by John Hooper
Markelle Fultz has been the hardest prospect for me to write about this year. This shouldn't be the case as he's the consensus number one overall prospect in a strong draft, and has no glaring weaknesses to his game. With that said, I can't shake the feeling that something feels off when evaluating him, not in the sense that he'll be an full-on Olowokandi-style bust, but more in that he's more CJ McCollum than James Harden. Both McCollum and Harden are great players, but only one of them is a franchise centerpiece and good enough to make not trading for Paul George or Jimmy Butler worthwhile.
Let's start with what Fultz does well. It's easy to see why Fultz has vaulted to the top of most draft boards with his impressive slash line of 23.2 / 5.7 / 5.9. Here's the list of all freshman who averaged at least a 20 / 5 / 5 line since the 1995-96 season: Markelle Fultz.
He has great size for the shooting guard spot at 6'4" with a 6'10" wingspan, and he's good athlete, which is most apparent when he's finishing in transition and when blocking shots (7th out of the 145 guards in blocks per 100 possessions). But even with his flashy numbers and highlight reel dunks, what I like most about his game is his precocious understanding of pace when attacking the defense. Similar to McCollum, he has a craftiness to his game that's a pleasure to watch.
The first thing that concerns me with Fultz's game is his free throw shooting. Fultz shot a pedestrian 64.9% from the line this year on nearly seven attempts per game. Of course it's worrisome that he's leaving a point or two on the board every game (and it's crazy how easily he could've averaged a 25 / 5 / 5 line), but the main issue here is his poor free throw shooting accuracy is a negative indicator of how good of a three point shooter he'll be in the NBA, possibly an even better than his actual three point accuracy this past year. Part of the reason for that is that a player's small sample size on shots from deep (126 attempts from three for Fultz this year) means that a player's final numbers can be easily impacted by a random hot or cold streak. Free throw percentage reduces some of this noise around small sample size and provides an additional clue in measuring a player's shooting ability. Fultz ranked 137th out of the 145 guards in our database in free throw percentage, which makes me believe that his strong 41.3% rate from three this year was an aberration instead of the norm for him going forward.
I could continue to nitpick at some of Fultz's other numbers from this year, but other than the questions about his shooting ability he's a very well-rounded player. However, even though I'm as big of a proponent of using numbers to evaluate prospects as any (obviously), I'm still a big believer in the idea that a player's intangibles play a huge part in determining the type of career that he has. With that said, there's something unsettling about a player who is historically dominant statistically going 9-16 in his 25 career games. There are obvious rebuttals available here of "but his teammates sucked" or "Lorenzo Romar is an atrocious coach", and you wouldn't be wrong to say either. However, there's something even more unsettling to me about a player who is being recruited by every school in the country and chooses to play with a terrible supporting cast and a coach affectionately known as the greatest recruiter of all time. His decision making is why I can't buy into the talk of comparing him to current MVP candidates and instead I find it much easier to picture him in a situation similar to that of Kyrie Irving early in his career as a guard with great numbers for terrible teams.
There is no Lebron in this years crop of prospects. There are some really good players but all have their flaws. Lonzo has a glaring one with the volatile situation of having LaVar Ball for a dad, but he still elevated the UCLA program to heights that it hadn't seen in years while making his teammates the best version of themselves on the court. Jayson Tatum has an achilles heel of poor shot selection, which one can only hope can be chalked up to growing pains. Only Zach Collins is perfect. Kidding. Kind of.
Fultz graded out at 91.5 overall in our algorithm and he doesn't have any holes to his game. He'll be a really good player in the league, think Brandon Roy pre-injury. But Roy was an all-star, not an MVP candidate, and Fultz is not the franchise savior that some are hoping he'll be. If you can't lead a college team to winning record, it's doubtful that things will change at the next level.