Markelle Fultz is going to be selected #1 overall in the NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night unless M. Night Shyamalan secretly replaced Adam Silver as the NBA commissioner. That seems unlikely to happen so Fultz is heading to Philly. The talking points for Fultz’s supporters and detractors (of which Danny Ainge appears to be a member) are pretty well established.
Fultz has gotten substantially better in each of the past 4 seasons. Famously, Fultz didn’t make the varsity team at his high school during his sophomore year. Since then, he has experienced an exponential growth in his abilities. Not only did he shortly become the best player on his team at DeMatha Catholic, but also one of the better players in the country. He was viewed as a top-25 national recruit at the time of his commitment to Washington. By the end of his senior year that became top-5. Finally, Fultz dominated at the U18 FIBA Americas last summer and became the presumptive #1 pick. And since that point all he has done is put up nearly a 23 points, 6 assists, and 6 rebounds stat line in the Pac-12 while shooting 41.3% from beyond the arc. It’s almost like he’s one of the aliens from Space Jam and he’s been absorbing the talent from a new player every season only no one has noticed.
The negatives are much less tangible but not necessarily unimportant. They are the kind of criticisms that will be used to justify the stance that Fultz isn’t that good should he ultimately fail in the NBA. But they are impossible to quantify right now and their importance probably depends on where you stand on the value of attributing wins to an individual player. The biggest knock on Fultz is the fact that the Huskies went 9-17 in the games in which he played. Ben Simmons still went #1 overall after missing the NCAA tournament in his single year at LSU but at least he had a winning record. UW went 0-5 in games that Fultz didn’t play in so it’s not as if they magically became much improved without him. However, the fact that he rarely shows emotion on the basketball court combined with the timing of the injury (he missed the last 4 games with knee soreness) has led to baseless speculation that Fultz shut things down and didn’t try to be a leader for this team. There’s no actual proof of that but those who want to make that argument will use it as ammunition nonetheless.
The most common reason that people will cite for why Fultz couldn’t single handedly make Washington competent is that he had absolutely no talent around him. That isn’t completely true. Noah Dickerson and Matisse Thybulle were both 4-star recruits who have shown flashes of all-conference potential as they mature. But this was a squad which had 0 upperclassmen who played at least 35% of the team’s available minutes. They were also led by a head coach that was fired after the season and who, as I detailed in this article, was one of the worst coaches in college basketball over the last half-decade. Fultz had to maneuver offensively with a team that exclusively played 2 non-shooting bigs simultaneously and had little in the way of a true offensive system. The combination of average talent, inexperience, and poor coaching doesn’t excuse the team’s awful record but there are enough justifications in there that I don’t think it warrants ignoring Fultz’s positives.
Because there are a lot of them. Fultz excels at just about everything it’s possible to excel at on a basketball court and we’ll go through them in detail now.
Playmaking With the Ball
It’s easy to look at the fact that Fultz finished 6th in the country in scoring and assume that he just jacked up a lot of shots on a bad team but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Fultz had nearly a 2 to 1 assist to turnover ratio while using over 30% of his team’s possessions and shooting nearly 50% from the field. His goal on every single possession was to try to get the highest percentage look possible whether he shot the ball or someone else did.
Fultz may not have quite the same level of instinctual, supernatural passing that his soon-to-be teammate in Ben Simmons has, but he’s still a very gifted and selfless passer. He ranked in the top-20 nationally in both points and assists per game, the only player in the country to achieve that feat. So Fultz clearly knows how to balance those aspects of his game.
There were times during the season when Fultz was criticized for not being selfish enough. During the first half in particular, it appeared that Fultz tried to get everyone else involved before becoming the go-to scoring option later in games. Unfortunately, it very rarely happened that one of his teammates started out on fire and so the strategy more often led to poor starts than sustained success.
The most exciting aspect of Fultz’s game as he moves on to the next level is his success in the pick and roll. Per Synergy Sports, Fultz finished in the 93rd percentile for ball handlers in the pick and roll which comprised about 30% of his possessions. Fultz is a tremendous dribbler and showed the ability to navigate through and around defenses when they threw an extra defender at him.
