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College Basketball’s Best Player Can’t Get Any Love

Washington’s Markelle Fultz is the likely no. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft. So why have college hoops fans largely ignored him?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Ben Simmons was by far college basketball’s most talented player during the 2015–16 season, and he consistently put up stats that could make your head spin: He averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.0 steals, and 0.8 blocks per game. No other Division I player in the past 25 seasons has averaged even 16 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 steal over an entire campaign, and Simmons did that and so much more while playing every position on the floor and shooting 56 percent from the field. He was a generational talent in every sense of the term, unlike anyone I have ever seen (or may ever see again) on a college basketball court. He was also a second-team AP All-American who wasn’t even named a finalist for the Naismith Trophy, presented annually to the nation’s best player.

That’s because Simmons’s sole college season is widely remembered for a different, less-than-transcendent reason: His Louisiana State team went 19–14, missed the NCAA tournament, and turned down a bid to play in the NIT. Simmons was billed as the future no. 1 pick in the NBA draft from the moment the freshman set foot on campus, and he quickly lived up to the hype by delivering a 21-point, 20-rebound, 7-assist performance against Marquette in his fourth career game. But for so many who watched that nationally televised, prime-time contest, the first 39 minutes and 56 seconds of action were irrelevant. The big takeaway came when Simmons passed up a chance at a game-winning shot with four seconds left and LSU lost, 81–80.

Ben Simmons (Getty Images)
Ben Simmons (Getty Images)

That Marquette moment became a sticking point, and as last season progressed and Simmons continued to post absurd numbers while LSU racked up losses, a divide emerged. The media (rightfully) spent plenty of time talking about the most talented player in the country, yet the general consensus among college basketball fans was that this coverage was total overkill. Many outside Louisiana saw Simmons as a guy who was scared to step up in big spots and played for a shitty team in a shitty conference. And that notion probably came from the one frustration that unites all fans of college sports: We haaaate being thought of as a minor league for the pros.

Simmons made it clear from the start that was exactly how he’d approach his lone year at LSU. The fact that he chose LSU and not somewhere like Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, or North Carolina was enough to make some fans wonder if he actually wanted to play college basketball. He provided a definitive answer to that question when he stopped going to class and was declared ineligible for the Wooden Award, and when he eventually started going through the motions on the court as well. With Simmons now in the NBA, his godfather (who was a member of LSU’s staff and was the primary reason that Simmons ended up in Baton Rouge) taking a job at TCU, and Johnny Jones surely on his last leg as the Tigers head coach, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Simmons never returns to LSU’s campus.

Simmons never cared about college basketball, he likely never cared about LSU, and he doesn’t seem to regret the way he handled everything. That’s fine. No matter your thoughts on Simmons’s season with the Tigers, though, the college basketball community was left feeling understandably scorned. And in 2016–17, it has seemed hell-bent on avoiding that same mistake — getting sucked into caring about a guy who doesn’t want to be here and is relevant only due to his future and not his present — with Markelle Fultz, even if the circumstances surrounding the Huskies’ star freshman are markedly different.

Markelle Fultz is not Ben Simmons, although their situations may appear similar to an outsider. Fultz has been considered the top 2017 NBA draft prospect for most of this season, one in which he’s averaging 23.2 points, 5.9 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 1.6 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game while his Washington team has registered an abysmal 9–19 record, including a 2–14 mark in Pac-12 play, heading into Wednesday night’s matchup with UCLA. Knowing this, it may be tempting to think that Fultz is counting down the days until he can leave Seattle in his rearview mirror and jump to the NBA. If you’ve never seen him play, you might even think that the Huskies are bad due to Fultz (and a presumed prima donna attitude) and not in spite of his greatness. If you have seen him play, you might come away thinking his calming demeanor borders on lackadaisical. No matter how you slice it, Fultz is a potential no. 1 pick who plays for a team that sucks, which means there’s nothing he can do to win over college basketball fans.

And that’s a damn shame because Fultz didn’t choose Washington with an indifference toward his pit-stop season and the rationale that he might as well play somewhere he could do whatever the hell he wants. The opposite, in fact, is true: He chose the Huskies because he did care. He cared that Washington was the first program to really believe in him, back when he was on DeMatha Catholic High School’s junior varsity team as a sophomore. (Get ready to hear that story a million times between now and June.) He cared that Washington’s coaching staff talked to him about more than basketball during the recruiting process and took his aspirations to be an accountant seriously, because he thinks getting his degree is important. He cared about trying to lead Washington to the Final Four for the first time since 1953, a goal that was always outlandish but provides some insight into how he approached this season.

