FORT WORTH – LSU’s Ben Simmons was considered the best freshman in college basketball season but those bandwagon fans who follow the sport only during March Madness never saw him play.
Washington’s Markelle Fultz could become this season’s version of Ben Simmons. The 6-foot-4 freshman guard is playing for a team that has lost consecutive games to TCU, a team picked to finish at the bottom of the Big 12 Conference.
An odd scheduling quirk had the Frogs beating Washington last Saturday in the Global Sports Classic in Las Vegas and then hosting the Huskies Wednesday in a regularly-scheduled game. TCU improved to a surprising 7-0 by digging itself out of a 22-5 hole to start the game to post an 86-71 victory – a two-point improvement on the margin of victory in the previous contest.
“Strange situation, strange game,” TCU first-year coach Jamie Dixon said. “We worked hard to get behind and we worked hard to come back. We’re still a work in progress. We’re getting confident but we’ve got to handle things well.”
Fultz stuffed the stat sheet. He came in leading Washington (4-3) in minutes, points and assists plus ranked second in rebounding and 3-point shots. Against the Frogs, he played 34 minutes with 21 points, 14 rebounds and six assists. But he also had six turnovers, the high number for a team that finished with 25.
“His size, his athleticism, his ability to shoot it and drive it … it’s pretty amazing to see him develop,” Dixon said. “we’ve played against guards as good as him when I was coaching in the Big East and the ACC but I don’t think I’ve seen a freshman guard as good as he is.
“One thing that separates him is his patience. He plays with pace, he can change speeds to get where he wants to go. That’s what makes him hard to guard.”
Fultz is a phenom who three years ago was an unknown. How unknown? Like Michael Jordan, Fultz was cut by the varsity and played junior-varsity as a sophomore for powerhouse DeMatha High School. Raphael Chillious, the Huskies’ associate head coach, followed a tip and checked out a DeMatha jayvee game to see Fultz. He immediately messaged Romar to say Fultz had the potential to be an NBA All-Star.
Chillious’ caveat – Fultz had to grow. He did, sprouting from 5-foot-9 to his current 6-foot-4 with a wing span of 6-foot-10. And Fultz maintained the feel for the game he developed as a sprite and chose to make the cross-country journey to Seattle because Washington promised he would play point guard.
“I thought, I don’t care who has not offered him or what anybody says – call him a 2 or a 3 – that kid is an NBA point guard,” Romar told ESPN.com after watching Fultz in high school. “The way he moved, the feel he had …you could just see it.”
The challenge for Romar and Washington – which hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2011 – will be overcoming inexperience. There’s just one senior on the roster that has four freshmen and four sophomores.
Fultz, who appears much more engaged and competitive than Simmons was last season, will face a huge task of assimilating himself to the college game while his teammates are going through a similar process.
“He’s still a freshman, but he’s immensely talented,” Romar told the Dallas Morning News after the game. “He’s learning, too, at the same time. He’s having a heck of a year for us right now. And as our team gets better, he’s going to continue to get better.”
Over a dozen NBA scouts were in attendance … and there’s little doubt they took advantage of Washington’s visit to the Dallas/Fort Worth area to check out Fultz.
“He knows they’re there,” Romar said. “It’s not like he comes down the court and shoots it every time and plays for the scouts. A lot of times people want him to be even more aggressive and shoot the ball more. He’s goes out there and plays to win. He’s not playing for the scouts.”
Fultz’s talent, potential and inexperience were on display in just the first 14 minutes of the first half. As the Huskies mushed their way to a 22-5 lead, the freshman was in the middle of the opening salvo.
Fultz forced a steal, went half the court and then to the deck to come away with the loose ball that led to a teammate’s free throws. His spin move down the lane led to a pass for Dominic Green’s 3-pointer then on the next possession, Fultz broke ankles with a cross over to free himself for his own three.
But Fultz also picked up two careless fouls and committed five turnovers in the first half that partially contributed to TCU overcoming its early deficit.
Fultz’s sudden fame will make him a marked man during every road game. When he was shooting free throws with 12:20 remaining, the TCU student section started the clichéd “over-rate-ed” chant. It lasted for just that possession.
“He (Fultz) is a great player,” said TCU guard Alex Robinson, who had nine points during the Frogs’ 18-0 run to turn the game in the first half. “He’s really poised and you don’t see that much from a freshman. When we took the lead, his facial expression never changed, he just keeps playing.”
The Frogs have five more non-conference games, with the biggest challenge at SMU on Dec. 7, before starting Big 12 play. Against 12-time defending champion Kansas.
“Our attitude is tremendous and I’m so lucky to be coaching this team,” said Dixon, whose team had four in double figures and nine play 11 or more minutes. “They’ve been well-coached before, they’re disciplined. We’ve got good depth and chemistry. We’ve got good players and I’m excited about our depth.”