No evaluation of a prospect can be complete without seeing the player in person. That’s why scouts from teams across the NBA flocked to Tucson this weekend to watch Washington’s Markelle Fultz, The Ringer’s top-ranked prospect, face off against Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen, a consensus lottery pick in the upcoming draft. So did I. The Huskies lost 77–66 in what was one of Fultz’s worst performances of the season. I watched as the freshman point guard scored 16 points on 23 shots. His three assists were matched by his three turnovers. There was plenty of good and bad to pull from the performance, and some clarity was gained about the type of prospect Fultz is.
“He’s one of the great players in college basketball,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said after the game. “Not just freshmen. He’s the real thing. He doesn’t need me to say that. Everybody acknowledges that.”
Few teenage point guards control tempo like Fultz does. Pace is a skill that’s acquired over years of experience, but it seems to come naturally to him. Fultz says he likes to model his game after Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, though he watches every NBA point guard. He can play under control like Paul, and can turn into a fireball like Westbrook. “I look at their mindsets and how they go through stuff,” Fultz told the media after the game. “Russell is aggressive going through screens and attacking the rim, so I try to do stuff like that — unstoppable going to the rim.”
Fultz is the brilliant conductor of an amateur orchestra. Potential moments of brilliance are washed away because few of his teammates have shots at even an overseas career. Huskies head coach Lorenzo Romar is living in the tactical past, relying on lineups that don’t take advantage of the freshman’s strengths. They have three bigs in the primary rotation — Noah Dickerson, Malik Dime, and Sam Timmins — who can’t space the floor. When Fultz plays with at least two of them, those lineups outscore teams by only 0.2 points per 100 possessions, according to data derived from HoopLens.com. When Fultz plays with only one of the aforementioned bigs, Washington outscores teams by 7.8 points per 100 possessions. Hopefully Romar knows this, because there’s nothing stopping him from benching one of his bigs.
If the above plays were taking place on a playground and no one was wearing jerseys, you wouldn’t be able to tell which big man was trying to stop Fultz. In the first play, it’s unclear if Timmins is trying to box out for a rebound or hip check the defender into Fultz. This makes the star Huskie guard’s job more difficult than it should be. The Wildcats played Fultz aggressively, knowing that even if he got by the defender, there would be no breathing room.
Fortunately, Fultz has to deal with this for only a few more months. Then it’s off to the NBA, where the three-second-violation rule and the longer 3-point line will lead to more spacing, and most teams will play with a 4 or 5 who can shoot 3s. Fultz sidesteps questions about his own decision to declare for the draft, but he spoke openly when asked about the pro game’s spacing and pick-and-roll style. “I think it’s a great way to get guys open because you have to help when you’re drawing two people,” Fultz said. “There’s always somebody open.”
Fultz shot 0-for-4 from downtown against the Wildcats, continuing the downward trajectory of his shooting percentages. Fultz shot 50 percent from 3 through his first 10 games of the season, but is shooting just 33.9 percent since. Though there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about him developing into a good shooter, his true shooting ability is likely more aligned with his subpar 65.7 free throw percentage, which is a sentiment shared by scouts across the league I’ve chatted with.
Fultz has both a subtle hitch and a varying release point, which may be the causes of his shooting inconsistency. The best shooters have repeatable motions, and Fultz isn’t at that stage. This is OK for an 18-year-old. It’s a pink flag, not a red one. But in order for him to become a great shooter, he may need to make mechanical changes.
Scouts I’ve talked to say Fultz has a good work ethic, so if he comes across the right shooting coach, those fundamental flaws should be ironed out. “He has a high, high basketball IQ,” Romar said. This is observable in other areas of his play as well.
Athletic traits like length, strength, lateral quickness, and leaping ability are all integral to success on defense, but without communication, even the most talented defenses can suffer. Communicating breeds interconnectedness; a unit operates as one, not as five individuals. While spot shadowing Fultz most of the game, I came away impressed by his defensive communication and body language. “He understands what’s going on out there. He’s able to verbalize that and talk. It does nothing but help our team,” Romar said.
The Huskies are dreadful defensively (they rank 249th in defensive efficiency, per KenPom), but that makes Fultz’s ability to call out screens and switches all the more impressive. Fultz carries a James Harden–like load on offense, and his team is only 9–12 without much hope of making the NCAA tournament. It’d be easy for Fultz to prance around on defense like Ben Simmons did last year for LSU. But Fultz hasn’t slacked very often, and certainly didn’t against the Wildcats.
Usage and leadership are different qualities, and the latter is something new for Fultz. He said after the game on Sunday that making his voice heard on defense is new for him since he’s naturally quiet and likes to lead by example, but he’s trying to talk “more and more.” That’s important, since point guards are naturally one of the leaders on the floor. Despite having teammates who dribble the ball straight out of bounds, blow open shot opportunities, and constantly clog the lane, Fultz has remained mostly stoic. It would be understandable if he lost his shit, Nicolas Cage style, after this catastrophe:
This would be a one-on-one opportunity if David Crisp pushed the ball ahead to Fultz. Instead, he dribbles the ball right out of play. Fultz doesn’t react, because he knows his actions have consequences. Sometimes he shrugs his shoulder or clenches his fists, but that’s about the extent of his expressive outbursts. He seems to understand that to lead you must be positive. “You just gotta be one of those guys who talks to your teammates and keep everybody up when things aren’t going your way,” he said.
This is the type of attitude that’ll help Fultz regardless of the situation he’s drafted into. If a team loaded with guards, like the Celtics or Suns, selects him, he’ll get the benefit of learning behind veterans. But he’s also ready to step into a role on a guard-needy team like the Sixers or Mavericks.
But for now, Fultz is leaving an impression on those who face him in the college ranks. As Miller commented after the game, “[T]here’s some players playing in our conference right now, as you follow the next 10 years in the NBA, we’ll look back and say, ‘Man, you remember when they were in the Pac-12 in that 2016–17 season?’ … Markelle is one of them.” He might be the one.