DeMatha coach Mike Jones is pleading with Markelle Fultz to smile for a team picture after his star point guard powered a 65-56 victory over Ohio's St. Vincent-St. Mary's in the Chicago Elite Classic on Saturday afternoon. Fultz has every reason to be happy following his 23-point, six assist performance against LeBron James' alma mater, but the senior remains reluctant. Teens will be teens.
When Fultz finally relents, he reveals a smile lined in braces. The braces are fitting for Fultz's boyish face that lacks even the hint of stubble, but they also serve to keep things in perspective. With NBA size for his position at 6'4 and a shiftiness to his game that belies the composure he plays with, it's easy to forget that Fultz is still so young.
Scouts do not care about Markelle Fultz's teeth. They see a point guard with absurdly long arms (his wingspan has been measured at 6'9) and huge hands who's still growing into his body. They also see a player with an impossibly smooth game who can create for himself or his teammates off the dribble and is quick enough to get to the rim against anyone.
Perhaps no player in the class of 2016 has done more to improve his stock over the last two years than Fultz. His meteoric rise from JV as a sophomore to 5-star recruit as a senior landed him No. 12 in ESPN's class of 2016 rankings. He committed to Washington in August over offers from Kentucky, North Carolina and everyone else. It doesn't stop there: DraftExpress already has him projected as the No. 6 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. He's hesitant to acknowledge the attention, but he knows it's there.
"I don't let it get over my head, but there's definitely a fire in my body telling me to work hard," Fultz said after the game. "It's always good to see what people think but you can't go off paper. You got to work hard to get what you want."
Fultz showed off his gifts during a dominant fourth quarter on Saturday. He opened the period with a three-pointer to put DeMatha up two, then dished out a pair of beautiful assists to teammates on the ensuing possessions. He capped off the run with another three just to make sure St. Vincent-St. Mary's had no chance of mounting a comeback.
Some elite recruits build their stock because their bodies simply mature faster than their peers. Fultz has a natural feel for the game and a point guard's poise that suggests his ascent is only starting.
Coach Jones has seen lots of great talent come through DeMatha during his time at the D.C. prep powerhouse. He coached Orlando Magic star Victor Oladipo as well NBA brothers Jerian and Jerami Grant, not to mention players like Adrian Dantley and Danny Ferry who starred at the school in the '70s and '80s. He did not expect Fultz to one day be in that category, because no one did.
Just two years ago, Jones decided Fultz wasn't good enough to play varsity as a sophomore. So how does a player go from JV to 5-star recruit in two years?
"Dumb coaching," Jones joked after the game. "You can say the coaches didn't make the right decision. What's happened with him, I don't think any of us could have predicted. We all had a plan that JV would be the best thing for his development, but he just took that and ran with it.
"We're all just so proud of how hard he worked. To say we're going to do that to another sophomore next year and he's going to be the next Markelle Fultz would be just foolish on our part. He's almost a once a career type situation."
Like so many others, Fultz's rise started with a growth spurt. Jones says he shot up four or five inches from the end of his freshman year to the beginning of his junior year. When his grassroots team DC Blue Devils joined the Under Amour league, Fultz's exposure sky rocketed. At every major event he attended, he impressed scouts more and more.
What makes Fultz's breakout even more striking is how deep and talented the national class of 2016 is, especially at the point guard position. Between Dennis Smith (N.C. State), De'Aaron Fox (Kentucky), Lonzo Ball (UCLA) and combo guards like Malik Monk (Kentucky), Kobi Simmons and Frank Jackson (Duke), it's not easy to crack the elite group at the top of the 2016 rankings.
So what makes Markelle Fultz worthy of being in such esteemed company?
"He has a unique ability to score combined with big time athleticism and an improving jumper," said Brian Snow, a national basketball recruiting analyst for Scout. "He can pass, too. Now, over the summer, he had to score a lot because he was far and away his team's best player. But he's an unselfish kid by nature. So just the fact that he has a total game has helped his stock soar significantly and is why he's regarded as one of the best players in the country."
Fultz insists he picked Washington because he wanted to blaze his own trail rather than blend in with a collection of five-stars at a place like Kentucky. The Huskies have a strong freshman class this season, led by shooting guard Dejounte Murray, who Fultz says he can't wait to play with. He should get the keys to the Huskies offense from the moment he steps on campus, and if he plays as well as everyone expects, it might be a short stay.
Life comes at you fast for elite basketball recruits in Fultz's position. In one year you can go from graduating high school to preparing for the NBA draft. That's the trajectory Fultz is on. If he continues to progress at this rate, he might want to get more comfortable smiling for the cameras. He'll only have more photos to pose for.