driving lanes at the next level. The common “disengaged” criticism, though, seems invalid. It isn’t as though Fultz is giving up mid-game, refusing to run in defensive transition or settling for lazy jumpers. Fultz’s emotion simply sits below the surface; he’s not an emotional fireball like Marcus Smart, he’s more of a Derrick Rose.
There’s no such thing as a can’t-miss prospect, but there are some players that come pretty close. Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, and Kyrie Irving were number one picks because the cons were firmly outweighed by a laundry list of obvious skills. It’s the same with Fultz. The maturity, athleticism, and feel that he has for the game is simply too good to pass up. Consider this a prologue to Markelle’s career. He’ll make sure the rest of the book is exciting.