Under the radar: All of the attention is on Husky hoops star Markelle Fultz, except in Seattle
Dec 30, 2016, 1:46 PM
Markelle Fultz was walking among his teammates in a Dallas airport when the FC Dallas youth soccer team stopped the freshman to ask for a group picture. Similar star treatment happened to Fultz over the summer in Australia.
Back in Seattle, and even around campus, the 18-year-old says people will occasionally say ‘hi’ and ask for a picture. But, generally, he walks around just like any other 6-foot-4 freshman – even if he is arguably the best college basketball player in the world and one of the most sought after point guard prospects in a half-decade.
Somehow, he’s more recognized as a megastar-in-the-making nationally than in his own backyard. And that’s just fine with him.
“It doesn’t really bother me if they do or if they don’t,” Fultz said in the American Airlines Arena after practice on Dec. 21. “I just want to be treated like a normal person, have respect, that’s all that really matters to me. If all the extra stuff comes with it, I’m fine with that, and if nobody knows me I’m still fine with that.”
Fultz, who entered this season as one of the nation’s top basketball recruits, has managed to stay under the local radar. Why? Well, there could be a number of reasons.
For starters, the Huskies basketball team has underperformed thus far and hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since the 2010-11 season. But beyond that, the squad has also been drowned out by the noise of multiple successful Seattle sports teams in 2016. First came the UW women’s basketball team, which made a surprise run to the Final Four, followed by a Mariners team that was competitive until October. Now it’s the Husky football team in the national semifinals and the Seahawks, who are the NFC West champs and prepping for another deep playoff run.
Still, for a basketball-starved city, the lack of attention to a once-in-a-generation talent is a bit surprising. At LSU last season, heralded freshman Ben Simmons couldn’t go anywhere without the hype following him around. The school used a “He’s Coming” promotional tool for season tickets and though the team failed to make the NCAA tournament, it saw the third largest increase in home attendance in the NCAA and the Australian went No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft. Two years prior, Andrew Wiggins was being heralded as the next LeBron James at Kansas, and the Canadian also left to become the No. 1 overall pick.
Fultz said he’s not paying attention to any Simmons comparisons and is focusing on making the team better. But those around him are taking notice of his greatness, even if the rest of the city hasn’t caught up.
“Markelle alone, what he does in practice and in games, there are a few plays every night that are worth the cost of the ticket, if you’re a basketball fan,” said Pat Jenkins, in his 15th year as head athletic trainer for the UW men’s team. “And, for me, to know that is in your backyard, it would be a shame not to go experience that because what if he is only here for one year? Then you’ve missed another opportunity to see somebody who really is – he’s talented.”
It’s an empty gym and Fultz has at least a 2-foot advantage over Talon Jenkins, the athletic trainer’s 9-year-old son with whom he’s playing 1-on-1. Fultz laughs, misses a jump shot. He’s goofing around but mainly waiting for the interviewer to show up since he’s already been through practice. He loves basketball but he’s ready to relax.
“A lot of miles on my legs,” he said when asked how things are going. “I’ve been traveling around since I was probably 13, since AAU started for me.”
It’s an interesting first impression, most notably because few teenagers are so in tune with their professional mortality. But Fultz is anything but typical.
The Maryland native says he primarily mirrors his games after triple-double machine Russell Westbrook, former Rainier Beach High School star Jamal Crawford, former MVP Kevin Durant and All-Star point guard Chris Paul. The picks themselves are not altogether unique, but how close he comes to actually mimicking their outputs is.
Through 12 games, Fultz is tied for 15th in the nation in scoring (22.0 per game, which is tops among freshman) and assists (6.3 per game), and he’s among the best rebounding guards in country (6.2 per game). He’s also added 21 steals and 16 blocks while shooting just under 50 percent from the field and 49 percent from 3-point range. In other words, he’s exceeding even the high expectations that were set for him.
“He has a high basketball IQ. It’s almost like he’s computer-generated or something,” Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar said after the team’s 104-88 win over Cal State Fullterton on Nov. 17. “And on top of that, he’s a great teammate and he’s extremely coachable. So he has the whole package.”
At 6-4 and 195 pounds and with a near 6-foot-10 wingspan, Fultz is the kind of long and athletic player that is en vogue in the NBA. As The Ringer points out, Fultz is the ideal new-age NBA point guard who can shoot, pass, and defend bigger players. Writer Jonathan Tjarks called Fultz the best point guard prospect since Duke’s Kyrie Irving went No. 1 overall in 2011. He’s projected to be a top three pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, if not the No. 1 overall pick — either of which would be a first for the UW program.
