Why Markelle Fultz deserved better than what he got at Washington this season

SEATTLE — The first hint that Markelle Fultz might be a different kind of one-and-done prospect came last February, when the Washington Huskies hosted the 23rd-ranked Arizona Wildcats before, at that time, the largest crowd to watch a game at Hec Edmundson Pavilion in four years.

Fultz, a five-star, all-everything guard who prepped at DeMatha Catholic High School in Maryland, had long ago decided to play for the Huskies. He committed to UW the previous August, then signed a binding national letter of intent a little more than two months later. He shut his recruitment down thereafter.

So there was nothing more for Fultz to see when he boarded an airplane, by himself, to attend that game against Arizona. It wasn’t a recruiting trip. There was no elaborate meal planned, no please-come-to-our-school pitch to hear from the coaches. He just wanted to see his future team play in a packed arena, badly enough to fly across the country after playing a late game on the east coast, then fly back home right after the Huskies were done.

“The beauty of Markelle Fultz is, with all the recognition, all the accolades he’s received, he is so bought into Washington basketball,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said a few days later. “He’s so bought into it. I think he just prodded and prodded and finally, ‘I’ve got to get out there.’”

Fultz, now the Pac-12’s leading scorer and the projected No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft, has not announced whether he will leave UW after his freshman year, but he doesn’t have to. Lottery-pick status and millions of dollars await him in the not-too-distant future. It would be fiscally irresponsible to return for his sophomore season. And so it is fair to assume that, barring the shock of a lifetime, the next few weeks — trips to Washington State, UCLA, USC and the Pac-12 tournament — will be Fultz’s last in a Huskies uniform.

He will leave, in some ways, an awkward legacy. Watch him for 10 minutes and it’s clear he’s one of the most talented players in UW history. He was hyped as such, and turned out to be every bit of what Romar insisted he would be: 23.2 points per game, 5.9 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 41.3 percent on 3-pointers. He can handle the ball, shoot from mid-range and rip dunks worthy of SportsCenter’s nightly top 10. The first time UW assistant coach Raphael Chillious saw Fultz play, as a sophomore on DeMatha’s junior-varsity team, he predicted he would be an NBA All-Star. After watching him for a year at Washington, there is little reason to think he won’t be.

And yet the Huskies (9-18, 2-13 in Pac-12) are awful, likely destined for their worst league record in at least 16 years, maybe longer. Barring a miraculous run in the Pac-12 tournament, their season will end, again, without a trip to the NCAA tournament. Casual fans can appreciate Fultz’s brilliance apart from his team’s failure. But diehards wonder if this was all worth it, bringing Fultz here for one season just to have it turn out like … this. A recent study by Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News posited the question of whether Fultz is the best player on the worst team in Pac-12 history. The data pointed to an overwhelmingly obvious conclusion: yes, he is, and it isn’t particularly close.

It would seem, then, that Fultz should be excluded when the time comes for individual criticism of Washington’s players. Yet he seems to bear the brunt of it. Pac-12 Networks analysts Don MacLean and Kevin O’Neill have each derided Fultz’s body language, O’Neill calling him “soft” and “low energy,” criticism that Romar disputed and Fultz said he found comical.

When Fultz sat out two games with a sore knee, UW’s poor record and Fultz’s status as a likely one-and-done led some fans to the conclusion that Fultz was simply packing it in, content to sit for the rest of the season to avoid injury and maintain his draft stock.

Those assertions — proven false when Fultz returned, still not feeling 100 percent, to play 68 minutes last week in games against Arizona State and Arizona — seemed to chafe Romar the most.

“Those were very, very disappointing to me, because there was no basis for that,” Romar said. “And if you know Markelle Fultz, and know how much he loves to play, and know how loyal he is … and he came back and he’s played, which shows that those comments were totally out of line.”

Indeed, that isn’t Fultz’s style. Aside from his talent, there is nothing one-and-done about him. He does not view college basketball as a one-year annoyance. He has never criticized his teammates or his coaches, never turned down an interview request. When he was hurt, he helped rebound for teammates during warmups. When he was held out of practice earlier this season to rest his sore body, he helped hand out water.

Chillious jokes that Fultz is like “an old lady,” reminding his roommates to be home by a decent hour when they go out at night. When the UW women’s team played NCAA tournament games in Maryland last season, Fultz and his mother attended. When the Huskies lost a close game to Arizona on Saturday, Fultz had tears in his eyes during his postgame interview.

“Markelle has laid it all out on the line this year for this team, for this program, this university,” Romar said. “He is a guy that has taken school seriously all year and is still taking school seriously. He is a guy that, as I’ve said many times, has not come in with a sense of entitlement, ‘you owe me.’ He has not come in with the attitude of, ‘I’m going to rent out your program for a little bit.’ He’s been totally invested. He’s been all in.”

On that February day last season, after the Huskies had lost a hard-fought, 77-72 decision to Arizona — not unlike their defeat last weekend — Fultz stuck around for a bit afterward, playfully dribbling and shooting baskets with the young son of UW assistant coach Will Conroy.

After the Conroys went home, Fultz continued to shoot 3-pointers, chasing down his own misses in an empty arena, before leaving the building by himself, headed back to the airport for a long flight home.

Through no fault of his own, Fultz’s likely departure from the University of Washington might be just as quiet. He could have played anywhere — Kentucky, Louisville, Arizona, you name it — but he chose to play for the Huskies, never complaining throughout a season more miserable than anyone could have anticipated.

In the end, Fultz will be fine. He knew what he was getting into at Washington, and he will soon be paid millions of dollars to play basketball for a living. But he deserved better than what he got here. And he also deserves to be remembered fondly for how well he wore it, happy to be a Husky — one-and-done or not — in spite of a disaster he had nothing to do with.