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.
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.