The University of Washington has sent just 31 players to the NBA, and while the program may not have a reputation for churning out NBA prospects, it has had its share of notable alums. Isaiah Thomas, Brandon Roy, Detlef Schrempf, James Edwards, and the Phoenix Suns’ own Marquese Chriss all suited up for the Huskies during their college careers before moving on to the pros.
And now Markelle Fultz is set to add his name to the list.
The top pick on most draft boards since the beginning of the 2016-17 college basketball season, Fultz possesses a blend of physical traits, athleticism, and ability that leaves talent evaluators drooling. Comparisons to Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, and even Russell Westbrook may seem a stretch for a player who will barely be 19 when his name is called on Draft Night and whose Washington team went 9-22 last year, but as the first freshman to average 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists since LaDrell Whitehead in 1994-95, he deserves every ounce of hype he receives. Fultz has All Star written all over his game, and the team holding the No. 1 overall pick on June 22 would need an exceptionally good reason not to select him when they go on the clock.
When talking about Fultz’s offensive game, it might be easier to run down what he cannot do well. The answer: very little. Fultz averaged 23.2 points per game — highest in the Pac-12 since Cal’s Ed Gray (24.8) in 1996-97 — using an offensive repertoire that is polished well beyond his years.
He is a maestro at operating around screens and exploits defenses in a number of ways from there. He frequently uses screens to free himself for rhythm 3-point shots that extend well into NBA range, which he knocked down at a 41.3-percent clip last season.
If the 3-pointer isn’t there for him, Fultz will turn the corner or split the trap to attack the basket, using a litany of techniques and excellent body control rather than blazing speed to navigate through traffic (which he dealt with on most nights with his Washington team). Euro steps, crossovers, and spin moves all help him get to the rim, and he changes speeds extremely well to keep defenders off balance. Once at the basket, he has a deep bag of tricks to pull from. He has good touch on his floater, can use his off hand effectively, will throw down a dunk if given the avenue, and his length allows him to avoid defenders who might otherwise block his shot. He also seeks out and absorbs contact on his drives and finishes through it without issue.
Should the defense take away his 3-pointer and his avenue to the basket, Fultz can hurt teams from the midrange, too. He utilizes pull ups, fadeaways, and step back jumpers to get his shot off over defenders and did so to the tune of 50.2-percent shooting inside the arc for Washington.
And if he gets a head of steam, look out. Fultz pulled a quasi Shammgod on a fastbreak against TCU that had defenders looking helpless.
Despite all this, Fultz has room for growth on offense, as any 18-year-old would. While he is a good shooter, he is not a pure shooter. He is only decent when spotting up, preferring to step or hop into his shot for better rhythm. This struggle is reflected in his 64.9-percent average from the free throw line, which seems out of place considering his other shooting averages. His form also could use some tweaking, as he has a delayed release that causes him problems against better/longer defenders.
Fultz can also become too passive on offense to the point where he appears to be going through the motions. Whether he grows bored playing against competition that offers him no challenge or it is an immaturity in his game is a question that cannot be answered now, but for a prospect, you wish it weren’t there at all.
He can move in the opposite direction as well, trying to force looks that aren’t there at the expense of what is. That will be less of an issue at the NBA level, though, where he will be surrounded by more capable teammates and operate in a less congested environment.
Fultz isn’t a perfect offensive specimen, but for someone on the cusp of his 19th birthday, he’s darn impressive.
For a player as proficient at scoring as Fultz, getting teammates involved can sometimes be an afterthought. But Fultz is not a selfish player by any means and is more than capable of running an offense.
Fultz averaged 5.9 assists this season, which ranked 15th in the nation. That may not appear as impressive as fellow Pac-12 freshman Lonzo Ball’s average of 7.6 assists per game (first in the nation), but keep in mind that Fultz was surrounded by a much less talented cast than Ball was at UCLA and still managed to post a higher assist percentage (35.5) than his point guard counterpart (31.4). He also posted a lower turnover percentage than Ball (13.4 to 18.6) despite a much higher usage (31.4 to 18.1).
None of that is meant to argue that Fultz is a better playmaker than Ball because that’s just not the case. Ball’s most NBA-ready skill is his ability to get teammates good looks at the basket, and he should be able to scratch out a solid NBA career on that skill alone.
But Fultz isn’t chopped liver here. He sets up teammates by drawing the attention of the opposing defense every time down the court. When it inevitably converges on him, he has his head up and is able to find teammates who have been left open either along the perimeter or behind the help defense, usually with passes that must navigate a forest of hands. In this regard, his game mirrors the likes of Westbrook or James Harden — supremely talented scorers who will move the ball to open teammates.
