Prior to Washington’s preseason trip to Australia, the Huskies’ young phenom took a turn with the gold-winning Team USA squad in the FIBA Americas Championship in Chile, where he earned MVP honors. He was named to both the Preseason Naismith Player of the Year and Cousy Point Guard of the Year watch lists, and earned preseason All America honors from Athlon and CBS Sports.
None of that means anything now.
Yet, just three games into the Huskies 2016-2017 season, we’ve already got a pretty good idea of what to expect from the most touted freshman in the program’s history. Simply put, he’s the player we’re all going to be telling our grandkids about someday.
Yup, we saw him.
Admittedly Northern Arizona, Sunday’s opponent, isn’t a great barometer for a freshman’s potential impact over the course of a season, but what we know is this: with all due respect to Brandon Roy, Markelle Fultz is the most talented player to ever play at the University of Washington.
Three games in, against nothing but patsies, and it’s already clear as day. He’s just that good.
Fultz isn’t a great college player with an NBA future. He’s a future NBA superstar who happens to be playing college basketball at the moment. The stats almost don’t even matter, because you get the sense that he could rack up monster numbers any time he wants.
It’s not that Fultz is perfect, either. He’s still learning to defend, but even then he’s like a robotics prodigy putting together his first lego set. It might take a minute or two to figure things out, but it won’t be long before he’s reconstructing the Eiffel Tower.
“When you have Markelle pushing the ball down the court I don’t think there’s anyone in the gym who’s not focused on him,” said sophomore Matisse Thybulle. “To have that - and I think it’s not just me but everyone on the team - to have a weapon like that coming down and if everyone else is in position he’s a good enough player to find you. I think that it just makes it a lot more…it gets people a lot more chances to be aggressive offensively because it puts the defense in a rotation situation they don’t want to be in.”
Consider the first couple of minutes against Northern Arizona. After ripping down a defensive rebound, Fultz whipped an outlet pass to a sprinting David Crisp, who returned the favor with a behind the back bounce pass back to Fultz, who elevated up over the NAU defender for an emphatic dunk from a step inside the free throw line.
On the next possession, he tossed in a step-back jumper from the elbow despite being double teamed, followed a couple possessions later with a smooth three-pointer from the top of the key despite a hand in his face.
In the span of just over three minutes, he’d scored seven of his team’s first 10 points while grabbing three rebounds in the process. And though he could have easily maintained that pace, he attempted just two more shots in the half.
In fact, midway through the second half, five other Huskies had attempted as many shots as Fultz, despite the fact that he’s shooting nearly 70 percent from the field so far this season.
Maybe that’s all part of the plan, and Lorenzo Romar addressed that question after the game.
“Markelle (Fultz) told me after the game as we were talking about how he did and all, he said ‘yeah, I just felt coach the way were going I didn’t need to score a whole lot. I was just looking to see my guys up because of the way they were playing’,” said Romar. “That’s the beauty of Markelle Fultz. He plays the game the right way. He’s not out there trying to break records when he’s out there playing or make sure that he solidifies his draft status. There’s no stress with him in that regard. He’s just out there playing, trying to make us be the best we can be. He’s perfectly fine going out there not getting 30 points.”
“We made a point at the beginning of this game to try to play inside out and just get more touches with our big guys because we had been starting to fall in love with the three and getting to comfortable with going down and just settling,” added Thybulle. “I think with that, Markelle was just, instead of looking to find his, he was trying to set up our bigs and just other people."
And as good as he is now, Markelle Fultz is only going to get better, particularly on the defense end, where Washington has struggled in its first three games.
“His instincts are just tremendous,” beamed Romar. “He’s so quick and so long, he gets through, it’s hard to screen him, he gets through little cracks. He has really good defensive instincts. He still has to learn floor position and how to be engaged the entire time that he’s on defense. He can be one of those guys that could be a one man disruptive force when he’s on defense because he’s so quick, he’s so smart, he anticipates so well, and he’s so long.”
Versus NAU, Fultz appeared to be making a deliberate effort to feed his teammates rather then himself. On cruise control for most of the game, Fultz still managed a ho-hum 16 points on 6-9 shooting, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocked shots.
Beyond Fultz, the Huskies are very much a work in progress, still trying to find their game legs. For them to get back to the NCAA Tournament, they’re going to need more than their talented freshman to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
Or do they?
Would Washington be better served by having Fultz take 30 shots a game? Maybe. Probably. But the that’s not likely to happen, at least not in the short term.
Washington needs a confident Dominic Green and David Crisp firing away from the three-point arc. They need Matisse Thybulle to attack the basket whenever he sees daylight. But come January, Washington needs arguably the top player in the country to score like the top player in the country. They need the only freshman in the country to score 30-plus in his first two games, to score 30-plus points in every game.
They need Markelle Fultz to be the game dominating wunderkind to be exactly what everyone already knows he is - the best player anyone at Washington has ever seen.