To appreciate the transcendent talent of Washington freshman Markelle Fultz is to understand that a typical high school basketball player’s chances of advancing to the NBA are all but impossible.
Three kids in 10,000 are drafted — 0.03 percent — similar to the odds of looking at four of a kind during the first round of draw poker.
Lorenzo Romar was an NBA draft selection, and he managed to survive in the league for five years. And yet when Romar talks about a move Fultz put on in a recent practice, his words are accompanied by the facial expression of somebody who still can’t fathom what he saw.
“He was bringing the ball up the floor,” Romar recalled this week, “there was a guy trailing behind him, on his right, ready to poke the ball and getting closer and closer. And then there was a guy in front of him, and he put the ball behind his back around both guys.”
The sound of wonderment in Romar’s voice brought to mind what the late golf legend Bobby Jones once said about Jack Nicklaus: “He plays a kind of golf with which I am not familiar.”
Because Romar is entering the hot-seat phase of a Washington coaching career whose future clearly hinges on an NCAA Tournament berth in 2017, you’d think he would begin his 15th Huskies season with trepidation. Gone from last year’s underachieving team are top scorer Andrew Andrews, NBA lottery pick Marquese Chriss and fellow first-rounder Dejounte Murray.
That’s a lot to lose, but the absences figure to be more than mitigated by the arrival of Fultz, widely perceived as the first player selected in whatever NBA draft the 6-foot-4 point guard decides to enter.
“You watch him play for two or three minutes, the way he moves on the floor with his size, you realize: ‘OK, that one’s a point guard,’ ” said Romar. “What you don’t see behind the scenes is the type of teammate that he is, the unselfish teammate that he is. Those things, those intangibles, go a long way ... to help your team be the best they can be.”
So how did the Huskies, who haven’t qualified for the NCAA Tournament since 2011, land a five-star recruit — from Maryland, no less — capable of reviving a program stuck in neutral?
Begin with the adage of “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” Washington assistant Raphael Chillious grew up in the Philadelphia area with Keith Williams, Fultz’s trainer. Three years ago, Williams gave his longtime friend a heads-up on Fultz, then a member of the junior varsity team at high school powerhouse DeMatha Catholic.
Romar and Chillious scouted Fultz during the summer league games that preceded his junior season, then returned to check on him at DeMatha.
“When we saw him, it was a no-brainer,” said Romar. “He was going to be really, really good.”
Romar offered Fultz a UW scholarship months before Kentucky and Duke and dozens of other college basketball heavyweights did the same thing. And though Seattle was on the other side of the country from Fultz’s Maryland home, the trust he put in his future coach trumped any geographic inconveniences.
“He came to see me play at my high school in open gym, and from that day on I just loved him,” Fultz said this week.
“The way he talked to me,” said Fultz. “He told me things I needed to work on.”
Fultz’s stalled development as a player assigned to his high school’s JV team worked in Washington’s favor. It’s as if Romar and Chillious were present at the creation, and everybody else got there a little late.
“I was happy there was an offer,” Fultz said. “Back then there weren’t a lot of offers.”
Fultz has been a college student for only a couple of weeks. He’s already learned how much he misses seeing his mother every day, “but with the technology we have, it’s kind of easier.”
In any case, that traditional ailment almost all freshman out-of-state students face — homesickness — does not appear to be an issue.
“I didn’t think the people would be this friendly,” he said. “People back home go their own way and don’t say hello to you. Out here, it seems like everybody loves each other.”
That observation can be disputed, but you get the idea. Markelle Fultz is so happy to hear “hello” when he walks around the UW campus, he equates the word with love.
As for the ultimate hello, the Huskies open their season at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on Nov. 3, with an exhibition game against Western Washington. The forecast is calling for a low-pressure debut, and love in the air.