Asked to navigate an offense with very little spacing, alongside teammates that weren't particularly talented, experienced, organized, or suited for complementing his strengths and weaknesses, Markelle Fultz had a fantastic freshman season from an individual standpoint, but finished with a dismal 9-22 record.
The team struggled in particular defensively, where they showed very little fight and didn't look well-versed in slowing down opponents' schemes, finishing 228th in the nation in defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy.
Fultz was nevertheless voted to the Pac-12's First Team All-Conference, as well as the All-Freshman team, after averaging a scintillating 25 points, 6.3 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks per-40. He had the highest PER of any freshman in the country, and the 12th highest PER for an 18-year old in the past 16 years.
Fultz has ideal physical tools for a point guard, standing 6'4 (possibly 6'5) in shoes with a massive 6'10 wingspan. He has big hands, a strong frame, and a shifty, herky-jerky style athlete who is quick off his feet and can play above the rim in space.
Here's a closer look at the strengths Fultz displayed throughout his time at Washington:
Fultz is a tantalizingly gifted shot-creator, sporting an extraordinary combination of body control, ball-handling, footwork and pace. He changes speeds, directions and uses both hands innately, spinning off opponents, splitting ball-screens frequently, and finishing with euro-steps. He combines his ability to get wherever he wants on the floor with outstanding shot-making prowess off the dribble, making 42% of his pull-up jumpers on the season, with his 1.02 PPP ranking second best among draft prospects.
At his best with the ball in his hands, Fultz ranked as the second most efficient prospect in college basketball in pick and roll situations, both as a passer or scorer, according to Synergy Sports Technology. He is highly creative and unselfish in terms of getting teammates easy baskets, and enjoyed quite a bit of success as a distributor despite not having ideal talent around him or enjoying great spacing, often sharing the floor with two non-shooting big men.
Fultz's 36% assist percentage ranks second best in this draft behind only Jawun Evans, and he doesn't turn the ball over excessively at 13.3%. He will look even better in the NBA when surrounded with better spacing and more shooters around him, as he uses both hands to distribute, sees the weak-side and strong side equally effectively thanks to his outstanding size, court vision and super high basketball IQ.
As good as Fultz is on the ball, he also has significant potential operating alongside another ball-handler with his excellent size, length and frame, giving his future NBA coach plenty of lineup flexibility. He made 38% of catch and shoot jumpers on the season according to Synergy, and even shows some budding ability to come off screens and rise up smoothly to create separation.
With all that said, Fultz still has plenty of room for development as all 18-year olds do, and will need to make some adjustments in the NBA to fulfilling his tremendously high upside.
He has a very casual approach to the game, which manifests itself on both ends of the floor, and makes him look like he's operating at half speed at times. Offensively, he has a tendency to get too cute at times with his finishes inside the paint, passes and shot-selection, as he takes a lot of tough, contested looks in the mid-range area, and finished the season shooting just 50% from 2-point range. He will turn the ball over at times trying to get too fancy with his moves or passes, attempting to thread the needle for impossible highlight reel passes.
As impressive as Fultz's shot-making ability (and 42% 3P%) as a freshman was, there are some concerns about his 65% free throw percentage, which suggest he may be prone to streakiness in larger sample sizes (he played just 25 games in college). His shooting mechanics aren't always the same, as he has a slight pause at the top of his release at times, and can still speed up the quickness in which he gets his catch and shoot jumper off in spot-up situations.
Here's a closer look at the weaknesses Fultz displayed throughout his time at Washington:
Fultz struggled to maintain his effectiveness against better competition, as his offensive efficiency took a significant tumble in the games he played against elite-level opponents. He had a more difficult time turning the corner and getting into the paint in these games seemingly, and saw his shooting percentages drop to 48% from 2 and 38% for 3, while his assist to turnover ratio declined. Many of these games ended in blowouts, so it's difficult to surmise how much we can take away from them.
The one area Fultz will undoubtedly have to improve significantly in the NBA is on the defensive end. He actually has the tools to be very effective here, as his size, strength, length, agility and instincts give him an excellent foundation to build off. He showed the ability to sit down in a stance, slide his feet and be fairly impactful in spurts, and is already quite a playmaker in terms of his ability to get in the passing lanes and come up with blocks thanks to his tremendous anticipation skills.
Fultz just hasn't demonstrated the mentality or fundamentals needed to be anywhere near consistent in this area. His intensity level can be incredibly low here at times, as he loses his focus easily, doesn't get in a stance, shows poor technique on closeouts, and will look very lazy getting back on defense. NBA teams will have to ask themselves how much of this was due to his situation, on a team that has struggled defensively for years before his arrival, and how much was due to him? The answer is likely a mix of the two, and this is undoubtedly something Fultz will have to work on, with a strong coaching staff and veteran teammates that will push him to realize his potential on this end of the floor.
Fultz is arguably the player with the highest upside in the draft, and is strong contention for the #1 pick along with Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum. NBA teams picking at the top of the draft will have to reconcile his terrific talent-level with the dismal season he had at Washington, and try to conclude how likely he is to help them win games in the immediate future, as well as long term.