Former Washington Huskies guard Markelle Fultz, the first player taken in this year’s NBA draft, is 19. But he cannot play like a kid for long if he is to meet the expectations the Philadelphia 76ers have for him.
PHILADELPHIA – Up close, Markelle Fultz’s face tells you exactly how old he is. He is 19, and he looks 19.
The former Washington Huskies standout looks like a kid because he is a kid. He just cannot play like a kid, not if he is to fulfill the expectations and potential that compelled the Philadelphia 76ers to trade up and select him with the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft.
That has to be his primary mission in his rookie season, and it has to be one of his coach’s, too. No, Brett Brown doesn’t have to burden Fultz with the responsibilities of running the Sixers’ offense from a game’s start to its finish, or establishing a tone and tenaciousness on defense.
With Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson, the Sixers have measures of talent and experience now they didn’t through Brown’s first four seasons. The coaching and coursework for Fultz will be different from what Brown put Michael Carter-Williams through and that Carter-Williams never fully accepted or mastered, but make no mistake: Fultz has to go through it.
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Brown will coach him hard because that’s what he does, what he believes best prepares a young point or combo guard for the NBA.
Consider the Sixers’ first three regular-season opponents and their point guards. The Washington Wizards, the Boston Celtics, the Toronto Raptors. John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry. Those aren’t kids. Those are men who have each played in multiple NBA All-Star Games. And they promise to make Fultz’s early life in the league hell until their and Brown’s demands have toughened him enough to go back at them.
“It’s two things,” Brown said. “The first is the athleticism in the men who jump you right from the get-go. It is relentless. There is no sort of unforgiving stage. It is very, very ruthless, what he’s going to experience — not so much in preseason, but when all of a sudden John Wall crawls into him, and Otto Porter’s length is alive, you realize there is an athleticism and there are men, and it catches people off-guard. And then we’re going to talk about January the 10th, and we’re going to talk about a rookie wall because of the nature of our league.”
Because of the teammates surrounding him and their skills, Fultz might have more room on the court than Carter-Williams — who was traded to Milwaukee during his second season — did. But that doesn’t mean teams will leave Fultz alone. People in the league know he can handle the ball and shoot well enough to excel in pick-and-roll situations. Opponents will try to stop him from creating those matchups when he’s on offense, and try to trap him in those matchups when he’s on defense.
“Once you get to the middle of the floor, everything’s open,” Fultz said. “In this game, everybody’s good at the one spot, the two, all the guards. Everybody’s good at setting illegal screens that the refs don’t see, so you have to fight through and get through everything.”
The fighting will go on for a while. As the No. 1 pick, Fultz has a bull’s-eye on his back already. He’s going to get knocked down, going to have officials ignore his pleas to call fouls that college refs would have whistled immediately, and he’ll have to get back up, hold his tongue, and keep coming. By all accounts, he is competitive and willing to be coached hard.
“He wants to learn,” Brown said. “He lets us coach him. He’s got a foundation that he doesn’t want to let people down. Then you look at the other side. He’s got a great basketball body … But he’s 19, and I think there’s a physical side of it where, no matter how good his head and his heart is, yeah, you get back to reality.”
The reality is this: Markelle Fultz won’t just have to be tough. He’ll have to be patient, too. Everyone will.