Washington freshman Markelle Fultz has everything NBA teams are looking for in a point guard. It doesn’t take long to see why he’s considered the early front-runner to be the no. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft. He’s big, he’s fast, he can shoot and pass the ball, and he has a good feel for the game. He has hit the ground running in college, averaging 22.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 6.6 assists a game on 54 percent shooting in his first seven games. The stats don’t mean much early in the season — most teams at this stage are playing out nonconference schedules filled with lower-level opponents — but they are an indication of how easily Fultz has transitioned to the NCAA. Actually, never mind college ball. He looks ready to play in the NBA right now.
At 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds with a near 6-foot-10 wingspan, Fultz already has an NBA-ready body at the age of 18. One of the biggest hurdles young players face in making the jump to the next level is the increased physicality of the NBA game, but that won’t be as much of an issue for Fultz. Even as a rookie, he will tower over most of the players he faces on a nightly basis. He shares a backcourt at Washington with sophomore David Crisp, an undersized combo guard who checks in at 6 feet tall and 195 pounds, which means Fultz often guards opposing shooting guards and small forwards. He is a point guard with the size of a wing.
That’s something he shares with the other top prospects at his position this season. DraftExpress currently has six point guards or combo guards projected to go in the lottery, all of whom are at least 6-foot-3. Fultz isn’t the tallest or heaviest player in the group, but he is significantly longer than all of them, except for possibly French teenager Frank Ntilikina, who doesn’t have any wingspan measurements currently on file. Fultz is an ideal physical specimen for the way the position is trending in the modern NBA.
In recent years, we’ve been seeing more physically imposing players like James Harden migrating to point guard. With responsibilities among positions more fluid than ever, the biggest and most capable ball handler on teams across the league is taking the ball up the floor and initiating the offense, regardless of whether they would have been considered a shooting guard or a small forward a generation before. Having elite size has almost become a prerequisite for point guards to be taken in the lottery, as Cameron Payne is the only one shorter than 6-foot-4 taken in that range the past three drafts, and he just snuck in at the no. 14 pick in 2015. Outside of Payne, there have been six prospects listed as point guards (in college or overseas) drafted in the lottery since 2014, and they share remarkably similar dimensions:
The average physical measurements of a starting NBA PG this season are approximately 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-6 wingspan. To give an idea of how dramatic the shift has been in recent years, the measurements of those six aforementioned point guards are in red on this chart, while the rest of the league’s starting PGs are in blue:
In a striking exception to the general trend about how young players enter the NBA, defense has come easier than offense for many of the most recently drafted PGs. Smart, Dunn, and Exum are all defensive specialists who come off the bench at this point in their careers, as their teams have found it easier to leverage their physical gifts on that end of the floor than on offense. The development of all three has been hamstrung by their inability to shoot the ball, a problem also shared by Mudiay and Payton.
It’s not a surprise that supersized guards struggle with perimeter shooting. For most of their lives, being able to get to the rim at will and live in the paint was a given, regardless of how much their defenders sagged off them. It’s only when they got to the NBA that their inability to make jumpers became an issue. The only one of the six considered a plus shooter coming into his draft was Russell, and it’s probably not a coincidence that he’s had the easiest transition to the next level of any player in the group.
That’s why Fultz’s red-hot start from the perimeter at Washington is so encouraging. He’s not just a physical specimen; he’s a threat from outside, too. He couldn’t always rely on his size to score, as he was a 5-foot-9 sophomore on the junior varsity team at Maryland’s DeMatha Catholic High School, one of the most prestigious high school basketball programs in the country, before a late growth spurt. Fultz is shooting 48.1 percent from 3 on 3.9 attempts from beyond the arc a game, and there’s just not much any defender can do if a guard with his size can consistently make 3s off the dribble:
Fultz knows how to leverage his size to his advantage, whether it’s playing in the post or pulling up and shooting over the top of smaller defenders. He has this shot whenever he wants, and it’s a shot he will be able to get in the NBA as well:
When you combine size and shooting ability with elite speed and quickness, it’s easy to see why NBA scouts have been so high on Fultz. I’ve watched four of his games this season, and I’ve audibly gasped at least once or twice during each of them:
Fultz is averaging 2.1 steals and 1.4 blocks a game, and he can make a huge impact on the defensive side of the ball when he decides to put his mind to it. In this play against Long Beach State, he comes from behind and pins a big man’s shot against the backboard:
He also uses his physical tools to make an impact on the glass. Fultz has shown the ability to secure the ball in crowds and clean the defensive boards, then immediately push the ball up the court himself and start the break:
What makes Fultz so unusual for a player his age is that he already knows how to harness his physical tools. Most young guards blessed with elite size and speed are like greyhounds, wanting to get out and run without thinking about the next move. It takes most players years to learn when and where to turn on the jets, and when to put it on cruise and glide to the open spot on the floor. Fultz is already at that point as a college freshman, and he plays with a preternatural calm. He knows how to change speeds with the ball in his hands, and he can score from a variety of different release points:
Fultz toys with defenders, and he can put them on his back and create contact in the air whenever he wants to, which is why he is averaging a ridiculous 8.3 free throw attempts a game. He just makes the game really easy for himself.
