For Likely No. 1 Pick Markelle Fultz, Will Missing NCAA Tourney Affect Career?

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterMarch 9, 2017

TUCSON, AZ - JANUARY 29:  Markelle Fultz #20 of the Washington Huskies during the college basketball game against the Arizona Wildcats at McKale Center on January 29, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Markelle Fultz's college career is almost certainly finished, and the likely No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft played for a team that won nine games.

Fultz will not have the NCAA tournament to solidify his position as the top player in the draft and introduce much of the country to his game.

Lonzo Ball, the other player who some consider a possibility at No. 1, has transformed UCLA from a team with a losing record a season ago into a fun-and-gun monster now sitting at 28-3 and in line for a high seed in the NCAA tournament.

When the two guards went against each other this year, they had similar lines, and Ball's Bruins won 107-66.

But every mock draft still has Fultz at the top, and most NBA personnel folks still favor the Washington guard as well.

"I think both are going to be very good NBA point guards, make All-Star teams and be part of winning teams," a Western Conference scout told Bleacher Report. "Fultz has a better chance to be MVP out of the two, and if our team ends up in a situation where we get the No. 1 pick, I want us to draft a guy who has a chance to be the MVP in the league. Because that's really what gives you a chance to win the championship, when you have an MVP-caliber player."

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

This is the line of thinking that drives NBA decision-makers when it comes to the No. 1 overall pick, but one important word there should stick out when evaluating a guy who just won nine games in a season: "championship."

If Fultz is truly a player who can drive a franchise to the NBA Finals, then why couldn't his college team win more than two games in the Pac-12?

Without context, it's a valid concern.

But there is some context to consider.


NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 11:  Ben Simmons #25 of the LSU Tigers dribbles the ball during the game against the Tennessee Volunteers during the quarterfinals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 11, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Pho
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

If this sounds familiar, it should.

We went through it a season ago with Ben Simmons.

Simmons went to LSU and put up awesome numbers that didn't translate to many wins, and his team also missed the NCAA tournament.

The explanation for why Simmons picked LSU and not one of the blue bloods that most one-and-dones flock to was simple: His godfather is an assistant coach for the Tigers.

Fultz was more of a late bloomer—he played on the junior varsity level his sophomore year of high school—and Washington won his services in part because the Huskies beat the masses on the recruiting trail.

But it also helped that Washington had a roster that looked promising for Fultz's one-year tour. Washington coach Lorenzo Romar had a killer recruiting class in 2015 that included Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss.

No one expected Murray and Chriss to be one-and-done. But they were.

So out went Washington's three leading scorers from a team that went .500 in the Pac-12, and in came Fultz to play with the leftovers.

"They just don't have a lot of talent," an Eastern Conference scout said. "I don't think it's fair to assess him and say, 'You didn't win in college.' I don't know that anyone would win there with the players they have there. It's nothing against those guys because they're all trying really hard, and it's nothing against Lorenzo. It's just simply the situation they're in."

It still makes it hard for fans to fathom, however, how a player with the ability to be the No. 1 pick could not will his team to do better.

That's why Simmons and Fultz have been put under the microscope more than others.

Do they care? Look at their body language.

"I'm looking more at Fultz's skill and athletic ability," the Western Conference scout said. "I like the kid. I think he really cares. Lonzo Ball doesn't have great body language, but you don't notice that because he plays at UCLA and they're winning a lot of games.

"At times, [Fultz] has looked frustrated. The bad body language he's sometimes shown I think is overblown. If he didn't look frustrated, I'd be more worried about it. We're evaluating the player based on his talent and personality, and Fultz seems like a total winner and competitor to me."

The luxury that scouts have in today's era is that they're not exclusively judging a player based on what he's done at the college level.

"We've had the benefit of seeing him in USA Basketball and all the people we can talk to who have seen him play AAU," the Eastern Conference scout said. "I know it's big-time college basketball, but I just don't think he's been affected. And maybe he has. I just don't want to discount the fact that he has such amazing physical abilities."

