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.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that the end result of this NBA season was inevitable, with more of the same on the way.
Ever since Kevin Durant announced his decision to join the Golden State Warriors back on July 4 of last year, the NBA Finals felt pre-determined.
As it turned out, the regular season and playoffs went just as everyone imagined they would, with Golden State conquering everyone in sight. Even one of the greatest basketball players of all-time could only take a single game off them when it mattered.
This is what the NBA is dealing with right now. On one hand, we’re witnessing what’s probably the best team ever. That claim would be more clear-cut if they had finished off the ‘fo-fo-fo-fo’ and gone a perfect 16-0 en route to the title. But even so, the collection of talent and skill and shooting and unselfishness and dominance that defines this Warriors team is something we’ve never seen before.
Warriors had the 2nd-largest average scoring margin for any team that played at least 5 games that postseason pic.twitter.com/N4moc67Img— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 13, 2017
It’s all well and good to be witnessing greatness, but it comes at the cost of parity and, more concerningly, suspense. The NBA, after all, is an entertainment industry and last I checked, like any movie or book, it’s harder to be entertained when you know the ending.
The real question is, are we sure we know the ending?
In this moment, Golden State look like basketball’s version of the Roman Empire, but in sports, things can change quickly and unexpectedly.
The most obvious deterrent to a Warriors dynasty isn’t LeBron James bolting Cleveland again and creating his own superteam, but rather the salary cap.
The Warriors have four players who can command max salary contracts and even if each of them agrees to take a discount, it’s unlikely it’s to the extent that the franchise doesn’t find itself paying heavy luxury tax.
Durant and Curry are both free agents this summer, while the market-friendly contracts of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green come off the books in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Along the way, it will be difficult to retain key role players like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
Golden State may well win two more championships before they’re forced to split their core due to financial reasons, but the window for them being as good as they were this past season could be no more than another two years.
Throw in the fact that LeBron still lives and breathes, San Antonio never die, Boston’s ceiling, injuries, plus everything else that makes sports so unpredictable, and nothing is guaranteed.
The intrigue is still there, it’s just shifted. For now, the mystery isn’t over which team will win it all – it’s over how and when this run is going to end.
Perfection passed the Golden State Warriors by in more ways than one over the past two years, but redemption did not.
As a collective, the 129-120 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the NBA Finals to seal a second championship in three seasons avenges the franchise’s historic 3-1 collapse last June.
Individually, it’s vindication for the Warriors players, and for no one more so than Kevin Durant.
While Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green each sacrificed in their own way to return to the top of the NBA world, it was Durant who endured the harshest criticism for his move from Oklahoma City to the Bay.
A former MVP, in his prime, joining a 73-win squad that was on the ropes down 3-1 to said player’s team before fighting back and eventually falling one victory short of repeating as champions?
Durant’s decision to be the final piece of a basketball Voltron was unprecedented, but in the end no one was more responsible for Golden State lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
“I hear all the narratives throughout the season that I was joining, I was hopping on the bandwagon, I was letting everybody else do the work,” Durant said. “But then that was far from the truth.”
In winning his first title, the 28-year-old Durant also earned Finals MVP as the best player on a floor full of stars.
The historic marks set by Durant are multiple. He became the third player to ever win Finals MVP in his first year with the team, joining Magic Johnson (1980) and Moses Malone (1983), while also becoming the third player ever to win four scoring titles and a ring, along with Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.
And all of it deserved, with Durant averaging an astounding 35.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.0 steals to go with shooting splits of 55.6 per cent from the field, 47.4 per cent on 3-pointers and 92.7 per cent from the free throw line.
In a match-up in which LeBron James averaged the first triple-double in Finals history, Durant somehow upstaged the consensus best player in the world with clutch shot-making on one end and hounding defence on the other.
Whenever James and Cavaliers appeared to be making headway in the series – Game 4 aside – Durant was there with back-breaking scores, leading the Warriors from the front and reminding just how different this Golden State team is to last year’s.
“You can talk about whatever you want to talk about, but nobody comes in and cares about the game or loves the game as much as I do or works as hard as do I at the basketball game.
“You can talk about whatever happens on the outside, but inside those lines, I come to bring it every day,” Durant said. “I work hard, I believe in myself, I believe in the game, I respect the game, I love the game, and I knew at some point in my life it will come around for me.”
The only other time Durant had reached the Finals, he and the Thunder were ousted by James’ Miami Heat in five games in 2012 as LeBron won what would be the first of his three championships and Finals MVPs.
Five years later, the moment now belongs to Durant.
“It feels great to win, but to go against somebody I view as like a rival, personally, is an amazing feeling to beat him,” Durant said.
The diminishing of his and the Warriors’ accomplishment won’t just stop, but ultimately Golden State needed Durant as much as he needed them, with both sides achieving their goal.
“I’m happy for him,” Stephen Curry said of his team-mate. “You’ve got to call Kevin Durant a champ now.”