Wednesday June 17th, 2015

HYATTSVILLE, Md. — On a recent Thursday afternoon, inside the building where he has both hovered below the radar and blossomed into one of the top guards in the country, Markelle Fultz sat atop a small set of retractable bleachers a few feet behind the baseline and waited for the next game. Wearing pink spotted socks with dress shoes but no shirt, Fultz had decided to rest. Hours earlier, he had completed his last exam of the school year, and instead of traveling to his home in Upper Marlboro and then returning to DeMatha Catholic High School for a practice and summer league game later on, he elected to stay in the gym and play. For Fultz’s latest bout of one-on-one, a group of students watched him take on a teammate with a few mid-major scholarship offers, but the hours-long run also involved Fultz’s coach, Mike Jones.

Days like this—as much time spent on a basketball court as off it—are not unusual for Fultz. They help to explain how he made the leap, over the past year, from talented unknown to established blue-chip prospect. The latest Rivals.com rankings peg Fultz, a 6’4,’’ 195-pound guard as the No. 24 player in the class of 2016. As recently as March, Fultz did not appear anywhere in the same rankings. Why did it take so long for a player who resides in a basketball hotbed on the East Coast and suits up for a storied program with a long list of NBA alumni to get his due?

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Fultz grew up attending camps hosted by schools in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, a group of private schools in D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia. He also bounced around youth teams in the area because his mother, Ebony, always wanted new challenges for her son. By the time he was in high school, Fultz was ready to showcase his talents to a larger audience.

But it would take some time before he drew anything beyond token recognition outside of D.C. basketball circles. At DeMatha, which has produced future college and pro standouts such as Adrian Dantley (1973), Danny Ferry (1985), Keith Bogans (1999) and Victor Oladipo (2010), among others, it is often difficult for freshmen to make the varsity. It’s almost unheard of for them to play significant minutes. Last season, shooting guard D.J. Harvey, one of the top players in the class of 2017, became the first freshman since Dantley in 1969-70 to start on DeMatha’s top squad from the first game. Fultz was not nearly as highly regarded as his five-star teammate, and so he began his career at DeMatha in 2012 on the freshman squad. He so impressed coaches during the season, however, that he earned an invitation to try out for the varsity as a sophomore.

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Fultz didn’t make it. According to Jones, the decision to keep Fultz on junior varsity was based in large part on the composition of the varsity roster. Jones said he envisioned Fultz spending a lot of time at two guard, where his shooting and creativity would provide a boost on the offensive end of the floor. But it would have been difficult to give Fultz significant minutes because the team’s top returning scorer that season, Corey Henson, who now plays at Wagner College, was expected to fill the position as a senior. Jones says now that Fultz was “good enough to make it” from the start, and that the choice to keep him on jayvee was reached after “knock down, drag out arguments” with the coaching staff.

“Not saying that we thought it would work out like it has,” Jones says, “but in hindsight, he should have been on varsity as a sophomore.”  

Entering his sophomore season, Fultz hit a growth spurt. His height, combined with his high basketball IQ, equipped him to play every position. “I think that kind of helped [his] overall game,” said Corey McCrae, who coached Fultz on jayvee. Fultz said he never got discouraged, that he just believed it would all work out, but the decision to table his varsity debut undoubtedly fueled Fultz. He ended his sophomore season behind schedule on the modern recruiting calendar, but he was eager to make up ground. “I never got frustrated, really,” Fultz says, adding that “I love the game, so no matter if I’m playing JV or varsity, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”

Fultz’s other problem was that his grassroots team, the DC Blue Devils, didn’t have an affiliation with a major shoe company, whose events convene top-flight talent and are attended en masse by coaches. (They joined the Under Armour Association in January.) While his DeMatha teammate Harvey, a rising junior, has played 15 games in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League circuit this year, Fultz had to bide his time last year playing in other events until a guest stint with another squad elevated his stature.

