Markelle Fultz Is the Prototype: Meet the NBA Draft's 2017 Superstar in Waiting

Jason KingSenior Writer, B/R MagMarch 3, 2017

B/R Mag

An hour after the final home game of his four-month college basketball career, the likely No. 1 pick in the NBA draft swings open the glass door to JOEY Kitchen, an upscale joint a mile from Alaska Airlines Arena.

It’s just after 9 p.m. on a Saturday in Seattle, and JOEY is juiced. But Markelle Fultz, even at 6’4” and limping with an ice pack wrapped around his knee, goes virtually unnoticed as he sneaks past dozens of diners on his way to a long table near the open kitchen in the back.

Fultz orders hibachi wings, then watches highlights of himself on a nearby TV. He had just dropped 26 with six dimes against fifth-ranked Arizona, but his Washington Huskies, at 11th place in the Pac-12, had lost their ninth straight.

The Fultz family—his mother, Ebony, and older sister, Shauntese, plus Keith Williams, his mentor who also trained a young Kevin Durant—has flown in from Maryland for the game. Shortly before their food arrives, Williams raises a glass of champagne, taps it with a spoon and offers a toast:

No, he hasn’t officially made up his mind, but going pro will be one of the easiest decisions of Fultz’s life. He is 18 years old, and he is tied as the nation’s fifth-leading scorer with 23.2 points per game. Even more impressive: Fultz is shooting 47.6 percent from the field on 17.6 shots per game. All this while limiting his attempts during the first five minutes of each contest to inspire a shorthanded Washington team, which he leads with nearly six assists a night.

“The college game isn’t challenging enough for him,” an NBA scout tells B/R Mag. “He’s so good that I think he gets bored.”

Before the Huskies’ nine-win year began, most NBA mock drafts had Fultz at No. 1. When their regular season ends Saturday, little will have changed.

I actually want to be the best to ever play this game. And I think I have a pretty good chance to do that. — Markelle Fultz

Indeed, while his fellow all-but-assured one-and-doners Josh Jackson (Kansas), Lonzo Ball (UCLA) and Jayson Tatum (Duke) will become household names this March, the final days of Fultz’s run at Washington will come and go much like his entire season: quietly, quickly and with little fanfare.

During the Arizona game in mid-February, stacks of free posters featuring Fultz and his teammates sat untouched on a concourse table. On a walk across Washington’s campus with B/R Mag a few days earlier, students stopped Fultz for selfies just a handful of times—once the camera crew showed up.

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By mid-June, whether he’s about to start for the Celtics, the Lakers or someone else, Markelle Fultz will be able to rent out a place like JOEY. In the twilight of his atypical rise to superstardom, however, the Fultz family has to wait 20 minutes for a table.


“As a player, he’s on a different level than anyone we’ve ever seen,” says senior Ben Wherrett, a member of U-Dub’s student cheering group, the Dawg Pack. “But we’ve had a lot of one-and-done guys here lately, and we’re not getting to the tournament.”

When Fultz committed before his senior year of high school, he thought he’d be playing with Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray. But the NBA can come at teenagers faster than ever these days: Chriss is starting for the Suns, and Murray could win an NBA championship with the Spurs this June before Fultz, who never got to play with either, shakes the commissioner’s hand on draft night.

I guarantee that if you ask anyone who is guarding me, they won’t say I’m taking plays off. — Markelle Fultz

Fultz isn’t doting on the rapid ascension of his own career, which didn’t begin in earnest until he grew seven inches from sophomore to junior year in high school.

“When I was younger, trying to make the make the freshman and JV team, my dream was always to make it to the NBA,” Fultz tells B/R Mag. “At first, I was thinking about just getting to the NBA, just watching the NBA, being one of the All-Stars in the NBA.

“But I actually want to be the best to ever play this game. And I think I have a pretty good chance to do that.

“People ask me if I’m surprised at how fast it all happened,” Fultz says while lounging in the Huskies’ film room after a February practice. “But I don’t feel like I’ve arrived yet. I keep thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got so much more work to do. I’m going to get so much better. This is just the start.’”

Impressed as they are with his play as a combination of James Harden’s scoring and versatility with Magic Johnson’s vision, NBA scouts do criticize Fultz for an occasional lack of fire on the court.

“I guarantee that if you ask anyone who is guarding me, they won’t say I’m taking plays off,” Fultz says. “It’s actually a compliment to me that I make the game look that easy, where people think I don’t play that hard.”

Fultz’s teammates find it comical that anyone would knock his effort.

“You hear people up in the stands telling him to shoot more, to do more,” says David Crisp, a sophomore guard and Fultz’s dorm mate. “It’s pretty crazy for a guy to be averaging 23 points and six assists to be told he’s not doing enough. I don’t know what else he could do.”

Washington associate head coach Raphael Chillious, who led the Huskies’ recruitment of Fultz, says the team’s staff has been encouraging the soft-spoken teenager to “peel back some layers” and become more assertive—not just with the ball, but with his voice.

“He tries to deliver the message we want him to deliver,” Chillious says. “But he does it with sugar. Sometimes he needs to do it with salt.

“I tell him, ‘When you leave here, you’re going to be given the keys to someone’s franchise. Sometimes you’re not going to be popular in the locker room. Do you think that Kobe and MJ and LeBron’s teammates like them all the the time? No, but they respect them.’”

Here’s what Fultz has to say for himself:

Asked to reflect on the Huskies’ losing season, Fultz motions toward the Martin Luther King Jr. quote he had tattooed across his abdomen shortly before the start of the season:

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Sitting on a chair outside the U-Dub dining hall in mid-January, he sounds more sincere than any No. 1 NBA draft pick in a decade. “I’m OK with failing,” he says of his season in Seattle. “You’ve got to fail in life in order to get better. I’m going to be fine.”

Fultz has sought wisdom from former Washington standouts such as Isaiah Thomas, Brandon Roy and Nate Robinson (who was working out with the Huskies regularly before signing a D-League contract in early February). He’s also developed a close relationship with Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, a Seattle native who speaks with Fultz frequently. Crawford says he’s been taken aback by “how easy he makes it look on the court.”

Washington's Markelle Fultz goes up for a shot against Arizona on January 29, 2017, in Tucson, Arizona.
Washington's Markelle Fultz goes up for a shot against Arizona on January 29, 2017, in Tucson, Arizona.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

After the Arizona game February 18, Fultz limps out of Washington’s training room and back to the court. He hugs his mother, kisses his sister on the cheek and daps up Williams, the AAU coach who also mentored Durant and DeMarcus Cousins back in Maryland.

“If he hasn’t had the year he’s had, they probably wouldn’t have won any games,” Williams says. “Being here hasn’t hurt him too much. Most people still say he’s going No. 1. Is that a bad season?”

An administrator informs Fultz that a gaggle of professional autograph sellers is waiting for him outside, armed with pictures and posters and basketballs they’d likely try to monetize with Fultz’s stroke of a Sharpie.

Hoping to avoid such notable situations while he still can, Fultz plops into a chair in the bleachers while a friend jogs to retrieve the car for a secret escape out the stadium’s back entrance.

Fultz stretches out his legs comfortably, drapes his arms over the backs of the chairs on either side of him and takes a deep breath.

“You can only go through college once,” he says, still speaking softly. “I had a great experience here. I enjoyed every moment of it. I can’t wait for the next chapter.”

 

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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.