Long Overlooked, Washington Star Markelle Fultz Has Everyone's Attention Now

Steve GreenbergCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 20, 2016

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 25:  Markelle Fultz #20 of the Washington Huskies shoots against Damari Parris #3 of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers during the Global Sports Classic basketball tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center on November 25, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Washington won 86-47.  (Photo by David J. Becker/Getty Images)
David J. Becker/Getty Images

Markelle Fultz got his hands on the basketball for the first time in a college game half a minute into the Washington Huskies' season opener against Yale. The freshman point guard dribbled up the left side of the court, lulled his defender to sleep just beyond the three-point line, blew by him with a left-handed dribble and knifed through two other Bulldogs before rising to the rim, extending his right arm and floating the ball over Yale's tallest player, 6'9" Sam Downey, and into the basket.

Fultz scored 30 points in his college debut, the highest total for any debuting freshman in the country this season. He poured in 35 more in the Huskies' second game, against Cal State Fullerton. Now more than a month into the season, the 6'4" Fultz is in the national top 15 in scoring and assists and is among the best rebounding major-conference guards in the country. Through his first 10 games he is shooting 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from the three-point line.

Yale coach James Jones, whose team gave Duke all it could handle in last season's NCAA tournament, put Fultz in the same category as the Blue Devils' Brandon Ingram—the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft—and current Duke star Grayson Allen.

"I put him right up there with those guys because his ability to score in a variety of different ways is tremendous," Jones told B/R. "He can do everything."

TCU coach Jamie Dixon, whose team has faced (and beaten) Washington twice this season, saw many a one-and-done freshman in the Big East and the ACC during his time at Pittsburgh.

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"I do not know a freshman guard who can do the things he is doing," Dixon said of Fultz. "We can go down the list of the Big East and the ACC, and his ability to score and run the lane and change speeds really separates him. That's what stands out to me."

ESPN college basketball and NBA draft analyst Fran Fraschilla takes it a significant step further, likening Fultz to Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and John Wall.

"The best NBA teams have a dynamic scorer at that position," Fraschilla said. "And this kid is a dynamic scorer. He scores like he breathes—effortlessly—but he also still makes teammates better.

"He has solidified himself in the top three of the draft. He's the prototype modern NBA point guard."

Pick a 2017 NBA mock draft—any of them—and you'll find Fultz listed among the first five picks. More than one mock draft has Fultz in the top spot.

"That's my goal—to be the No. 1 draft pick," Fultz said.

Markelle Fultz scored 48 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and handed out 10 assists in two games against TCU this season.
Markelle Fultz scored 48 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and handed out 10 assists in two games against TCU this season.Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

It would be an off-the-charts accomplishment for a player who, midway through his high school career, wasn't even on the radars of most of the major universities within close range of his home near Washington D.C.

But how did so many miss him? How did Fultz sneak up on the whole lot of us? And why did he go from Washington, D.C., and all of its basketball eyes to the state of Washington, so many miles away and on such a strikingly different path for a top player than the usual Blue Blood U. route?

As breakfasts go, this one was monstrous. A three-meat omelet. Six pancakes. Two kinds of juices, an array of fruit and other items. A hungry dude, this Markelle Fultz.

It was the last week of July, and Fultz was relaxing with teammates and coaches in the student-athlete dining hall at Conibear Shellhouse. Only a few days earlier, he'd been nearly 7,000 miles away in Valdivia, Chile, winning a Team USA gold medal and individual MVP honors at the U18 FIBA Americas tournament—the latest stop for Fultz on a whirlwind 2016 tour that cemented him as a rising superstar.

There was the McDonald's game in Chicago, the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Oregon, and the Jordan Brand Classic in Brooklyn, New York. There were USA Basketball tryouts and training camp—separate trips from Fultz's home in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, to Colorado Springs, Colorado—leading up to the week in Chile. After an all-too-brief handful of days in late July when Fultz finally got to spend some time on campus, he jetted off with the Huskies from Seattle for games in Australia and New Zealand.

"I'm amazed at how easily Markelle was able to handle all that," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said.

It's the life that seemed to choose Fultz midway through his time in the famed basketball program at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland. A player who hadn't even made the varsity squad as a sophomore grew nearly half a foot over the next two years, touching off a sudden and meteoric rise from D.C.-area secret to elite national recruit. To be sure, Fultz—a silky scorer with a giant wingspan—has fully embraced the life in return, including the work needed to maintain it.

