Washington’s shortcomings this year have nothing to do with Markelle Fultz. He is having the best individual season in the program’s history, and that includes Brandon Roy’s senior year.
The comment has become inevitable.
The Huskies fall behind, an opposing player gets pumped up and a broadcaster can’t help but remark how Markelle Fultz looks uninspired.
Pac-12 Network analyst Don MacLean was the latest.
“I came into this game more excited than it appears Fultz has,” MacLean said during the first half of Washington’s 41-point loss to UCLA.
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And when play-by-play man JB Long pointed out that Fultz generally has an understated look, MacLean wasn’t having it.
“OK, be understated and have 20 at the half,” he said.
Let’s be clear on one thing: Washington’s shortcomings this year have nothing to do with Fultz. He is having the best individual season in the program’s history, and that includes Brandon Roy’s senior year.
The freshman’s 23.2 points per game lead the Pac-12 by almost five points per contest, and he’s doing it while shooting 47.9 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from deep. Additionally, he is second in the conference in assists (6.0 per game), second on the team in rebounds (6.0), fifth in the Pac-12 in steals (1.6) and 11th in blocks (1.3) .
Advanced stats suggest he is also the most efficient player in the conference, which is particularly impressive when opponents’ scouting reports just read, “STOP FULTZ!!!!”
Still, the big knock on him (other than his free-throw shooting) is that he just doesn’t have the killer instinct that has defined so many of the game’s greats.
But what is that based on?
It’s true that Fultz has a Phil Ivey face every moment he is on the court. Joy is rarely expressed, anger is never expressed, and you sometimes get the feeling he’d react to getting slugged in the face with nothing more than a shrug.
So casual observers conclude that he doesn’t care, or that he’s just biding his time until the NBA draft, where many sites project him as the No. 1 pick. And while I suppose I can see why some people might think this, I can’t help but see it as the laziest possible analysis.
“It’s pretty funny to me,” Fultz said. “People want to say that I don’t care, but anybody who knows me knows how much I love the game and that I’m always trying to get the guys up.”
Do you know how easy it would have been for Fultz to pack it in when the Bruins ran out to a 30-point lead in the second half Saturday? Such a reaction is basic human nature. But Markelle was out there spinning his way to the hoop after every soul-crushing UCLA alley-oop, never letting up or showing frustration.
Personally, I think his even-keeled demeanor is a selling point for NBA scouts. Fultz is like a pitcher who doesn’t get rattled by the grand slam he gave up in the first inning and goes on to get the complete-game win.
You don’t go from playing junior varsity as a sophomore to a potential No. 1 pick without caring. Fultz has said he wants to be the best to play the game, and that desire manifests itself in his skill set.
And don’t get me wrong — emotion works for a lot of guys. The rings athletes like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Ray Lewis wear are a byproduct of the fire they showed every day between the lines. But there are also players such as former NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Lenoard, who is one of the five best players in basketball despite playing with Fultz-like stoicism.
Plenty of stars have destroyed locker rooms by showing too much rage. I don’t think any have done so by showing too little.
Last week, Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar was asked about Fultz’s disposition, and he went old school in his response. He recalled the time Phil Chenier punched former Knicks point guard Walt Frazier in the face on national television, prompting Frazier to react in the most vengeful way possible.
No, he didn’t punch back. He didn’t give much more than a snarl, really. Instead, he lit the Bullets up for 26 points.
It’s no secret the Huskies are bad this year. They don’t run much of an offense, they don’t play a lot of defense and they don’t look like they’re going to get any better.
So if you’re a fan, you have a right to be mad. And you don’t have to pull a Fultz and hold it in.
If you need to express that anger, I understand. Just don’t direct it at Fultz.