Markelle Fultz might be the best guard prospect since Kyrie Irving.
If you haven’t heard by now, the 2016-17 college basketball season is flooded with incredible talent. From a plethora of dynamic point guards to elite wings and big men of all kinds, it is shaping up to be a special winter and spring. With the addition of so many great young players, mostly freshmen, there may soon be a great departure for NBA waters at the end of the season.
Given that this could be a very special and unprecedented class, you should get to know an incredibly gifted and deep group of prospects. I’ll be focusing primarily on players with high-lottery potential and providing in-depth breakdowns of what they bring to the table. Each prospect will be analyzed in terms of a few similar categories to help make comparisons between them: 1) shooting/scoring, 2) defense, and 3) passing.
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We start our journey in Seattle with a kid from Maryland, who could be the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Markelle Fultz finds himself amidst poor coaching and poorer teammates at the University of Washington, but that has not stopped him from demonstrating that he is a special player. Fultz is a point guard with excellent size at 6-foot-4 and a wingspan of almost 6-foot-10.
Through Washington’s first 12 games, Fultz has posted averages of 22 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks. He uses his length to impact games and his numbers show a steady, well-rounded player. Fultz projects to be a two-way threat and has shown signs of an advanced offensive skill set.
He sees the floor like someone who’s been in the league a few years and showcases go-to moves that we seldom see from an 18-year-old. College ball might already be too easy for him. So with that, let’s take a look at why Fultz might be the most gifted guard to come out of college since Kyrie Irving.
Fultz averages 22 points per game, so at 18 we know he’s an elite scorer. The first thing that stands out when watching him is how composed and in control he is. He’s rarely in a hurry, and that has a lot to do with his advanced handle and vision. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that Fultz is already a pick-and-roll master.
Here Fultz uses a side pick-and-roll and shows off his explosiveness, blowing by both Gonzaga big men. Power forwards and centers are going to have a serious problem staying with him at the next level. And as we’ll see later, even when Fultz doesn’t punish you with his scoring, he’s so good at passing out of the pick-and-roll that his future teammates are going to get a plethora of wide open looks.
He’s also good enough that if you focus more on his teammates he has no problem scoring himself. As we’ll see in a bit, Fultz is fearless with his jump shot, so on this play he makes the defense pay for not going over the screen. By the time the defender tries to put a hand up it’s too late. Fultz can do it all in the pick-and-roll: pass, drive and shoot.
What Fultz has is a truly complete arsenal. Not only can he already navigate picks and finish at the rim, but he’s shown flashes of a soft floater. Every guard in the NBA needs this shot. Just look at how much arc he gets on this attempt to finish over the incoming defender.
While he’s thrived in a pro-style offense at Washington, seeing a lot of pick-and-roll-action, Fultz has also shown that he can easily breakdown his man one-on-one. And if he gets in the paint, forget about it.
Per Hoop Math, Fultz is hitting 59 percent of his shots that come at the rim. Against one of the nation’s best teams, look at how difficult Fultz is to stay in front of. Even when the help defense comes, he’s athletic and skilled enough to avoid the big man and hit a tough layup with his off hand. He’s a nightmare matchup as he’s both explosive and shifty, a lethal combo.
What makes Fultz even more unfair to guard is that he also has a smooth jumper. On the year, Fultz is hitting nearly 49 percent of his threes. Weirdly enough, he’s shooting 64.9 percent from the free throw line, but when you look at his mechanics it seems like that percentage may be a fluke. When you watch him shoot he keeps his body square, gathers and sets his feet, staying perfectly balanced.
Not only is Fultz impressive as a spot up shooter, but he can shoot off the dribble too. His ability to shoot both off the catch and off the dribble makes him even more attractive to NBA teams because it shows that he can play with just about anyone. He can dominate the ball and create offense for himself and others or he can slide off the ball and spot up.
Fultz has two guys in his face on this play and he still buries the trey. We saw moments in last year’s NBA season when D’Angelo Russell had ice in his veins. Fultz takes that to a whole other level. With the confidence that he has in his jumper to pull up at any time, he’s impossible to guard behind the three point line.
Sometimes even perfect defense isn’t enough as evidenced by that shot by Fultz against a very good TCU team. So when you add this good of a jump shot to a guard that has elite size, an elite handle, shiftiness, and (as we’ll see later) extraordinary vision, Fultz truly is a complete guard. He’s also a beast in transition, using his speed and athleticism to get the Huskies easy buckets.
