Markelle Fultz Is the Big Man on Campus 2.0: Inside the Making of a Superstar

Jason KingSenior Writer, B/R MagMarch 1, 2017

James Brunner

The man who could be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft emerges from the Mercer Court dorms on the University of Washington campus sporting a black Nike jumpsuit, an unblemished pair of Jordan 4 Wheats—and a $745 MCM leather backpack with silver studs.

Most Wednesdays, an Uber driver shuttles this 18-year-old to his 11:30 a.m. sports psychology course. But with a crew of B/R Mag cameras (not to mention his own) chronicling another day in his extraordinary life, the atypical superstar opens his umbrella on another typical Seattle morning and begins the 15-minute walk to class.

Here he comes, the 6'4" freshman on his way to class at Conibear Shellhouse, just past the Alaska Airlines Arena where NBA scouts watched him drop 26 points with 11 assists on New Year's Day, then 37 and eight against Colorado two-and-a-half weeks later, then another 30 the next game—all while playing for the Huskies' worst team in 23 years.

There he goes, quietly snaking through the student center, iPhone in hand, unnoticed until classmates spot the cameras trailing 10 feet behind. As the point guard waits in line at the food court for a cookies-and-cream milkshake, senior Johnathan Mensonides snaps a photo.

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"Excuse me," the student implores the assembled entourage. "Can you tell me who that is?"

Hold up: Here is Markelle Fultz, whom NBA scouts refer to as "the next James Harden," inside the U-Dub spirit shop, and the manager who sells Huskies basketball gear doesn't even recognize him?

You've got to see this to believe it:


Outside the student center, Fultz attempts to introduce himself to a student sitting on a park bench. She's on her phone, so Fultz stands and waits.

"It's going to be a while," she says.

Fultz is hardly bothered by the lack of attention. If anything, he's relishing it. His time in the spotlight will come soon enough. Multiple NBA scouts tell B/R Mag that Fultz is a virtual lock to be a top-three pick in June's draft. "And the majority of us think he'll go No. 1," one of them says.

Down in Kentucky, Wildcats star guards De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are greeted each morning by autograph seekers who wait outside the athletic lodge. Josh Jackson and his Kansas teammates often eat in a private dining hall to shield themselves from fanfare. Lonzo Ball has become an instant celebrity on UCLA's campus, even in the middle of Hollywood.

Fultz, the soon-to-be multimillionaire, may be biding his time in relative anonymity with milkshakes on the way to class, but he is loving every minute of it.

"I'm aware of what's happening," Fultz says of his impending fame and fortune, "but I still can't believe it. It hasn't sunk in yet. It doesn't seem real."

Perhaps that's because for Fultz, superstardom came at warp speed.

Less than four years ago, in the fall of 2013, Fultz was a frail, 5'9" sophomore who'd just been cut from the varsity squad at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland.

Relegated to JV, Fultz played well enough for a scholarship offer from High Point. Then he grew seven inches—and everything changed:


By August 2014, Ebony Fultz's phone was filling up with photos of her son with John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Bob Huggins and more.

Fultz, though, spurned powerhouses such as Arizona and Louisville for Washington, a program that has missed the NCAA tournament the past five seasons—and is about to miss a sixth—despite producing five first-round draft picks during that span.

To hear his mother, Ebony, tell it, the decisions that got Fultz this far will be the same types of choices that make him an NBA great. As much as she wanted Markelle to play for a good coach like the Huskies' Lorenzo Romar, it was even more important that he learn from a good man.

Ebony wipes away tears when describing how Romar reacted to the death of Markelle's great grandmother in late December. The funeral—across the country, back in Maryland—was one day before the Huskies played rival Oregon on national TV. Romar insisted Markelle fly home for the service.

"He told me he thought it was important," Ebony says. "He offered to get grief counseling for Markelle. He called multiple times a day to check on him. He cared more about my son than he did a game."

Fultz has FaceTimed with his mother almost every night since arriving in Seattle last summer. "I'm a momma's boy, for sure," he says. If Ebony has to stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. Eastern time to talk with Markelle after a game, so be it. Multiple times this season, Ebony has woken up to texts from Markelle telling her how much he appreciates the work she put in raising him as a single mom.

On those rare occasions when Markelle attends a party at U-Dub, he thinks of Ebony when he says "no" to people who offer him a drink.

