Does the NBA Care That Markelle Fultz's College Team Didn't Win?
Markelle Fultz looks like a prototypical NBA point guard, and could be the top pick in the 2017 draft. Does it matter that his Washington team was terrible?
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
Markelle Fultz checks every NBA scouting box. He stands six-foot-four, and has a six-foot-ten wingspan—prototypical size and length for a point guard. He's a remarkably fluid athlete with inhuman control of his body and the ability to rise up for explosive throwdowns. He can blow past defenders with a powerful first step, or create space with a vicious crossover dribble. He can shoot off the catch and off the bounce, run a pick-and-roll, and play at a rare Goldilocks tempo, not too fast and not too slow.
Long and gushing story short, there are many reasons the University of Washington freshman point guard is a presumptive lottery pick in this summer's NBA draft, and may even end up as the top overall selection. He's that good. At the same time, there's a question hanging over him, one being asked by fans, media, and even some league scouts.
If Fultz is such an incredible basketball player, then why the heck was his college team so lousy?
Washington's season is over. The Huskies are not going to the NCAA tournament. They lost in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, and finished a disappointing 9-22 overall, and 9-15 in games that Fultz, who has battled a sore knee, played in.
Meanwhile, his fellow likely lottery picks Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, Malik Monk, Jonathan Issac, and Lauri Markkanen's teams have combined for just 22 losses so far. So, as was the case last year with eventual No. 1 selection Ben Simmons—whose mediocre LSU team also missed March Madness—everyone in the basketball world is wondering, if only a little, what Washington's lack of success may mean for Fultz's draft stock and his future in the league.
To get a better sense of where Fultz stands and sort the signal from the noise, I asked seven NBA front-office talent evaluators the following: Do you care that Markelle Fultz's team lost a lot of games this year? Would it give you pause in any way in regard to drafting him? Why or why not?
While none of the evaluators were negative, responses were mixed. Three said they didn't have any concerns. Zilch. The other four said they fell somewhere between concern and pause when weighing Washington's lack of success.
"My concern is not necessarily the wins and losses, but if he is able to raise the level of his teammates in general," an NBA executive for a team currently slotted in the lottery told VICE Sports. "With Fultz, I don't know how he lives with the losing. Does he accept it, or does it make him miserable?"
Look at NBA draft history for comparable situations, and you'll find there aren't many. Of the 51 one-and-done picks since 2006, not a single player's college team finished with a worse record than Fultz's Huskies. Moreover, only six selections' teams missed the NCAA tournament: Spencer Hawes, Anthony Randolph, Noah Vonleh, Nerlens Noel, Simmons, and Marquese Chriss.
Putting aside Simmons and Chriss—the latter is an NBA rookie; the former is in the middle of missing his rookie season with a foot injury—it doesn't inspire confidence that none of the other four players finished their rookie contracts with the team that drafted them. On the other hand, the average draft slot of those four was No. 10, and not No. 1 like Fultz. Is it useful to compare very good prospects to elite ones? Maybe not.
On average, those 51 one-and-done players saw their college teams finish 27-8, and advance somewhere between the NCAA's round of 32 and the Sweet 16. The last nine No. 1 overall NBA picks have an even better average track record: their teams went 32-6 and finished between the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight. And that makes sense. Good players usually make for good teams!
And when they don't? It's possible that a whole lot of losing says something about a college team's best player—but even more likely that it says something about his supporting cast. NBA teams are eager to meet with Fultz, run him through the full draft evaluation process, and get a better sense of his competitive fire. But they're also well aware that the Huskies as whole weren't very talented, having lost two first-round picks in Chriss and Dejounte Murray to the 2016 draft.
"It gives me a slight pause and is in the back of my mind," an NBA executive without a lottery pick said about Fultz. "But I wouldn't be too worried about it, because if he would've switched places with Ball [at UCLA] or [Kentucky's De'Aaron] Fox, he would have won a lot more."
That's inarguable. According to KenPom, Washington was the fifth-least experienced team in the nation this season. The cupboard was pretty bare, and the team also struggled with consistent effort and defensive discipline, ranking fifth among major teams in half-court defense. Expecting the 18-year-old Fultz to paper over all of those flaws is exceedingly optimistic.
"It always matters why," another NBA executive with a lottery pick said. "Why did this guy lose? Anthony Davis lost a lot more than he won in high school. Then what happened?"
We know the answer to that one: Davis became the centerpiece of what is arguably the best college basketball team of the last decade and won a national title. Fultz didn't follow the same college trajectory, but could he make a similar leap in the NBA?
Winning a title is tough. Yet plenty of NBA people see high-level things on Fultz's horizon. "His game is perfect for the spread pick-and-roll NBA," another league executive said. "He scores at all three levels, but isn't selfish either.
"With a lot of other players, you can see them failing. Fultz, I don't see how his game doesn't translate. There will be arguments over him being the best player, and team success plays a part in that. But he's as sure a thing to be very good as there is in this draft."
Washington didn't struggle because Fultz failed to produce. His numbers don't lie. His effective field-goal percentage on shots off the catch was 56.7 percent; off the bounce, his eFG was 50.9 percent, third among all high-major players. Fultz creates shots for others, too, ranking No. 20 in the nation in assist rate despite his teammates shooting just 28.6 percent from beyond the arc in Pac-12 play and finishing with a collective 49.4 eFG for the season, good for No. 225 in the nation.
Over time, Fultz—and Simmons, once his foot heals—could become an interesting test case for just how much winning at basketball's developmental levels matters. NBA teams are getting better at evaluating player personality types, but it's hardly an exact science. Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and Kawhi Leonard are all players who seem to have become more competitive once they arrived in the league, and it's hard to say that Fultz lacks any sort of killer instinct in the first place.
Drafting isn't easy. Evaluating a player is like building a 45-block Jenga tower, and sometimes the blocks don't quite fit. Winning games counts for a handful of blocks, but skill and talent count for many, many more. Luckily for Fultz, the latter two aren't a question.
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