A few months of added perspective have cemented the notion that the 2016-17 college basketball season is destined to be remembered as an unsatisfying campaign. Disagreement may come from fans decked out in Carolina Blue or those who had waited over a decade for Gonzaga’s Final Four breakthrough, but for everyone else, there is significant evidence to back up our case.
First there was Duke, the preseason No. 1 that dealt with too many injuries (both player and head coach) and off-the-court distractions (hi, Grayson) to ever make a real run at being the “superteam” so many were predicting them to be at the start of the year. There was a so-so regular season followed by a March that was noticeably lacking in madness. There was, at least, a national championship game perfectly set up to be one of the most memorable in the sport’s history. The whistles robbed us of all that, and a whistle that wasn’t blown in the final minute robbed us of a last chance for the game to be saved.
Then there was Markelle Fultz.
Say what you want about the one-and-done era, but it’s afforded college basketball fans the opportunity to spend four months each winter watching a few of the most talented players in the world compete at a level they would have totally bypassed a decade earlier. In the 1990s, we never would have gotten to see Anthony Davis win a national title at Kentucky, watch Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor usher in a new era of Duke basketball, hear Kevin Durant talk about how much he embraced the college experience.
Then there is Markelle Fultz.
It feels strange, almost wrong, to talk about Fultz in terms that paint him as something of a mystery. After all, we’re discussing someone who was a consensus top-10 recruit in the country coming out of high school. Someone who has held his spot at the top of 2017 mock drafts across the internet for about 12 months now. Someone with enough ability to make the Philadelphia 76ers believe he’s worth giving up a significant amount to trade up and select first overall on Thursday night.
NBA scouts and executives know how good Fultz is. Those with access to his highlight films and the desire and time to watch them do too. For everyone else, Fultz might be the most unfamiliar No. 1 pick since Kwame Brown and Andrea Bargnani were hearing their names called first at the beginning of the century.
Fultz’s Washington Huskies were eliminated from the 2016-17 national conversation before Christmas. They opened the season with an embarrassing home loss to Yale, then were dealt four consecutive defeats between Nov. 26 and Dec. 11. The third of those was a humiliating, 98-71, nationally televised thumping at the hands of Gonzaga, in which it became apparent that despite Fultz’s talents, U-Dub wasn’t going to have a major impact on college basketball during his stay.
On Jan. 18, Washington pulled out an 85-83 home victory over Colorado in overtime. It was the last game they would win all season. The Huskies’ 2-16 conference record was its worst ever mark as a member of the Pac-12, and its nine total wins at the end of the season were three fewer than the Washington football team had won. Head coach Lorenzo Romar was fired after the season, leading to a mass exodus of current players and committed recruits. Included in that group was the No. 1 overall player in the class of 2017, Michael Porter Jr., who will now suit up for Missouri in 2017-18.
Despite all this, Fultz’s path has remained unaffected. He arrived at college last summer expecting to hear his name called first overall in the next year’s NBA draft, and on Thursday he will have that vision realized.
If Fultz’s story seems familiar, it’s because we saw essentially the same scenario play out the year before.
Ben Simmons stunned everyone in late 2014 when he strayed from the norm and signed with LSU, a power-conference program without a great deal of recent success. As was the case with Fultz and Washington, the Simmons experiment in Baton Rouge did not go according to plan. Though LSU managed to stay near the national spotlight for much longer than Washington did — shoutout to ESPN for the assist there —- the result was ultimately the same: The Tigers never appeared to play anything resembling motivated basketball, they missed out on the NCAA tournament, and a year later, their head coach was looking for a new job.
Three months after he had packed up and left his college apartment in the middle of the spring semester, Simmons was selected No. 1 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers.
A quick look at Scout’s top 100 players for the class of 2017 would indicate that teenage phenoms across the country have been paying attention the past couple of years. In addition to Porter Jr. going to Missouri, second-ranked Mohamed Bamba is headed to Texas, sixth-ranked Collin Sexton will suit up for Alabama, and eighth-ranked Mitchell Robinson will spend a year in Bowling Green playing for the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky.
Only two players ranked in the top 15 of the 2018 class have committed to colleges. One to Auburn, which hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2003, and the other to Arkansas, which hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 1996.
Kentucky’s John Calipari was the first to preach the sentiment now echoed by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski: “Come play one season for us and then hear your name called early in the NBA draft. Look at all these other guys who have done it.”
They haven’t been lying.
Now, the experiences of Simmons and Fultz have put out a new message that could grow in strength as we dive into the second decade of the one-and-done era: “Play wherever you want and lose as much as you want for a few months. If you’re good enough at what you do, it’s not going to matter a damn bit.”
That message isn’t any less true than Coach Cal’s or Coach K’s.
That might not be the lasting impact college basketball fans would have preferred to see supreme talents like Fultz and Simmons make on the sport, but it’s still an impact.