"I don't want to reflect negatively on her," Fultz says. "I'm part of her brand."

During his final three years at DeMatha, Fultz arrived at school at 5:30 most mornings for tutoring sessions from Joan Phalen, the school's co-director of academic support.

Rarely, Phalen says, would a weekend pass when Fultz didn't text her and request an additional session on Saturday or Sunday. He completed test-review packets four times. If he got a C during spring semester, he'd retake the course over the summer to be better prepared for a more advanced curriculum in the fall.

"He kept saying, 'I've got to get better, I've got to get better,'" Phalen says. "I wish I could transfuse what he has into other students."

Trigonometry, calculus, geometry, algebra—Fultz became so interested in math at DeMatha that he entered college dead-set on studying accounting. And although he's a short-timer at Washington, Fultz says he's taken academics seriously, ending the fall semester with a GPA just under 3.4.

Associate head coach Raphael Chillious chuckles as he recalls the time he popped into Fultz's sports psychology class to make sure he was there.

"He held up his phone and recorded me on Snapchat," Chillious says. "He was like, 'What... you thought you were going to catch me skipping?'

"If he could stay here four years, he would," Chillious continues. "He's loving this experience. He's loving everything about college."

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Fultz's approach to his fleeting time on campus is rare among today's one-and-done stars. Ever since 2006, when the NBA began requiring players to be at least one year removed from high school before entering the draft, many 18-year-old phenoms have viewed college as an annoying pitstop before turning pro.

Last year's No. 1 pick, Ben Simmons, openly complained in a documentary about having to spend a year at LSU. Simmons was known for isolating himself from his teammates and got suspended from competition for skipping class.

Fultz is friends with Simmons and says he watched the documentary. Respectful as he is of the Sixers forward, Fultz says his time in school—and all that's come with it—has been just the opposite.

"Most kids spend four years in college," says Keith Williams, Fultz's AAU coach, mentor and trainer. "Markelle only gets eight months. He's making sure to enjoy it."

Fultz makes a point to attend every Huskies athletics event he can, from gymnastics to football. When he's not go-karting with teammates or eating chicken teriyaki at Yummy Bites, Fultz can often be found lip-syncing to old-school R&B jams—New Edition, the Isley Brothers and James Brown. With the exception of Chance The Rapper, Fultz says he doesn't care much for today's hip-hop because "lyrics are so dumb."

Washington guard David Crisp, who lives in Fultz's dorm, recalled multiple times when Fultz dug money out of his pockets to hand to homeless people near campus.

Most kids spend four years in college. Markelle only gets eight months. He's making sure to enjoy it. — KEITH WILLIAMS, FULTZ'S AAU COACH, MENTOR AND TRAINER

"Unless someone told you otherwise, you'd never know he was such a big star," Crisp says. "I've never even heard him bring up the NBA. If someone tries to talk to him about it, he changes the subject immediately. He doesn't like talking about himself."

But Fultz does enjoy boasting about his knack for making trick shots. Night after night last fall—and during the season, too—Fultz would be at the Alaska Airlines Center well past 10 p.m. working on behind-the-back heaves from half court, between-the-legs dunks and even shots from the rafters:


In practice, though, Fultz is attentive and focused. While college basketball fans, TV analysts and NBA scouts fawn over his game, Fultz knows he's nowhere close to reaching his ceiling. His three-point shooting, he says, needs to improve. And he has so much more to learn defensively.

But Fultz is facing a conundrum on the court in Seattle. He knows how much Washington's chemistry will improve if he gets more Huskies the ball for open shots. But at times his coaches want him to "take over" games, even if he is already averaging more than 23 points.

"I care so much about my teammates," Fultz says. "I want to make them happy."

He pauses for a moment, then flashes the smirk of a superstar: "Honestly, though, if I wanted to score every time down the court—If I played with that mentality—there wouldn't be anyone who could stop me."

 

COMING FRIDAY: Stay tuned for "Markelle Fultz: The Making of a Superstar, Part 2"—including what he's learning from LeBron, Kobe and Jordan, plus how the hype is getting to him at the dawn of March Madness.

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Jason King is a senior writer for B/R Mag, based in Kansas. A former staff writer at ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, King's work has received mention in the popular book series The Best American Sportswriting. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingBR.