Meeting Markelle Fultz: A Day With The NBA's (Likely) No. 1 Pick
- Everyone knows Markelle Fultz's name, but few know much about him. Sports Illustrated spent a day shadowing the NBA's next No. 1 pick and learning what he's really about.
Markelle Fultz's mom can't help but lament the cost of magazines. Over the past year, Ebony Fultz has started paying more attention to them. She will go to the store and thumb through various sports and basketball publications to see if there's an article about her son. When she finds one, she'll buy it. "But this one was like $7!" she says walking through her kitchen. "When did they all get so expensive?"
Earlier this month, Sports Illustrated spent a day with Markelle and watched him work out at George Washington University with his friend Kenneth Tappin, trainer Emmanuel Coulibaly, and his longtime coach, Keith Williams. Fultz is projected to be the No. 1 pick in this June’s NBA draft, and his preparation for the process has already begun. We watched him in the pool, in the weight room, and then on the court for shooting drills. Then we all moved back to the Fultz home just outside of Washington D.C. We spent the night meeting his family and watching the NCAA title game.
As we settled in around the dining room table, talk turned to the draft. "I know in May they have an actual lottery," Ms. Fultz says. "I just found that out last year—it's an actual lottery where they put balls in machines. So, I know that. And then, there'll be the draft. I don't know the intricate details of it, but Keith [Williams] has explained it."
Williams has helped explain more than just the draft. He's been a trainer and AAU coach in the DC area for almost 20 years, working with everyone from Kevin Durant to DeMarcus Cousins, with stories that date back to summers at Bowie State with Steve Francis and Allen Iverson. He went to high school with Ebony.
Williams describes himself as "trainer, mentor, uncle, and sometimes Dad-figure" to Markelle. He first met Fultz at 6 years old. They started working together shortly thereafter, and along with Ebony and her 26-year-old daughter Shauntese, Williams is an integral part of the support network that will help manage the next steps in this process.
The next step in Fultz's journey is the lottery. Markelle is keeping it diplomatic. "To me it doesn't matter to me where I go," he says. "As long as I'm playing basketball, that's just how I am. I don't look too far ahead."
I had to ask whether he's paid attention to all the league's tanking efforts, and his mom interjected. "Is that really happening? Are they really losing on purpose?"
"They do," Markelle confirms. "So they can increase their percentages."
"It's weird, it's weird," she says of this lottery situation. "But that's the nature of that profession. You adapt to whatever your profession is."
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, they'll all adapt together. Ebony, Shauntese, and Markelle will move to a city chosen by ping pong balls. But at the moment, none of that really matters. The youngest Fultz child is home for the first time in a year, and for a little while longer, everything is pretty normal. "I told him," his mom says, "Today's trash day. And he's like, 'I just took three bags of trash out.' And I'm like, it's more trash in here, so, today's trash day. He was getting ready to say something... and then he's like, 'Oh, OK. OK, Mom.'"
The best part of spending a day with the Fultz family was learning about everything but basketball. For example, Markelle revealed his first love was BMX biking. At the GW workout, he proudly showed off various scars he's accrued over the years. "I'd do wheelies, flips, all that," he says of his childhood. "We used to have a ramp right there in the neighborhood. We used to ride the downhill and try to jump over the mailbox. We'd do crazy stuff. Man, I was a daredevil."
His mom remembers looking out her window one Easter to see her son riding through the neighborhood standing on his bike seat, trying to do jumps into the street. "Not very much fear," she says. "Like when he took karate the instructor said, 'I'm afraid 'Kelle's gonna try to, like, jump through the wall.'"
For the past 12 months or so, Markelle Fultz has been something of an urban legend among basketball fans who care too much about mock drafts. Everyone knows his name, but few know much about him. So it's helpful to find out that he's secretly had a reckless streak since birth.
Likewise, a competitive streak: the family plays a heated game of UNO before the title game between North Carolina and Gonzaga, and Markelle wins. He and his sister go best-of-three in rock-paper-scissors to see who cleans the kitchen, and Markelle wins there, too. Before the title game, he predicts (on camera) that Carolina will win by six. Three hours and 800 fouls later, sure enough, Carolina wins by six. His mom says that the family's having game night on the 15th, and Markelle gestures to a corner full of basketball memorabilia: "You see the trophies right? I'm the champ around here."
Over the course of eight hours together, it was tempting to view Fultz as the anti-Lonzo Ball. He's nowhere near SportsCenter or First Take. Instead of a hype man father, he's trailed by a mother and older sister who have been bossing him around for two decades, neither of whom has challenged Michael Jordan to one-on-one.
Fultz can play along with any conclusions you want to draw. "I like doing everything under the radar," he says. "I don't like making a scene. As far as being cocky, I never want to put anybody below me. I've been at the bottom. I know what it feels like to work hard, and when somebody else tries to showboat, it just makes me want to work harder."
This could definitely be the persona he assumes during the draft process. Look closer, and it doesn't quite fit. The truth about Markelle Fultz is that he's soft-spoken and humble—but not that humble.
He plans on being the No. 1 pick, and you don't get to where he is without being preternaturally self-assured. "Respect people," he says, "but don't fear nobody. That's the way I carry myself."
Now we're getting closer to the truth.
If you're wondering how the best basketball prospect in the country ended up going to school 3,000 miles away, playing for a team that never came close to making the NCAA tournament, it helps to go back to the beginning. The Fultz origin story is already well known by recruiting heads and draftniks, but here's the short version: He attended storied basketball powerhouse DeMatha High School in Maryland, but he was cut from the varsity team as a 5'9" sophomore.
His first scholarship offer came from High Point, in the Big South Conference. Fultz still remembers the shock. "I didn't really realize how it worked," he says. "Like, I got an offer?"
Around the same time, Washington's associate head coach, Raphael Chillious, was on a trip back to his hometown in Olney, Maryland. When he swung through Dematha, he caught a JV game and saw Fultz. He called back to Lorenzo Romar on the west coast and told his boss that he just watched a JV player who had NBA All-Star potential if he grew a few inches.
By the following season, Fultz had grown to 6'3". He continued working year-round with Williams, he starred for DeMatha's varisty as a junior, and won Player of the Year in the ultra-competitive Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. That spring, Chillious and Romar followed him to an AAU tournament in Georgia and offered a scholarship.
By summer 2015, the secret was out. Fultz had continued growing, to 6'4" now, with a nearly 6'10" wingspan. And after dominating performances at various stops on the summer circuit—an AAU tournament in Vegas, Steph Curry's camp in Oakland, Under Armour camp in Charlotte—he was fielding offers from everyone. Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Arizona, and dozens of other major programs eventually showed interest, but they were too late.
"Washington," Fultz says, "they were early. And the relationship that Coach Chills and Coach [Romar] had with my mom was unbelievable. If you can impress her, you've done your job. The way they had her feel safe, I felt safe."
And if the year at Washington cost him some name recognition this year, it also bought him some extra time to grow up like a relatively normal 18-year-old. As his mom tells it, "He got to be a normal college kid. He could walk around. Like here [in D.C.], we'd be at the mall, and kids would be running up, 'Can I take a picture with you?' Even before he went to school. And grown men, too."
"When we went to Washington and went to the mall," she remembers, "I'm looking around, and I'm like, 'Nobody cares about you here.'" And Markelle replied, "It's kinda cool, isn't it?"
"I enjoy taking pictures with people and all that," he adds, "But [in Seattle], it was easy for me to walk around without anybody noticing me. People just respected me—they would say what's up, but they wouldn't really bother me much. I enjoyed it."
Even as Washington struggled on the court, Fultz soaked up the experience everywhere else. Draft talk was an afterthought. "We were like brothers," Fultz says of his teammates. "I didn't really have time to think about [the NBA]. I was just busy with them, doing schoolwork, studying, workouts. I mean I'd see [draft hype] on Twitter, but like, I'm not worried about it. I'm more about relationships than just trying to get money or anything like that, so it was easy for me. I felt like I was at home."
Aside from his teammates, he beams when asked about Washington's superstar women's player, Kelsey Plum. "Me and her are like brother and sister," he says, "We still speak to this day. I helped her a lot during the season, and she's helped me a lot with my confidence."
"That's my girl," his mother says.
"It's crazy," Fultz says. "Probably the best point guard duo to ever come out of the same college."
All of this is why the family looks at this past year as a success, regardless of what Washington did in the Pac-12. "As a parent you're worried," his mother says. "When I let my kid go, are they going to act right? Are they going to do the right thing? Are they going to be considerate? And to go to Washington and talk to people—from the ushers, to the managers, to people who work in the school—and [hear them] talk about how humble he is, how thoughtful he is, and he's all those miles away from home? That's my proudest moment. Because you can never say what your children will do when you're not around. So to know that he went away and conducted himself like the young man I raised him to be? That's what I'm most proud of."
Back in DC, the best part of watching the workout was hearing stories from Fultz's trainers about summer workouts of the past. They involved hours on hours of summer pickup games with everyone from A.I. to KD to Victor Oladipo. Most of them took place in the brutal heat of a Bowie State gym that only recently got air-conditioning. Fultz had air conditioning at GW, but he's next in line to carry on tradition.
"All the people who came through here," he says, "all the people we have in the league... Personally, I think the DMV is the ultimate hoopstate. We have so many guys here who have not only made it, but people who aren't really known, that can really play. I still got a lot to prove, but it's good to know that people think I'm the next big thing."
There are two questions that'll determine just how good Fultz can be on the court. The biggest is his aggression as a scorer. If he's going to be worth the No. 1 pick, he has to carry an offense. "He needs to work on being a little bit more selfish," Williams says. "Being that alpha dog, that leads the team and can carry a franchise. He's come a long way. Obviously he's someone who wasn't No. 1 all the time. His grind was progressive. But he's getting more aggressive. He shot the ball quite a bit—17 times a game in college—so I think he's moving in the right direction."