The same can’t be said for his team, though. Washington has gotten off to a 4–3 start, with one loss to Yale and two to TCU, one on a neutral court in Las Vegas and another in a true road game in Fort Worth. It has been par for the course for recent years for Lorenzo Romar, who has been able to recruit elite talent to Washington, but who has not always been able to win with it. The Huskies missed the NCAA tournament last season despite having two future first-round picks on their roster (Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray), and they look well on their way to doing it again with Fultz. It’s still early in the season, and they are a young team that should improve as the year goes on, but they are already in a fairly big hole.
There aren’t any other elite NBA prospects at Washington this season, although sophomore wing Matisse Thybulle is being looked at as a 3-and-D-type player down the road. Fultz’s supporting cast is composed of primarily underclassmen who are still learning how to play the game at the college level; the only junior or senior getting minutes for the Huskies this season is big man Malik Dime.
The limitations of the players around him make it difficult to get a complete read on Fultz, since Washington needs him to put up huge scoring numbers if it’s going to have any chance of winning against even decent teams. He scored 30 points on 17 shots in the loss to Yale, and he scored 27 points on 13 shots in the first loss to TCU. It’s only when the Huskies take a step down and play lesser competition that he has been able to take a backseat and distribute the ball to his teammates. Fultz is averaging 7.5 assists in the Huskies’ four wins so far; he logged eight and 10 assists against Northern Arizona and Western Kentucky, respectively.
Fultz certainly seems more comfortable as a scorer than a passer, but it’s a perception that is reinforced by the role he’s forced to play on the team. He can make the passes necessary to run an NBA offense, and he’s very comfortable driving the ball into the lane and kicking it out for the 3-pointer:
The nice part about evaluating Romar-coached players is that they run an NBA-style offense in college, so Fultz gets a ton of chances to operate in the pick-and-roll over the course of the game. The defense is almost always collapsing on him, and he doesn’t have a lot of big men who can finish out of the two-man game, but he knows how to make the right play when it is presented to him:
What Fultz needs to work on are the little things. There are still a lot of rough edges in his game, particularly as a floor general, which is not surprising for a player who was more of a combo guard in high school and AAU ball. His assist-to-turnover ratio is only in the middle of the pack among the top NCAA PGs in this year’s draft, and Ball has more than doubled him in that category:
A lot of his turnovers come on careless plays, where he makes sloppy passes or tries to split a double-team when there is no lane to the basket. Part of it is the offensive burden Fultz has to carry at Washington, and part of it is an inattention to detail that will have his coach in the NBA losing sleep:
“On my passes, I got to make good passes, and sometimes guys have to come to the ball. It’s both. It’s a combined effort,” said Fultz after an 86–71 loss to TCU on Wednesday. “It’s just something I gotta work on.”
For a player with his physical tools, his individual defense is not always up to par, either. There are far too many times where he lets lesser athletes get around him on the dribble, and plays like this are a huge part of the reason Washington is such a poor defensive team:
None of this is unusual for an elite scorer who is asked to do so much on the offensive end of the floor, but a greater commitment on defense and attention to detail is what will keep Fultz at the top of the draft boards and give Washington a much better chance of being competitive this season.
What we still need to see with Fultz is what happens when he goes up against elite competition. He’s too big, too fast, and just too good for the vast majority of NCAA guards, and he can dominate them without getting out of his comfort zone. How will he be able to handle other players with elite physical tools who can score on him as easily as he can score on them? He has yet to face an NBA-caliber guard in college, and there’s only so much we can learn from what he does against guys going pro in something other than sports.
Fultz has an uphill battle to make the NCAA tournament, so the matchups to circle on Washington’s schedule are its Pac-12 games against Arizona and UCLA. Arizona has players with NBA size and athleticism at every position on the floor. UCLA gives him the opportunity to go up against Ball, one of his top competitors for the no. 1 overall pick, as well as the chance to play at an extremely fast pace while facing a more talented team. It’s rare that two of the top prospects in a given draft play the same position; the two matchups between Fultz and Ball will be watched by every scout in the NBA.
The good news for fans of the league’s worst teams is that it’s hard to see a scenario where Fultz isn’t at least a really good NBA player. A prospect with his size, speed, shooting ability, and feel for the game has a high floor in terms of what he could become at the next level. At this admittedly early point in the predraft process, Fultz compares favorably with the six point guards taken in the past three lotteries. He’s a better shooter than Smart, Mudiay, Exum, Dunn, and Payton, and he’s a better athlete than Russell. If he can polish his game over the next few months, he has a chance to be the best point guard prospect since Damian Lillard in 2012, or Kyrie Irving in 2011. It’s all on the table for Markelle Fultz, and it’s not going to be easy for anyone to overtake him in the race to be the top pick in 2017.