USA Basketball's U18 team found itself in an unfamiliar position in the finals of the FIBA Americas Championship last weekend: Canada was actually putting up a fight. Team USA faced little resistance on its march to the championship game, clubbing Brazil by 44 points in the semifinals and winning their first four contests by an average of 34.5 points. That changed in the gold medal game, as Canada clawed within two with five minutes left.
That's when Markelle Fultz took over. Fultz drove baseline for a tough layup to put the U.S. up four, then sliced through the defense off a baseline out-of-bounds play for a bucket on the next possession. He helped ice the championship by grabbing a late rebound, pushing the ball up court and dishing to teammate Michael Porter Jr. for a dunk.
"There's a couple guys I've seen over the years who get better when there's more pressure and more at stake, and he's one of them," BJ Johnson, assistant director of USA Basketball, told SB Nation. "I heard a comment on the bench from one of the players to just put the ball in his hands. When you have that level of respect from a group of kids that can really play, he's in a great situation to be a natural leader."
Fultz was named the MVP of the tournament for his efforts, averaging 13.8 points, 5.2 assists and 3.2 steals per game on 54.7 percent shooting from the floor. It was the perfect cap for a pre-college career that took him on a remarkable rise from a player who couldn't make DeMatha High's varsity team as a sophomore to one of the special talents at the top of the 2016 recruiting class.
Fultz is now off to Washington, and the NBA will be watching. He's currently projected as the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft by DraftExpress. Fultz looks like the prototypical lead guard with great size (6'4 with a nearly 6'10 wingspan), vision and the gift of creativity to make plays for himself and others. It was all on display at FIBA Americas.
"He can almost see plays before they happen," Johnson said. "You can see the game slow down for him."
We'll start with Fultz's burst. He doesn't have the extraterrestrial power of Russell Westbrook, but he's a fluid athlete who moves well on both sides of the ball. He should have a size advantage on anyone who can match his speed and a speed advantage on anyone who can match his size. Fultz showcased the ability to turn defense-to-offense throughout the USA's run to gold and has no problem finishing when he's in the open court:
Where Fultz truly shines is as a playmaker. He's creative without being careless, showing an innate ability to find teammates thanks to his special combination of vision and height.
Fultz's defining quality as a ball handler is how smooth he is with the ball, and it manifests itself in an ability to create separation in tight spaces. He's able to leverage every sliver of room to his advantage whether he's finishing the play himself or finding an open teammate. He was good for a couple passes every game that demanded to be watched again:
Fultz will have work to do as a shooter, as is the case for many young players. He made 6 of 18 threes during FIBA Americas, good for 33.3 percent. While he's not a knockdown shooter yet, his stroke does show promise. He rarely rushes his shot and has a high release thanks in part to his length.
Fultz doesn't have the fastest release on his shot, but the ball looks natural coming out of his hand. His jumper is still a work in progress, but he does seem to have more potential as a shooter than the other top point guards potentially available in the 2017 NBA Draft. He's more capable of hitting an outside shot than De'Aaron Fox or France's Frank Ntilikina and his form is a lot more fluid than Lonzo Ball's.
It was evident that Fultz also just has a nose for the ball that can't be taught. He led the tournament in steals per game and poked away multiple loose balls that won't show up in the box score. It was like the ball had a magnet pulling him to it on both ends of the court:
Fultz is very much still growing into himself and into his game. He's 15 months younger than Josh Jackson, the only player ahead of him in our first look at the 2017 draft. He has massive hands and feet -- he wears a size-15 shoe -- and wore braces on his teeth into his senior year.
There's one thing those who have watched Fultz's progression can agree on: there's no obvious pro comparison for his talent. Guards with his vision do not have his size, and guards with his size rarely have his speed.
"He's so unique," Johnson said. "Instead of comparing him to someone else I think we'll be comparing people to him one day."
Johnson was astonished at how much better Fultz has gotten every step of the way, which is a common refrain from scouts. From his breakout summer heading into senior year to his play in the All-Star game circuit to his MVP run in his first ever USA Basketball competition, Fultz's game is improving rapidly. If you've been paying attention, no one will be surprised at what comes next at Washington and beyond.