That often led either to an easy layup for someone or a pass to a wide open shooter. Many point guards coming out of college take years to figure out exactly what they need to do in each permutation of the pick and roll but Fultz is already well-versed on the subject.
But when he has to, Fultz can also play hero ball. The stats aren’t great, with Fultz finishing in the 29th percentile in isolation adjusted field goal percentage. His crossover isn’t an overly devastating weapon but the combination of Fultz’s handle, his length, and his ability to read a defender means that he can get off a decent look on his jumper whenever he wants. While his first option is nearly always to move the ball, late in the clock or when the situation demanded it Fultz was always willing to take and make a contested long-2 or 3-pointer.
Scoring Without the Ball
It wasn’t very often that Fultz was on the court without the ball in his hands. David Crisp served as the starting shooting guard and switched to point guard when Fultz was on the bench. Crisp had more turnovers than assists on the season so he wasn’t exactly a reliable distributor.
Nonetheless, Fultz largely excelled off the ball as well. There are reasons to be suspect of Fultz’s 41% performance from beyond the arc in his freshman season. Free throw percentage tends to be a better indicator of NBA shooting in college than 3-point percentage and possibly Fultz’s biggest weakness was his 64.9% mark from the line. Still, Fultz’s shot has good mechanics and it should be quick enough to allow him to excel in catch and shoot situations. He was rarely asked to lose his man through a series of screens but still showed an ability to get open on the perimeter when he had to do so.
He had an adjusted field goal percentage of 62.3% as a spot up shooter which finished in the 83rd percentile per Synergy Sports. That number fell to 45.3% when shooting off the dribble but was still above average.
The biggest question mark in Fultz’s game is on this side of the ball. It’s clear looking at Fultz’s frame that he has the potential to be an above average defender. He has a high basketball IQ, good lateral quickness, and a long wingspan (I’m not Jay Bilas so you don’t have to drink). The results were mixed in his freshman season though.
If there was one area on the court where you could say that Fultz didn’t put in maximum effort, it was here. That can be somewhat forgiven by the fact that he played about 34 minutes per game and had to carry the offense by himself. Still, it became evident that Fultz had another gear when seemingly once every other game he would pull off a spectacular Lebron James style chase-down block in transition.
His block percentage of 3.1% was above average for a guard but not spectacular. Same with his steal percentage of 2.5%. Fultz also rarely got the responsibility of shutting down the opposing team’s best perimeter player. The Huskies this season had Matisse Thybulle who is close to a physical clone of Fultz but possibly a better leaper to whom they could give those assignments. Washington was an awful defensive team in general so it can be hard to figure out how much of that can be attributed to Fultz. In isolation plays when Fultz was in single coverage, opponents scored a dreadful 0.412 points per possession which suggests that Fultz is much more comfortable as a 1v1 defender than with team concepts at this stage in his career.
Fultz is the complete package. He may not be a 10 of 10 in any one aspect of play, but he’s going to be at least an 8 in just about every area. In my mind, that means that Fultz has an incredibly high floor and doesn’t preclude him from having an incredibly high ceiling as well. He’s not an athlete on the level of John Wall or Russell Westbrook but the comparisons to someone like James Harden seem extremely plausible.
The adjective that sticks out with Fultz is smooth. He almost never seems out of control. He changes speeds to keep defenders off balance in a way I’ve never seen with a college freshman. It makes the highlight reel blocks or dunks seem even more impressive because he plays like a guy without that extra gear.
That same quality is what turns some people off of Fultz as a prospect though. He doesn’t try to impose his will on a basketball game. There are times when he absolutely dominates but it doesn’t feel the same as when, say Steph Curry or Lebron James does it. He’s not going to take and make five long 3-pointers in a row. He’s also not going to bully his way to the rim repeatedly. But he will make the correct play time and time again and do it at a higher level than anyone around him is capable of doing.
If Markelle Fultz doesn’t succeed in the NBA it will be because he either couldn’t stay healthy or he’s not as good of a shooter as he was in college. And even if the shooting part is true to start off, I sure as hell wouldn’t bet against Markelle to become a knock down shooter in a few years. If anyone out there has bet against Markelle to keep getting better they’ve gone bankrupt. And the smart money is for that trend to continue at the next level.