Though he became one of the most highly sought-after players in the country, Markelle Fultz had trouble making the varsity squad at DeMatha Catholic High School in his first few years at the school.
Though he became one of the most highly sought-after players in the country, Markelle Fultz had trouble making the varsity squad at DeMatha Catholic High School in his first few years at the school.Gregory Payan/Associated Press/Associated Press

The day Fultz returned from Chile—after 36 hours of travel—Romar told him to relax and get some sleep. "Just be ready to join us on the court tomorrow," the coach said. Instead, Fultz sat down, caught his breath for maybe a half-hour, changed into his Huskies gear and proceeded to take everyone else's breath away with an epic practice performance.

A couple of days later Fultz sat on a bench on a gorgeous summer day, stared at Drumheller Fountain in the center of the Frosh Pond (nicknamed for its proximity to freshman dorms) and watched it spit water into the glistening daylight. Looming behind him in the distance: the magnificence of Mount Rainier. A visitor mentioned that it was his first time enjoying the beauty of the 360-degree view.

"Mine, too," Fultz said. "Sometimes, I can't believe I'm here."

In the spring of 2013, Fultz was a scrawny 5'9" shooting guard who'd played one season of high school ball—on DeMatha's freshman team—and was playing in a local tournament with his DC Blue Devils club team. The Blue Devils were a fine organization, but not one that was exposed to the top AAU events and the flock of college coaches that descends on them. Despite the years he'd spent under the wing of trainer Keith Williams—who'd worked with Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins and Ty Lawson, to name a few—Fultz was flying under the radar.

One day, however, a Baltimore-based scout and coach named Jide Sodipo was in the gym. Well acquainted with both Williams and Washington assistant coach Raphael Chillious, Sodipo texted several college coaches, Chillious among them, about Fultz. "I'm telling you," Sodipo alerted them all, "the way this kid is developing, what he's doing behind closed doors, the way he loves the process, it's going to pay off."

Sodipo didn't see Fultz dominate on the court with scoring and flash. He took note of a nascent player who moved and saw the game at a different level. But when DeMatha tryouts came during Fultz's sophomore year, he was overshadowed by freshman wing D.J. Harvey Jr., now a 2017 Notre Dame commit. Physically, Harvey developed earlier than Fultz, earning a spot with the varsity while Fultz spent his sophomore season on the JV squad.

Chillious, a top recruiter and a D.C.-area native, swung by DeMatha early in the 2013-14 season to see his old friend Mike Jones, the Stags' varsity coach, and watch Jones' team in action. Never one to miss an opportunity, Chillious arrived early to catch the JV game.

"The first time I saw Markelle, I called [Romar] and said, 'If this 5'9" kid grows, he might be an NBA All-Star," Chillious said. "Tenth grade, he was 5'9", 5'10" tops. But he had long arms. And the way he moved? It was different. It was like nobody else."

Fultz drew mild interest from colleges as a sophomore; High Point, of the Big South Conference, made the first Division I scholarship offer after the season. By that time, Fultz had started growing.

In the spring of 2014, Fultz was still playing with the DC Blue Devils. Sodipo caught a game and texted Chillious: "Hey, man, remember that kid you liked from DeMatha? He's about 6'3" now." Roughly a bat of an eye later, Chillious and Romar were courtside watching Fultz at a tournament in Suwanee, Georgia, while the much bigger Nike Peach Jam was happening a couple of hours away in North Augusta, South Carolina. Romar was sold on Fultz the first time he saw him—in a game when Fultz scored only six points from the shooting guard position.

"It was before he blew up," Romar said. "Just the way he handled himself on the floor, his movement, the things he saw—he saw things before anyone else did. But he kept being listed as a 2-guard."

When Fultz was invited to play as a guest with the higher-profile DC Premier AAU club in a Las Vegas tourney that summer, a parade of major schools got involved in his recruitment. But they thought they were looking at a shooting guard. Washington's coaches, however, saw a masterful point man in the making. From Suwanee forward, a Huskies coach was at every AAU game Fultz played—a show of loyalty that eventually would join player and school.

Ebony Fultz, a single mom and government worker in D.C., warned Romar and Chillious that any offer of extra enticements would end the relationship immediately. They promised her their intention was merely to care for her son as though he was their own. That convinced Ebony, who—with help from daughter Shauntese, who is eight years older than Markelle—had sheltered her son the best she could. Markelle proudly calls himself a "mama's boy."

"When you're born in the Washington [D.C.] metropolitan area, it can be dog-eat-dog," Ebony told B/R. "Everyone is worried about what someone else is doing, who's ahead of him, just a whole lot of jealousy. The way the people act in Seattle, that's so much more Markelle. He's nice, and they're nice."