He’s a two-way threat in that his three-point shot opens up his dribble-drive game and his driving ability gives him more room to shoot from the outside. Fultz is shooting 52 percent on two-point field goals, meaning he’s been able to both finish at the rim and hit mid-range jumpers. His additional 45.6 percent shooting on two-point jumpers, per Hoop Math, is outstanding. When his shot is falling, there’s not much you can do to stop this kid.
Sensational offensive skills are enough to get you picked in the lottery of any NBA draft, but teams more so than ever before are looking for two-way stars. Fultz is the most complete offensive player in this potential draft class and he just so happens to have tremendous defensive potential as well.
Much in thanks to his great size and length, Fultz is already piling up an abundance of blocks and steals. In the blocks department, he has the potential to offer some weak side help and has a knack for making big plays in transition. You could say he was paying special attention to LeBron James in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
That is not to compare Fultz to one of the greatest plays in Finals history, but just like LeBron’s block Fultz is far behind the play and comes from the other side of the court to block this. You cannot teach his advanced blend of athleticism and instincts. And when he’s engaged, he can be a real menace as an on-ball defender.
He had no business getting in the way of that above shot and still found a way to block it with authority. It’s one thing to admire his athleticism and timing, but to have the audacity to know he could block that shot says a lot about this kid’s confidence. Fultz plays with power and above the rim at both ends of the floor. He uses his length to halt transition buckets, and gets stops on defense to create fast break opportunities for own his team.
Here Fultz anticipates where the ball is going to go and uses his length to knock it away. Now the Huskies are off to the races. That 6-foot-9 wingspan will have NBA scouts drooling. He simply can get to balls and disrupt passing lanes that most guys his size cannot.
Right now, it’s hard to fully evaluate him defensively because the Huskies are atrocious on that end of the floor. Fultz has to carry the load to keep them in games so it’s not completely fair to blast him for inconsistent effort. Fultz has shown flashes where his man gets by him too easily or where he doesn’t rotate well. Some of that can be down to a lack of effort at times, but it may also be down to the fact that he’s still 18. You’re drafting his defensive potential to be a two-way stud, not just his current weaknesses.
The bottom line is he will impact games with his offensive tools and should be able to grow into a pest of a man-to-man defender and a decent help guy as well. Regardless, Fultz is going to make a killing by picking up steals and making highlight blocks.
As we saw in the scoring section, Fultz is already lethal in the pick-and-roll. As we’ll see in some videos below, he could run an NBA offense today.
Fultz shows us everything in this play: he loses his man in the pick-and-roll, nastily spins one defender into the ground and then showcases a ridiculous wrap-around pass to get his big man a dunk. If you let him get into the lane, nine times out of 10 he’s going to get a good shot off or find an open teammate, no matter the angle.
Here he’s able to keep his dribble alive, move the defense one way and then zip a bullet pass into his big man for a point blank shot. People were raving about Lonzo Ball’s passing before and after he got to UCLA, and rightfully so, but Fultz has shown flashes of being able to pass at that high of a level too.
But it’s not just his passing in the pick-and-roll. He has the vision for that of course, but he’s also just incredibly gifted as a passer. Whether it’s in the half court, in transition or in tight windows, Fultz’s next team is getting someone who can be as special a playmaker as he is a scorer.
Fultz is so dangerous in transition that the entire defense collapses on him. He uses his great dribble and patience to suck them in and then kicks out to his wide open teammate on the wing. Most point guards, especially at 18, aren’t making that play, which pretty much sums up Fultz as both a passer and a prospect.
It’s impossible not to get excited about Markelle Fultz. If he continues to put up these numbers and performances through Pac-12 play, he’s the runaway No. 1 pick for the 2017 NBA draft. And having played TCU twice, as well as Yale and Gonzaga, Fultz has thrived against strong competition. Fultz averaged 25.8 points over those four contests.
He has amazing size and can do it all from either guard position, so much so that he’d fit on just about any roster. Fultz is a superstar prospect, who may have a higher ceiling than even Kyrie Irving, mostly because of what he could offer in terms of defense and rebounding.
He has plenty of games left this season, but we may easily look back on Fultz four or five years from now as one of the best prospects of the one-and-done era. It’ll be a bit mentally tough for him playing on such a bad Washington team, similar to Ben Simmons last year, but there’s no question he is a special and unique talent.
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