Here’s a story that probably sounds familiar: An extremely talented guard tries out for his high school’s varsity basketball team but fails to make it, providing him with the drive he needs to eventually thrive on that same varsity high school team his junior and senior years, en route to transforming into one of the best players in the country.
You’re expecting this story to end with the kid playing for Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina and then transitioning into the single greatest basketball player of all-time, but that’s not who this is about. This is about University of Washington freshman Markelle Fultz, who absolutely is not Michael Jordan but could very well be the No. 1 overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft.
The thing about getting cut from varsity as a sophomore is real, though. That’s one thing the two really do have in common.
“That’s just a part of my story now,” Fultz told Basketball Insiders. “It’s actually a blessing that it happened to me. I wasn’t really disappointed, honestly. I just saw it as a setback that meant I had to work harder, and that’s what I did. I went and got back into the gym and put up a lot of shots, worked on my game, increased my abilities, and it ended up working out alright for me.”
Fultz, named a McDonald’s All-American back in the spring, had a monster summer playing for USA Basketball’s Under-18 team. He broke open a close championship game against Canada, scoring a couple of big buckets, hauling in a big rebound and dishing out a key assist in the final minutes of a game that at one point got to within two points. He absolutely took over, and nobody was surprised when he won the tournament MVP award.
Now, with school underway at UW, Fultz enters his freshmen season following one of the more unconventional college decisions in recent years.
Despite getting offers from scores of universities including Arizona, North Carolina and Kansas, Fultz chose to attend Washington. With so many top prospects joining up to form superteams at Kentucky and Duke, choosing a non-powerhouse like Washington—especially for a kid from Maryland—was a real head-scratcher.
Fultz says going to the opposite side of the country held some appeal for him as a kid looking to try something new in his life. But, more importantly, he said the coaches there just wanted him the most.
“The coaching staff made the difference,” he said. “They came to every AAU game I had and contacted me a lot, so they had a very different type of relationship with me. It felt like I was their son or something, and I really think that made the difference to me, to know that somebody cares enough me to come to every game that I have and communicate with me every day. I wanted somebody like that who cares about me and who’s going to push me. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing there.”
What this means is Fultz will be given full rein to flourish on a team where he’s very clearly the best player. While all of those five-star recruits at Kentucky and Duke share the ball, it’s a little hard to get a sense of what they could actually do as the centerpiece of a team. Like Ben Simmons at LSU a year ago though, Fultz will be on full display. Of course, he believes he would have flourished no matter what college he’d chosen.
“It wouldn’t have mattered where I went because I’m a kid who’s going to work hard to get where I needed,” he said.” It does give me a little relief (not to be sharing minutes with other five-star recruits), but once I get there I’m still going to have to work out and prove that I deserve to be a starter. That’s my goal, so I want push other people in practice to prove I belong there, just like I want them to push me.”
He’s definitely going to push them. Fultz is one of the most athletic players in his class, and when he combines that with his tight handles, explosive first step and efficient shooting, it’s easy to see why NBA scouts are already drooling over him. There’s a real star quality to this kid, which is why it’s so exciting to think about what sort of freshman year he’ll have as a Husky.
“I’m just scratching the surface,” Fultz said. “I’m always going to work, and I really don’t believe that I’ve reached my ceiling yet. There are parts of my game that people still don’t know about yet. I still feel like I can grow.”
At 18 years old, he’s already proven this to be true – though it’s frightening to think about how good this kid could be if he gets even better.
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