By the time Fultz visited Seattle in August 2015, a long list of top programs was recruiting him. Still playing off the ball as a junior at DeMatha, he'd led a top-shelf Stags squad in scoring and begun to appear prominently on all the national recruiting lists.

The buzz around Fultz reached a crescendo in the weeks after the June 2015 NBA draft, when he appeared at Curry's camp for guards in Oakland, California, and then at the Under Armour All-America camp in Charlotte, North Carolina. That's when Kentucky and other college heavyweightsKansas, North Carolina, Arizona, Louisville, Maryland, Georgetownarrived at the party.

"He was one of the best guards at Steph's camp," said Fraschilla, who has a leading role in both the Curry and Under Armour camps. "And when we had him in Charlotte, he was so good (Fultz led all players in scoring for the week) that it became clear he was one of the best players in the country."

The Nike Hoop Summit is just one of the many stops Fultz made on his way to beginning his college career at Washington this season.
The Nike Hoop Summit is just one of the many stops Fultz made on his way to beginning his college career at Washington this season.Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Soon after Charlotte, Ebony and Markelle were in Seattle on a recruiting visit and riding back to campus in Romar's Escalade after lunch at the Pike Place Market. Markelle casually mentioned that there was only one top recruit he knew of who'd be committing to a school that had seen his every AAU game since the party started. Chillious—riding in the back with Markelle—realized Fultz was referring to himself and, midride, texted Romar: "Did you hear that? That's us!"

On a sun-drenched terrace overlooking Husky Harbor in Lake Washington, Fultz stared at the wallpaper photo on his laptop of Ebony, Shauntese and him together. They were beaming. Fultz FaceTimes with his mom every morning and every night. About that three-hour time difference? Ebony jokingly calls herself a "night owl," but really she simply made up her mind long ago to always be there for her baby boy.

"She loves me so much," Fultz said.

When Fultz was beginning to get settled in at UW before the start of the school year, Ebony and Shauntese paid him a surprise visit. From outside his dorm, Ebony called Markelle and told him she'd received a call from someone trying to deliver a package to his room. She said the man was waiting for him in front of the building. When Markelle walked outside and saw his mom and sister, he doubled over and buried his face in his hands.

Soon after, in July, he was in Chile texting his mother about his dreams for the future and how much she meant to him:

Last night, I was just riding the bus thinking about how I have the best mother in the whole entire world and how she would do anything to see me or my sister be successful in life. And I thought about the opportunity I have in front of me and how God has blessed not only me but my family. I realize that I have a chance to change our lives with something I love to do. Best believe one day you won't have to worry about anything! I promise you that I'm going to work my ass off. This is for you, Mom.

"It was a 'wow' moment," Ebony said of the text. "It brought tears to my eyes. It was a moment when you can tell as a parent that there has been a progression, that your child is growing up. It was an affirmation for me that, hey, he's going to be fine."

Romar's "wow" moment came one afternoon when he and wife Leona had the team over to their house for a meal. Markelle arrived early. "The next thing I knew, he was in the kitchen helping my wife set up," Romar said. "It was, 'Where does this go? How about this?' He helped set up the whole thing. That's just who he is. He is a giver."

Finally playing the point as a senior at DeMatha, Fultz's unselfish approach encouraged Harvey and others to sink their teeth deeper into a team-first culture. The same has happened at Washington.

"As soon as he got here and got on the court, he was a team player," said sophomore David Crisp, who went to Washington as a point guard but had to adjust to a different role after Fultz's arrival. "He always wants to make the right play. It makes you want to do that too."

Fultz favors a one-handed, buggy-whip passing style that Chillious says no one has brought to the game since Magic Johnson. The first time Fultz practiced with the Huskies, senior forward Malik Dime stopped cold during a scrimmage and asked no one in particular, "How did he make that pass?" Romar told Dime to get used to it.

There is a bit of showmanship to Fultz's style. He often dribbles the ball high, rocking side-to-side as he sizes up the defense, seeing things before they happen.

At first blush, his style can appear risky and even careless. In truth, it's hugely effective.

"In the NBA, I think it's going to expand," Fultz said. "When I get against better competition, I'm just going to think of an even better way. Maybe I'm going to throw it through your legs or right past your head when you're not looking. I'm going to get it there whatever it takes."

Great things await Markelle Fultz. Best believe it. He'll promise you that.


Steve Greenberg has covered college sports for nearly 20 years, namely for the Sporting News and the Chicago Sun-Times. Follow him on Twitter @SLGreenberg.


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