Robot, No. 1 pick or otherwise, Fultz’s legacy will also come down to W’s. Just ask Talon, who says he won the 1-on-1 matchup against Fultz by a score of 4-0. The elementary schooler’s advice on what the future lottery pick needs to get better at: “Defense.”
Where is the love?
UW has drawn an average of 7,084 fans to the 10,000-seat Alaska Airlines Arena, though the team will open Pac-12 play on Jan. 1 when it hosts Washington State. Attendance for home games is up from this point last season, when the Huskies were drawing an average of 6,123 fans, but down substantially from the last time UW made the tournament in 2010-11. That team was led by Isaiah Thomas and Matthew Bryan-Amaning, and it averaged a near sellout (9,277) through eight games.
Although the Huskies are off to a disappointing 7-5 start, Fultz says he has no regrets about his high-profile decision to come to Seattle. One of the first questions he’s always asked by national reporters is “Why UW?” Back on Aug. 27, 2015, the day Fultz announced he’d be leaving Washington, D.C. for the Huskies, he said: “The main reason I am going to Washington is my connection with Coach Romar. I trust his plan for me, I feel like I fit into their system, and I know he can help me develop my game. He has coached guys that have made it to the NBA, and that’s where I want to be someday.”
As he’s the lone star on a “improving” team, he still hears that question. Does he mind answering the same things ad nauseum?
“Not really,” he said. “That’s my story so I’ve been pretty much used to it.”
Still, when he hears the most common obligatory question – about whether he will be leaving for the draft – you can see his eyes drift to the basketball court as his autopilot answers seem to come as easily as his jump shot. He says he’s not focused on that part of his future.
“If I happen to leave this year, so be it, but I’m just trying to have my best career; just worry about this season.”
It’s the kind of answer Husky fans have heard before – including last season with freshmen studs Dejounte Murray and Marquise Chriss, who helped recruit Fultz to the team. Both Murray and Chriss capitalized on their immense talent on a mediocre Huskies team, leaving for NBA riches despite unrefined skills. Chriss was drafted No. 8 by the Kings and traded to the Suns, and Murray was selected 29th by the Spurs, leaving Fultz to shoulder the load.
Fultz admits to thinking about what that dynamic trio would have produced – a lot.
“Oh yeah, all the time. It would be crazy, amazing,” he said. “I think it would be pretty crazy with us three because our team now is still very good and it would be even better if we had those two.
“I committed early thinking they were gonna stay,” Fultz added. “I’m happy for those guys and what they did but, yeah, they played a big role in me coming here, just seeing what would have happened if we all played together. But even though they left, I’m still happy I came here just with the group of guys I have here. It’s still fun.”
Fultz’s UW experience
Fultz really likes Chick-fil-A. Like, a lot.
“We need one closer,” he says. “I think if we had one of those, this would be the best place ever.”
Shortly after Fultz makes this declaration, a group of assistant coaches walks by, along with Romar, and gives their star pupil a hard time – even though they know a journalists’ recorder is on.
“Ask him why he always wears his pants down below his butt.”
“Ask him how many times a day he uses the bathroom.”
“Ask him why he won’t comb his hair.”
“Why all of y’all got to say something, though?” Fultz counters. “It’s OK, I’m coming back for them.”
The Huskies have won three straight after dropping four in a row. Fultz is optimistic about the team’s potential and expects the rest of the city will start to take notice soon enough. Fultz said the experience has been “really great” and enjoys playing with his teammates.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment ever since I committed here, just to get here and play,” he said. “It’s been better than what I expected.”
He also credited the crowd and the fans at the games. Despite the relatively sparse attendance, he says he notices their encouragement.
“I can hear them talking to me sometimes just saying different stuff … Just, ‘I’m the best’ and stuff like that. ‘Good pass’ and stuff like that,” he said.
“The fans are great,” he added. “They’re just real good. I think that they love you. They cheer for you. They go against whoever you’re going against so it’s fun. I just hope that they stay behind us the whole season.”
Get to know Markelle
From: DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Siblings: One older sister.
Person he looks up to: Mother, who lives in DC.
Biggest surprise: Played on the JV team his sophomore season.
Favorite restaurant: Chick-fil-A.
Favorite movie: All of the “Hangover” movies.
Music: All types but mainly gospel and R&B.
Favorite cartoon: “I watch a lot of Sponge Bob. It’s pretty addictive”
Video games: “I play video games but I don’t play them a lot, but I’m pretty good at them.”
Other sports he enjoys: “I’ll try to do anything but I mainly just play this sport right here. But if I had a chance to do anything, I’ll play football, baseball, soccer. All that. Anything that’s active.”
LeBron James or Michael Jordan: Jordan.