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With the Blue Devils, Fultz drew interest from a few Division I programs, including High Point, a member of the Big South conference, which was the first school to offer him a scholarship last July. The same month, Fultz joined DC Premier for that guest stint in the Fab 48 tournament in Las Vegas. Although he was playing up an age group, Fultz scored 15 points in a game against Atlanta Xpress and helped Premier win the tournament. Then, he says, the offers starting coming in. Xavier and DePaul were among the first, and many more followed in the next year. Fultz solidified his status as one of the East Coast’s top prospects by excelling on DeMatha’s varsity team as a junior, averaging 16.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists en route to being named WCAC player of the year.

The primary reason Fultz ascended so quickly in the eyes of coaches and recruiting analysts is that he competed against better players in high-profile settings. When Fultz consistently held his own against—and often outperformed—prospects with scholarship offers from high-major colleges, it became difficult to overlook him or deny his potential, even though he hadn’t even played one full season of varsity basketball. In addition, Fultz is quick to credit his trainer, Keith Williams, with whom he has been working for about 10 years. Fultz said he felt that his athleticism improved, he tightened his handle, his jump shot became more accurate and he developed a more intuitive understanding of certain aspects of the game, including how to both attack and defend in screen-and-roll scenarios.

Fultz now counts offers from Arizona, Maryland, Louisville, Texas and a raft of other brand-name programs. The school Fultz says he grew up watching, Kentucky, has yet to hop on board, though Fultz visited Lexington in May. He says has not devised a timeline for his decision or even his official visits. “I have to look at all the schools and see, do my research a little bit more and start to buckle down in the summer,” Fultz says.

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The top of the recruiting rankings are inhabited mostly by freakish athletes. Fultz is quick and explosive and can catch defenders flat-footed with his first step, but none of those traits define him. There is a certain ease with which Fultz operates. Rarely betraying emotion, he meanders about the court with a sort of boyish gait. When Fultz is not handling the ball, he finds pockets of space away from it. Once in possession, he deftly probes the defense and, after assessing his mark, either dishes to a teammate or looks to create a scoring opportunity for himself. During a recent game against Detroit-based 1 Nation, Fultz was unbowed by the relentless physical play of Josh Jackson, whom some consider the best player in the class of 2016.

Though many observers think Fultz is best suited to play off the ball in college because he is such a skilled scorer, his best position long-term, and the one he prefers, may be point guard. “I think I can be one of the best ones to ever play the game,” Fultz says. In 12 games with the Blue Devils on the Under Armour Association circuit this spring, Fultz has averaged team highs in points (18.6) and assists (2.6 per game) while shooting 41% from the field. Recruitniks will tell you that Fultz has long since shed the “fast-rising” label and broken out. This is true. It also misses the point. While one can argue Fultz ultimately gained renowned thanks to his play at DeMatha and UAA contests, the attention came later in his prep career than it should have.

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“Generally, we’ll all go watch anybody, anyplace, if somebody who we trust gives us a reason to go watch somebody,” says Eric Bossi, a National Basketball Analyst for Rivals.com. “But it’s just hard for any scouts to know about some kid playing on a 16-and-uder team who hasn’t yet played varsity and doesn’t really have a tremendous buzz coming out of somewhere. There’s only so much that people can be expected to know about.”

Bossi says he’s impressed by Fultz’s command of the game and that his athleticism often goes overlooked. “He kinda takes what’s given to him,” Bossi says of Fultz. “And if it’s not there, he takes it out and goes again. I think, because he plays under such control for the most part, and has such a good basketball IQ, I think that his athleticism is very underrated. Markelle has a tremendous first step, I love his first step. He can get by almost anybody with it, and if he needs to jump over somebody, he can.”

For a player with aspirations of earning a spot on the roster of an upper-tier Division I program and getting a shot at the NBA, delayed hype is preferable to no hype at all. After struggling to register even a minor blip the recruiting radar, Fultz now stands at the center of it.

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