He still cares. The fact that Fultz remains on Washington’s roster despite the Huskies being in the midst of the worst losing streak in program history (10 in a row!) is enough for me to admire the guy. He could have easily bailed and started preparing for the NBA in mid-December when it became clear that making the NCAA tournament would require a miracle. Instead, he stuck around, playing through knee pain for a very young team that looks lost on both ends of the court and would likely be terrible even if it had a better sense of what to do. He filled up water cups like a team manager in the preseason, and he maintains belief that the Huskies — who are no. 172 in KenPom’s rankings, behind Loyola Marymount, Troy, and LSU — can end their dismal losing stretch. He even teared up during a postgame press conference after Washington came up short against no. 5 Arizona in the final moments of last Saturday’s 76–68 loss.

Markelle Fultz (Getty Images)
Markelle Fultz (Getty Images)

It’s pretty clear that, despite having every reason not to, Fultz cares about college basketball. So why doesn’t college basketball care about him? I’m not saying people should pretend he’s in any way relevant to the national title picture. I just don’t like this idea that Fultz exists only as a prospect. I mean, how many times have you heard Fultz’s name this season without “NBA” being mentioned in the same breath? How often does his name get brought up in college basketball conversations? How often do you see his highlights on TV? How many times have you watched one of the five most talented players in the country? Seriously, have you seen even 10 seconds of Huskies basketball this season? (I don’t mean to scold you, by the way. I get paid to follow the sport and I’ve watched exactly one Washington game live — a 98–71 loss at Gonzaga on December 7 — in 2016–17.)

We shouldn’t know Fultz’s name just because he’s supposed to be a good pro someday. We should know his name because he’s already great and, like Simmons before him, is hitting statistical benchmarks that haven’t been reached by anyone in a generation. Fultz is the leading scorer in a power conference that has three top-10 teams in the AP poll, yet he’s treated as if he’s Dante Exum in 2013–14 — like he’s playing on another continent and none of us has any idea how good he is but we make sure to drop a token mention of him here and there because he’s near the top of all the mock drafts. (Fultz playing on the West Coast doesn’t help with this.) And yeah, I get that a player putting up monster numbers doesn’t mean much when his team is awful, but the flip side to that is opposing teams know Fultz has little help; they can just throw their entire defense at him and make his teammates try to beat them.

That’s happened plenty this season and Fultz has still found a way to do everything there is to do on a court. This versatility is what makes him so special. Whereas other top players have obvious strengths and weaknesses and try to stick with what works, Fultz is so gifted that his best attributes can change from game to game. Sometimes he counts on the 3-point shot that he’s hitting at a 41.3 percent rate on the season, like when he went 5-for-10 from deep and dropped 25 in a 107–66 loss to UCLA on February 4. More often, he makes his living in the paint by relying on his midrange jumper, change-of-pace dribbling, and array of crafty and unorthodox moves, like when he scored a career-high 37 in an 85–83 win over Colorado in January despite going just 0-for-2 from 3. He can be a traditional point guard and try to get his teammates going with his great ballhandling and court vision, he can crash the glass as well as any guard in America, and he can morph into a solid defender with excellent hands and instincts. In short: You could put Fultz on any team in the country and he’d instantly become its best player, yet he has zero chance at being named college basketball’s player of the year, which seems completely absurd when it’s spelled out like that.

Washington is a very bad team with a very bad coach who might get to run this entire experience back next season since Michael Porter Jr., the no. 1 recruit in the country, according to ESPN, is committed to Washington and has his father on the program’s staff. (Porter’s high school coach is Huskies legend Brandon Roy.) But just because those things are true doesn’t make this any less so: Fultz is an extraordinary college basketball player who is the most talented person to ever wear a Washington basketball uniform. (Sorry, Roy, Isaiah Thomas, and Detlef Schrempf.) Although I’m not sure how to fact-check such a claim, I’m ready to declare that there has never been a better player on a worse team in college basketball history. I get why so many people want to flush Fultz’s past three months down the drain and simply focus on the future, especially now that his knee injury has left him questionable for the remainder of the season and all signs point to him becoming a perennial NBA All-Star. Before we get there, though, I’d like to point out that Fultz is one hell of a college player who has given Washington all he’s had from day one and deserves at least a paragraph in the college basketball history books. With the rest of his Huskies career in doubt, it’s too bad that nobody seemed to notice or care.