There is also defense. There were times that Fultz struggled concentrating on that end, and Washington's defense was terrible as a team. He concedes that it's an area he needs to work on wherever he goes next. That said, even when talking through his biggest weakness, it's tough to ignore the tools: he's as good an athlete as anyone in the draft, and if his focus improves as he matures, his lengthy wingspan figures to make him an excellent option guarding either backcourt position.
Beyond those questions, there's not much to criticize. Washington struggled this year with a roster that was depleted after losing Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray to last year's draft, but Fultz still popped off the screen in every game he played. He averaged 23.2 points per game, 5.9 assists, and 5.7 rebounds. He was named First Team All Pac-12. He can shoot (41% from three at Washington). He can get in the lane and score at the rim. He can create for teammates.
It's hard to say exactly what sort of player he'll be in the NBA, because he's well-rounded enough to imagine several different versions of an All-Star. Maybe he's an explosive distributor like John Wall, maybe he's a smooth combo guard like James Harden, maybe he turns into a new Russell Westbrook. Williams, his trainer, says the immediate answer next year will probably depend on the team that drafts him.
Fultz is open to anything. "If they need me to play the one," he says. "I can do that. Get somebody involved, get the other people open. But also, if they need me at the two, I can just score the ball. Or if you need me to do both, score at times... I can do anything you need."
Fultz cemented his place at the top of the draft by dominating at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland. From there, he went to Chile and starred for the USA 18-and-under team. They won gold, and he won MVP, and suddenly everyone around the NBA knew his name. The down year at Washington hasn't tempered anyone's enthusiasm for what's next. Boston's Isaiah Thomas is a Huskie alum who worked out with the team this fall, and he brightened when I asked about Fultz earlier this year. "He's special," he said. "He's got the full package."
Or as another NBA player put it, "People don't realize it because they didn't get to watch him as much this year. I don't want to say he's a Russ-level athlete, but he's closer to that than not. If he went to the combine, which I'm not sure he'd ever have a reason to, but if he went, he'd test off the charts. He's just a f---ing freak."
And as one scout says, "It's funny to me that so many people have tried to put the 'not a winner' stigma on him without ever getting to know him. If he were a BS kid, maybe you could blame Washington's struggles on him. But he's the furthest thing from that."
Those last two answers are why he's the likely No. 1 pick.
The rivalry with Lonzo is real. There are still certain teams who reportedly see Ball as the top prospect in the draft, and Fultz has spent the past month conspicuously "liking" various tweets that pit the two against each other. "He's going to be a great guard in the league," Fultz says of his fellow Pac-12 guard. But: “He's going to be [playing] my position, so... if he happens to be the point guard I'm going against, then yeah, I want to get him out the way."
Later that night, he's asked about the chances of Big Baller Brand endorsement deal. "That's a high chance," Fultz says. "High chance. I was thinking about getting a couple hats for the family. I think that would be cool." His mom's sitting next to him on the couch and shaking her head. "I don't know what she's thinking about,” he continues, “but me and Keith are always talking about it. We're gonna get some hats."
"No you're not," his mother says, "You're not wasting that money. You can tape some B's onto your hat."
Then we talked NBA. Markelle's favorite team to watch is the Warriors, but at the moment, he's too busy working out to follow much of the league. He'll check back in as the playoffs unfold. In the meantime, he stays in touch via text message with Kevin Durant, another DC-area product, and they follow each other with Snapchat.
He's been close with Isaiah Thomas since their workouts at Washington this summer. "I've talked to him a lot," Fultz says. And yes, the family is well aware that Boston currently has the best odds at the No. 1 pick. "We always talk about the opportunity. That would be the craziest backcourt. The way he scores, the way I can pass, and the way I can score… we can switch between the one and two."
We talked about the generation of point guards tearing through the NBA, and what it'll be like to guard them next year. "It just puts a bigger challenge up for me," he says. "I'm ready to go out and achieve. I'm glad there's a lot of point guards now, I wouldn't want it to be any less. I want to compete every night. Kyrie, Damian Lillard, all these guys. Seeing them on TV, knowing I'm going to play against them… It's cool."
"It'll make you better," his Mom assures him.
Futlz interjects: "And they gotta guard me, too, so..."
It's those little moments that hint at what we're really talking about with Fultz. Yes, he's a charming underdog story. He's been raised to be polite. He works incredibly hard. His career goal is to make his mother proud because he knows everything he does is a reflection of her. At 18 years old, he's already very good at keeping his answers clean and deferential. But then he'll slip up and, without a hint of humor, remind you that the league should worry about him, too. If the NBA's biggest question is whether he'll be aggressive enough to carry a team, I like his chances.
Until then, he'll be with family. There will be more workouts and interviews during the day, more chores, more jokes, and more games at night. All this is getting serious, but nobody's taking themselves too seriously.
So while Fultz is still technically a fan, there was one more NBA question. "I have to go with Westbrook,” Fultz says of the MVP race. “I know what it feels like when your team's not winning, and you're killing, you're killing, you're killing. He's been unbelievable. And James Harden's been crazy, too. But Westbrook, that's insane."
His mom chuckled and glanced to her right: "He’s gonna tear you up."