Notes for a lively five-month Markelle Fultz discussion


This season Markelle Fultz will turn out to be brilliant, disappointing or something in between, and of course Washington either will or will not make the NCAA tournament. But I for one promise not to brand Fultz as a disappointment simply because the Huskies don’t receive a bid. In fact, I think it rather likely that Fultz will live up to the hype, and that Lorenzo Romar’s guys will not go dancing. There may be far less friction between these two scenarios than we’re inclined to assume.

In the one-and-done era, there is precious little precedent for a freshman single-handedly and dramatically altering the trajectory of his non-blue-chip program’s season. Yet for some reason, a decade in, we’re still talking like this should indeed happen simply as a matter of course.

We talked like that last year with Ben Simmons despite a preseason chorus of smug pre-Trump laptops saying that LSU, even with the best freshman in the country, was likely to be a bubble team. We may talk like that again with Fultz this season (though yesterday’s loss at home to Yale certainly won’t get any bandwagons rolling).

This gap between the observed performances of the past and our expectations for the near-future has come to constitute something of an esteem tariff that a coach like Romar chooses to pay when signing a one-and-done-track player like Fultz. What a terrible coach, we say. He can’t even do what’s hardly ever been done by anyone else before. It’s a vein of criticism that dates from the widespread disbelief that Kevin Durant could end his freshman season anywhere except the Final Four. It’s been a hearty perennial ever since.

What Washington needs vs. what Fultz can do
The things we think Fultz can do are unlikely, by themselves, to earn a bid for a team whose most debilitating weakness last season, by far, was the Pac-12’s most anemic defensive rebounding. Take for example the nifty quote my colleague Jeff Borzello got from a rival Pac-12 coach on Washington’s preferred methods for scoring: “They don’t run a lot of plays, but what they have their bigs do is offensive rebound aggressively.” I pictured hopeful but weary U-Dub fans reading this and thinking, “If only.”

In truth the Huskies haven’t posted an offensive rebound rate significantly more robust than the (quite low by Division I standards) Pac-12 average since 2013, when Aziz N’Diaye and Desmond Simmons battled each other with a fair degree of ferocity for every missed shot by a teammate. Conversely last season Washington pulled down just 29 percent of its misses. Sure enough, in Seattle yesterday the home team was beaten to a bloody pulp on the glass at both ends of the floor by a feisty bunch of Ivy Leaguers.

That’s not on Fultz, of course. (Actually he hauled in seven defensive boards in his own right.) Rather, weak rebounding is a significant and ongoing team performance issue that is at best orthogonal to and at worst wholly separate from any brilliance that he may well show on offense.

For its part the NBA is quite rightly obsessed with cataloging an inventory of Fultz’s skills, and the talent evaluators at the next level will likely conclude that their detailed listing of his abilities — when grafted on to the chassis of the young man’s height, wingspan and strength — will merit a top-five draft choice. If viewers of the college game have learned anything from repeated “NBA talent plays for so-so college team” disillusionments, however, it is that pro scouts and college skeptics can look at the same player and both be right within their respective frames of reference.

The Andrews-Fultz Paradox
Assume for the sake of discussion that Fultz falls within the mainstream tradition of one-and-done scoring point guards and thus is not reliant primarily upon three-point shots for his offense. That leaves assists, twos and free throws.

The freshman’s ability to benefit Washington with his passing will be in part incumbent upon his teammates, naturally, and if he dominates the game with his two-point shooting as a major-conference freshman under 6-6 he will truly be an outlier’s outlier. But free throws should be a good bet, right? After all, a guy with this much advance hype should certainly be able to dribble right into the chest of the nearest stationary defender, give a violent “I’m the featured scorer and, by all that is Trimble, I’ve been fouled!” head-snap and get some free throws as a reward.

Maybe, but from a team perspective Washington’s virtually foreordained to see a year-to-year decrease in offensive production at the line from its point guard. The paradox at work here — in Seattle this season and, one might venture to say, in basketball more generally — is that team potential is defined not only by variable talent but also by fixed performance horizons.

While the guy Fultz replaced in Romar’s rotation happens to have been the discursive equivalent of a journeyman (i.e., a significant number of non-left-coast fans would be unable to name him if given a pop quiz), he did make first-team All-Pac-12 as a senior last season and ranked No. 2 in the nation, out of 2,000-plus players, in made free throws. Put another way, the probability of Fultz — or of any player in Fultz’s situation — improving upon the performance of Washington’s previous point guard in terms of translating drawn fouls into points is vanishingly close to zero.

I think we’re excited about Fultz not because of the difference he can make to Washington as a team in 2016-17 but because of what he might become in the NBA over the next decade. Those are two entirely separate quantities, but it may not sound like it over the next five months.

BONUS list!
Lay off Fultz if he doesn’t make the tournament. He’s not the first.

No dancing
One-and-dones whose teams didn't play in the NCAA tournament
First-round picks only
                                 Draft    Pick
Spencer Hawes      Washington     2006     10
Anthony Randolph   LSU            2008     15
J.J. Hickson       NC State       2008     19
Kosta Koufos       Ohio State     2008     23
Donte Greene       Syracuse       2008     28
Mo Harkless        St. John's     2012     15
Tony Wroten        Washington     2012     25
Nerlens Noel       Kentucky       2013      6
Archie Goodwin     Kentucky       2013     29
Noah Vonleh        Indiana        2014      9
Rashad Vaughn      UNLV           2015     17
Chris McCullough   Syracuse       2015     29
Ben Simmons        LSU            2016      1
Marquese Chriss    Washington     2016      8
Henry Ellenson     Marquette      2016     18
Malik Beasley      Florida State  2016     19
Dejounte Murray    Washington     2016     29    

Lots of Huskies here, to be sure. Again, I know mine will be a lonely ground floor, but I don’t suppose the parade of tournament-less one-and-dones that has marched through the Washington program (to say nothing of non-freshman first-round Huskies like Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox who also missed their last dances) represents an indictment of Romar as a coach per se.

What we know from this parade is nothing more revelatory than that the coach is excellent at signing players that the NBA will view as the performance equivalents of growth stocks. For better or worse this category of player has not made much of a performance dent as freshmen at non-blue chip programs in D-I over the past 10 years, including and especially at the one in Seattle.