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SEATTLE – Markelle Fultz is standing at midcourt in the University of Washington’s practice gym on a mid-October day, basketball in right hand and phone in left.
He’s filming himself doing the ridiculous.
With his phone aimed at the basket behind him, Fultz flings the basketball backward over his head. A second later it rips through the net.
This is not trick photography. It’s a clean swish backward from halfcourt.
While a couple of onlookers go crazy, Fultz doesn’t say a word – he jogs a few steps, but otherwise it’s a silent reaction. Once overlooked, he’s now grown accustomed to making jaws drop whenever he’s on the court.
— UW Men's Basketball (@UW_MBB) October 19, 2016
The 18-year-old incoming freshman’s arms have outgrown the sleeves of his black hoodie, the front of which reads, “Just a kid out of Upper Marlboro.” That hints at what has happened. Fultz has a 6-foot-10 wingspan on a 6-foot-4 body, the kind of length that dilates scouts’ pupils.
A few minutes after his half-court heave ripped the net, he tries the same shot again, this time missing a foot to the left of the basket. He tries it a third time – swish. A fourth bounces off the rim, and then he’s done.
Fifty percent from halfcourt is a Steph Curry stat. But 50 percent from halfcourt backward? That’s a Markelle Fultz stat.
By the following week, Fultz had increased his range. In Washington’s American Airlines Arena, he stretched the backward shot to nearly a full-court heave.
Same result. Swish.
He’s just a kid out of Upper Marlboro, Md. But he’s also a phenom out of nowhere. Markelle Fultz is a former pipsqueak who has skyrocketed from junior-varsity ball as a high school sophomore to potentially being the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft next summer.
“It’s been surreal,” said Markelle’s mom, Ebony.
It’s certainly been a surreal journey for those who remember him as a 5-foot-9 guard at DeMatha High School. But it’s every bit as real now as the backward shot videos. In a time when no prospects come out of nowhere, Markelle Fultz pretty much did.
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Raphael Chillious is from Olney, Md., and knows everyone who is someone in the Washington, D.C., basketball scene. The Huskies associate head coach has had boots-on-the-ground intel on just about every prospect in the Delmarva area.
He was planning a recruiting visit to powerhouse DeMatha for a game during the 2013-14 season when a friend told him, “If you get here early, you may want to catch the JV game.”
Chillious came early. It was a really good decision.
There was a tiny Markelle Fultz, dishing and driving and tearing up the competition. Chillious pulled out his phone and called his boss, Lorenzo Romar.
The message: “Coach, you’ve got to get on a plane and see him. If he grows at all, he’s an NBA All-Star. Not an NBA player, but an All-Star.”
Fultz grew plenty. He grew into his feet, which were size-13 in August of his junior year, then 14s in December, then 15s as a senior. His game and reputation grew just as fast.
The mind for the game was already there – Washington was one of the few schools to recruit him as a point guard instead of a shooting guard, having been dazzled by his court awareness and basketball IQ. As a testament of belief in Fultz at that position, the Huskies didn’t recruit a single other point guard in the class of 2016.
One AAU coach told Chillious, “You guys are crazy not to have a Plan B.”
Chillious responded, “Yeah, but our crazy might get him.”
One thing no college recruiter ever had to question was Fultz’s work ethic. His commitment to continual improvement dated back to the day the DeMatha coaches told him he wasn’t quite ready for the varsity team as a sophomore.
“I was more upset with myself than with them,” Fultz said. “It shocked me a little bit, but my mom told me everything happens for a reason and to go back to work. So I went into the gym and started working on my game.
“I was just trying to get a [scholarship] offer. Any offer. I wasn’t looking at it like, ‘Oh, I want to go to Kentucky.’ “
Fultz worked with personal trainer Keith Williams, and his game progressed by giant leaps. He became a high school star and an AAU breakout performer as a high school junior.
Washington had gotten in early, and Washington never went away. And Fultz never forgot it.
Chillious recalls one giddy moment when Markelle and Ebony flew to Seattle for their official campus visit in August 2015. Romar was driving, Ebony was riding shotgun, “Coach Chill” and Markelle were in the backseat. At one point, Markelle made mention that only one school had been present at all his AAU games.
“I’m in the backseat texting Lorenzo, ‘That’s us!’ “ Chillious said. “For 2 ½ years, we never missed. When he said that I was like, ‘Us? You want us?’ I felt like Molly Ringwald in ‘Sixteen Candles’ when she gets picked up by the guy in the red Porsche.”
There was no kiss over a birthday cake after that. But the Huskies did indeed get their man.
Of critical importance in the process was recruiting Ebony with as much effort and skill as her only son. A government worker, Ebony Fultz worked tirelessly to provide for older daughter Shauntese and Markelle. She saved money to move out of an apartment and into a house, so the kids had a yard to play in, and paid tuition for Markelle to attend prestigious DeMatha.
“Sometimes things got tight – well, a lot of times things got tight,” Ebony said. “I wanted to make sure they had what they need, and a little of what they want.”
Shauntese graduated from Coppin State and then got a master’s degree in social work from Catholic University. Since Markelle was such a late bloomer athletically, his mom drilled into him the importance of academics. For a long time there was no guarantee he’d be a college basketball player – much less a five-star prospect.
“I wanted him to get a college education, and maybe not have to pay for it,” Ebony said.
When the colleges began showing up en masse to recruit Markelle, Washington had beaten most to the door. And the coaches quickly realized the importance Ebony played in Markelle’s life. During their in-home visit in Maryland, they spent time with the entire matriarchy: Shauntese, Ebony, her mom and her grandmother.
Those things all mattered when Markelle came down to decision time after official visits to Washington, Arizona and Louisville. He wanted to go someplace that his mom believed would take care of him.
“The woman has worked so hard to raise her children,” Romar said. “She did it as a single parent, and she has not sulked or whined about it. She took it head-on. If you’ve worked that hard to raise your children, you want to be sure you feel good about handing them off to somebody – especially somebody across the country.”
Said Markelle: “A big part of it was making sure my mom was comfortable with my decision. She can go to sleep at night knowing I’m OK.”
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Just a few years removed from obscurity, the new reality at times seems unreal to Markelle and Ebony Fultz. Like they can’t trust it.
It wasn’t that long ago that Markelle figured he’d be going to college to become an accountant. Now he’s a de facto basketball major with a likely graduation date of Spring 2017.
“I’m not guaranteed another day,” he said. “I don’t think ahead. Focusing everything on that day, today, has helped me. And today, I’m here in college.”
Said Ebony: “When he left for school, I told him, ‘Your mindset is to be there for four years. You go to class. Take it day by day and if you play well, we’ll sit down and make a decision when the time comes.’ “
The time is coming – a time nobody foresaw when Markelle Fultz was a 5-foot-9 JV player. He was just a kid out of Upper Marlboro then. He’s becoming a star now.