Almost anyone familiar with Michael Jordan’s legend is aware of how his basketball journey started.
Famously, someone who’s widely considered the greatest player of all-time and arguably the greatest team sports athlete ever, didn’t make the varsity squad as a sophomore in high school.
While not an abnormal circumstance for the average high school kid, being kept off varsity is extremely rare for future NBA players, let alone for someone who went on to reach the heights Jordan did. The story, as is the case with many mythical figures, has been twisted over the course of history to reflect that Jordan was cut from his team, not held to junior varsity. Regardless, it’s one of the first tidbits brought up when celebrating his career.
One day, the same could be said of Markelle Fultz.
Four years ago, a 15-year-old Fultz also failed to make the varsity team as a sophomore at Maryland’s DeMatha Catholic High School.
This Thursday, at 19, he’ll be selected first overall in the NBA draft.
It was assumed Fultz would begin his professional career in green after the Boston Celtics won the draft lottery in May. Instead, he’ll likely be joining the young core in Philadelphia and become the latest disciple to ‘Trust the Process’, with news breaking on Saturday the Celtics have agreed to trade the top pick to the 76ers.
Boston’s intentions for dealing away the chance to draft the consensus top prospect in this year’s draft aren’t fully known, but what is clear is Philadelphia’s view that Fultz could be a franchise cornerstone. The 76ers aren’t alone. Though Fultz wasn’t the clear-cut number one pick at the start of this past collegiate season, he separated himself from the pack by the time his lone campaign at Washington came to an end.
Likewise, he’s now indirectly grabbed the spotlight leading up to the draft, wrestling it away from Lonzo Ball and to a greater extent, his rival’s father, LaVar Ball.
Respected draft analysts far and wide have Fultz atop their board and The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor is no exception.
“I just think, you look at him and he definitely has future All-Star, All-NBA potential because he really checks all the boxes,” O’Connor told Sport360°. “What you look for in a star point guard in today’s league, Fultz has pretty much all of that – with his ability to create off the dribble, pick-and-roll play, passing vision, ability to score from different levels of the floor, competitive on the offensive end, and defensive upside if he falls into the right situation that asks him to defend consistently.
“He’s like James Harden in the sense that he can change speeds and change pace. I think his versatility on the offensive end as is going to be immensely valuable.”
As an 18-year-old, Fultz filled up the stat sheet for the Huskies as college basketball’s most dynamic offensive force. The guard managed to find the sweet spot between volume and efficiency to average 23.2 points, 5.9 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks, while shooting 47.6 per cent from the field and 41.3 per cent on 3-pointers. He became the first player since LaDrell Whitehead (1994-95) to average over 20 points, five assists and five rebounds as a freshman, while setting the highest scoring average in the Pac-12 since Ed Gray’s mark of 24.7 in 1996-97.
And it’s hard to believe anyone could have seen it coming.
If Fultz’s path from high school tryout casualty to one of the most coveted assets in the NBA sounds unlikely, that’s because it is. When Jordan was kept off varsity in 1978, it was during a time when it was rarer for sophomores to play on the senior squad.
Fultz, meanwhile, is the quintessential late bloomer. A growth spurt certainly helped, as he shot up nearly half a foot from his stature as a freshman to a 6’3” frame at the start of his junior year when he was 16. He showed promising signs when finally given the chance at varsity, while also displaying his talent and potential as part of his grassroots team DC Blue Devils in the Under Armour Association.
Slowly but surely, the Division I offers started to pour in and Fultz’s decision eventually came down to choosing between Washington, Arizona and Louisville.
But why the Huskies? The Seattle university was neither close to his home state of Maryland, nor one of college basketball’s biggest powerhouses.
Rather, Fultz relied on the relationships he had built. Long-time trainer Keith Williams gave a heads up to his good friend Raphael Chillious, who was an assistant coach at Washington at the time, and he and Huskies head coach Lorenzo Romar scouted Fultz at DeMatha early in the process.
Now that Fultz is on the cusp of being the top draft pick, his decision to choose Washington appears to have more than worked out. However, it’s testament to his own individual brilliance that his stock wasn’t significantly affected by his team’s performance.
Similar to future 76ers team-mate Ben Simmons, who couldn’t single-handedly elevate LSU to the NCAA Tournament in his lone season in college, Fultz could hardly change the fortunes of a Huskies side that finished 9-22 overall.
So how much of those struggles should reflect on Fultz?
“Zero. None,” said O’Connor. “But I’ll tell you this, a lot of people talk about Fultz’s effort on defence and say ‘he was in a losing situation, that’s why he wasn’t trying because the team stunk’. Sure, but look at game one of the season when Washington were 0-0 and in that game Fultz isn’t putting in much effort on the defensive end of the floor. So I think it’s false to say that Fultz wasn’t trying because his team was terrible. He just wasn’t trying on defence, period.
“He’s a good athlete and he has long arms and should be able to defend multiple positions, but some guys just don’t have that mind-set. He seems quiet and shy at times. I don’t know if he has that crazy mental makeup to lock in consistently on the defensive end.”
Perhaps it was Fultz’s defensive inconsistency, or question marks over how much he can influence winning and make others around him better, that led Boston to move down from the number one pick. Maybe it’s unrelated to Fultz altogether. Philadelphia, however, seem to be banking on Fultz living up to the hype, which is unavoidable when you’re on the verge of joining a shortlist of players throughout history to earn the distinction of being drafted at one.
As with any player, however, it’s impossible to know until they step foot on an NBA court.
“I think Fultz is a terrific prospect, but I don’t know if he’s ballooned to an extent that people are talking about him like he’s definitely going to be this transcendent cornerstone, generational player,” O’Connor said. “He’s not a generational player. He’s not a no-brainer to be that guy.”
Fultz has certainly proved people wrong before and his meteoric rise may just be beginning.