It's also difficult to ignore the individual production of Fultz. It's not just that he put up impressive per-game statistics (23.2 points, 5.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds). He was also efficient in doing so, shooting 41.3 percent from deep and making 50.2 percent of his twos.

"I think he's actually gotten better because it's forced him to deal with having so much defensive attention aimed at him," the Western Conference scout said. "It's forced him to have to figure out, 'OK, what's everything I can possibly do to help my team win?'"

While he did not stack wins, he put up numbers that are hardly ever accomplished from a high-volume shooter. Fultz is one of only four players since the 1992-93 season to play more than 20 games and average better than 23 points and five assists and shoot above 40 percent from deep and 50 percent inside the arc, according to Sports-Reference.com.

The 23 PPG+/5 APG+/40 3-PT%+/50 2-PT%+ Club
PPGAPG3-pt%2-pt%
Billy Baron, Canisus (2013-14)24.15.342.150.4
Antonio Daniels, Bowling Green (1996-97)24.06.843.357.6
Earl Boykins, Eastern Michigan (1997-98)25.75.540.751.0
Markelle Fultz, Washington (2016-17)23.25.941.350.2
sports-reference.com

The other three players on that list were seniors who played at the mid-major level. The team that takes Fultz No. 1 should have no issue justifying the pick.


Given truth serum, it'd be interesting to hear whether Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons wish they had taken the typical one-and-done route and signed with a blue blood.

Their path to No. 1 is not just unusual. It's unprecedented.

Since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, there had never been a top pick who attended college and didn't play in an NCAA tournament until Simmons went first last June.

Assuming Fultz still goes No. 1, both succeeded in college if the goal was to become the top pick.

We do not have any evidence that affected Simmons in a negative way because he's yet to play an NBA game that counts—out for the season with a foot injury—but there are plenty of examples that show a lack of college success is not a death sentence in the league.

Paul George and James Harden are two recent case studies that should temper any concerns. George went to Fresno State, and his team won just three games in the Western Athletic Conference during his freshman year. The Bulldogs also had a losing season in George's sophomore season, which was his last. In Harden's freshman year at Arizona State, the Sun Devils were a middle-of-the-pack team that went to the NIT.

They seem to be doing just fine in the NBA.

But it has to be more fun to play for a winner. Plus, it's easier.

"If [Fultz] was playing for a Hall of Fame coach with good players around him, he'd be terrific," the Western Conference scout said. "If he's on UCLA on that team without Lonzo Ball, he'd be just as good if not better."

That's the kind of hypothetical NBA general managers will have to answer as the draft nears. It's not much different from trying to ignore the recency bias that is in play after watching the NCAA tournament.

A larger question looms now that Simmons and Fultz have lived through these unusual one-and-done seasons: Are they outliers, or is this the new norm?

"I think it's just a blip on the radar," the Eastern Conference scout said. "I think it's something that's circumstantial. I don't think it's representative of a trend. I think it is really hard for these one-and-done kids to come in and significantly impact the team if it's not Kansas, Kentucky or Duke. They're both coming from LSU and Washington, teams that aren't usually getting the one-and-done type of prospects.

"I think we'll start to go back toward the previous kind of incantation of the draft. I think the one-and-dones will go to the programs that are consolidating these unbelievable NBA players like Kansas, Kentucky and Duke and now UCLA. I don't think we'll start seeing a bunch of kids go to Florida just to be different. I think they'll go to the programs that best prepare them for the NBA."

As they should.

But let's not dog on Simmons or Fultz for the path they chose. In some ways, you have to admire that they went against the norm and both their decisions were rooted in loyalty.

The only reason they are cautionary tales is that they both missed out on making memories in the NCAA tournament.

If we're going to force these players to play at least one year in college, we should hope they get to experience the best reward the game has to offer.

     

C.J. Moore covers college basketball and football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @CJMooreBR.

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