But perhaps the most telling stat for Fultz’s impact on a team’s offense is this: In the 25 games he played, the Huskies averaged 78.9 points with a high of 104. In the six he missed, they averaged 65.8 points with a high of 73.
Fultz has his faults when it comes to this part of his game, namely a penchant for being too casual with his passes and trying to force passes that aren’t there. However, this seems like an issue that should at least partially self-correct in an NBA offense where spacing won’t be as hard to come by. Ultimately, the offensive end of the floor should present the least of an NBA team’s concerns regarding Fultz.
For the offensive prodigy he is, Fultz does not possess the same innate ability for defense, and how much he improves here could very well be the determinant between him being an All Star or something much, much more.
Fultz’s measurables (6’4 with a 6’10 wingspan) and athleticism provide him with built-in tools to be a tremendous defensive player against both point guards and shooting guards, and he shows the potential every time he strips the ball from an opponent or comes from behind for a jaw-dropping, LeBron-esque block. But those are the highlight reel plays, and where he struggles is not with the spectacular but with the mundane.
His defensive effort comes and goes, and when he puts it in neutral, it’s like watching a James Harden defensive medley. Fultz will die on screens, failing to fight through and instead surrendering whatever may come. When not getting hung up on a screen, Fultz can fail to cut off driving lanes or be late to close out on a shooter. If neither of those transpire, there’s a chance he might simply lose sight of his man on defense and get beat backdoor.
That’s the conundrum with Fultz. He is immensely gifted but has a tendency to take it for granted that he can merely turn it on when he needs to. He can’t. His physical gifts — especially his great but not elite quickness — are not enough to compensate for lax fundamentals and poor effort. College players made him pay for that mentality, and the NBA will challenge him to a much higher degree. The chase-down blocks are impressive, but those types of plays only constitute a small portion of defense. The majority of defense consists of denying passes, contesting shots, moving your feet laterally, communicating, and generally doing things that will never show up on ESPN.
Fortunately, Fultz has shown an ability to execute in these areas, and NBA coaching should help him hone the defensive fundamentals he doesn’t yet possess as an 18-year-old. The concern going forward will be consistent effort and his commitment to defensive improvement. The raw materials for a good defender are all present, so if he fails to develop into a plus defender over his career, it will be nothing short of a major disappointment.
The thing that makes predicting future success in the NBA a difficult task is that it relies on more than mere ability. If all it took were the tools, Michael Beasley would be a multi-time All Star by now. And that is where talent evaluators must be able to determine which players will succeed and which ones will not based on things outside stats and measurements.
In the case of Fultz, he went from his high school junior varsity team to one of the most highly recruited players in the country. He didn’t have scouts fawning over him since he was in the sixth grade like kids do now; he’s had to work hard to reach the level he has. That bodes well for his future in the NBA, where a willingness to work will be a requirement to reach his fullest potential.
Also encouraging are his reasons for attending Washington when other, higher profile schools like Kentucky and Arizona came knocking. “Who cared about me more than basketball?” Fultz said in an interview with USA Today. “Obviously, everyone can say something good, but Coach (Lorenzo) Romar was the first to actually tell me something that I needed to work on.” His desire to be coached and not just coddled is another good sign that Fultz hasn’t let the attention warp his attitude.
And then there was his mother, who needed to sign off on Fultz’s decision to go to college across the country. She holds a very important place in his life, and he wanted her to be comfortable with his decision. “She is almost like my heartbeat,” he told USA Today. “Without her, I don't think I would have been able to do anything in my life.”
She is also the one who made sure her son would have a good head on his shoulders. According to the same USA Today story, Fultz tries to be in before midnight, believing nothing good happens after midnight. He even took the thinking so seriously that he assumed the role of “team mom” and made sure his teammates followed his mantra as well. “I like to make sure they're safe,” Fultz said, smiling. “I’m always on them. Sometimes I’m joking…but sometimes I’m not.”
By all accounts, Fultz is a goofy teenager who also understands what it means to work hard and would rather lose himself in basketball than hype and the night life. There just aren’t any red flags to point to in Fultz’s background, and that should help ease the concerns many GMs will have when it comes to selecting from the deep talent pool at the top of this draft.
Fultz has all the ingredients necessary to become a superstar, and that praise doesn’t come lightly. His offensive game already shows echoes of some of the greatest offensive players in the NBA today, and if he can more consistently display his focus and intensity, the sky really is the limit for him.
The only question remaining is which team will be fortunate enough to add him to its roster this June?
Here’s a great skills video from BBallBreakdown on Fultz.