A year to the week after Markelle Fultz made his big-splash debut for the Washington basketball team, Huskies guard Jaylen Nowell began his college career Friday night with almost identical numbers on the stat sheet.
Nowell’s 32-point effort against Belmont broke the school scoring record for a freshman in his first game. It had been set last Nov. 13 by Fultz, the McDonalds All-America phenom regarded as the most ballyhooed freshman in the history of UW basketball. He torched Yale for 30 points.
But the debuts were different in one substantial way: Nowell’s team eked out a tough 86-82 victory that suggested the 2017-18 Huskies season might not be the dreary retooling project many of us anticipated. Fultz’s team gave up 98 points in a loss to Yale, foreshadowing a five-month slog so grim it cost Lorenzo Romar his job as head coach.
The firing of Romar created an immediate ripple effect across the country. Gone was the No. 1 national high-school recruit, forward Michael Porter Jr., who enrolled at Missouri. Gone, too, were such Top 100 “commits” as guard Blake Harris (Missouri), guard Daejon Davis (Stanford) and forward Mamoudou Diara (Cincinnati).
The lone holdover from Romar’s stellar recruiting class was Nowell, a Seattle resident who decided to remain on the suddenly uncertain roster inherited by new head coach Mike Hopkins. Friday could not have been scripted any better for either the Garfield High graduate or the longtime Syracuse assistant.
“One of the moments I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Hopkins said of a night distinguished by Nowell’s contribution to a rousing comeback. Taking advantage of some offensive spacing adjustments, the 6-foot-4 shooting guard scored 25 points in the second half.
At every level of organized basketball, there are guys who want the ball down the stretch of a close game, and guys who figure out a way to get lost in the wings. Nowell wanted the ball.
“Playing as much as I’ve played, you definitely have those nights where you come out and it’s like ‘I can’t miss,’ ” said Nowell, responsible for six of the eight field goals the Huskies made during the final 5:20.
Washington was trailing, 70-61, when Nowell converted the jump shot that awakened the small crowd at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. He kept launching, turning the half-empty arena into place with a full-fledged home-court advantage.
“Jaylen Nowell is a special player, and I’ve been around a lot of great players,” Hopkins said. “He’s got the eyes of a scorer. You can’t really explain it, he just does it. He gets those killer eyes.”
Hopkins, who worked alongside Hall-of-Fame coach Jim Boeheim for 22 seasons at Syracuse, was asked if he could recall watching a freshman begin his college career as impressively. Hopkins volunteered the name of Carmelo Anthony, whose brief but legendary days at Syracuse began by scoring 28 points against Memphis in 2002.
“And we lost,” Hopkins noted before answering the rest of the question: Did anybody come to mind?
“To have this type of game, in his first home game? No. He’s got a special quality,” Hopkins said of Nowell. “Some guys are really gifted and just know how to do it. Like his pull-up jump shot. Ever see a pull-up jump shot like that? Just a special player.
“Sometimes the best coaching is to stay out of the way. You have a player like that, let him do his art, know what I mean? Let him do his art.”
For all its artistry, Nowell’s exhibition against Belmont wasn’t a one-man show. Shooting guard Matisse Thybulle finished his 13-point night with five steals. Point guard David Crisp got to the free-throw line for 11 attempts, and made 10.
Carlos Johnson, a 6-4 sophomore listed as a guard but whose position might be more accurately described as a “WIT” — whatever it takes, wherever I’m needed — made the most of his 15 minutes on the floor, hitting each of his three field-goal and four free-throw attempts in addition to pulling down five rebounds.
But as the Huskies gradually solved their 43-35 halftime deficit, all eyes were on the kid who sees himself, foremast, as an overall player.
“I just came out focused on winning,” Nowell said of his second-half breakout. “Being down in the first half, I told myself I’m gonna have to make up for it. Play more defense. Get more rebounds. Get this man involved.”
He nodded to Johnson, seated next to him in the interview room.
The Huskies will take some lumps as they continue to grasp the 2-3 zone defense Hopkins has installed, and the lineup rotation — who plays where, in what situation? — is clearly unclear.
But Nowell’s modest reference about getting a teammate involved, on the same night he scored 32 points in his college debut, brought to mind the words etched on Frank Sinatra’s tombstone.
The best is yet to come.