Unless you are a diehard college basketball fan or follow a Pac-12 team, it's possible that you'll go through this entire season without ever closely watching the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
A couple times per week, Markelle Fultz takes the floor and usually puts together a superb individual effort with gaudy statistics. A couple times per week, his Washington team loses more often than not. Watch a Washington basketball game and be treated to the startling contrast between a freshman point guard who makes basketball look so easy and a team that makes basketball look harder than expected.
It's a situation that has drawn easy comparisons to Ben Simmons at LSU last year, only Washington is much farther off the radar and hasn't quite drawn the same national scrutiny in regards to its wasted season, whether it's because Fultz isn't quite as well known as Simmons or whether its even a case of West Coast bias, with Washington playing late at night. It's also because there's nothing to blame on Fultz, whose game has been almost unassailable.
LSU maintained NCAA Tournament hopes on the bubble for much of last season, but Washington's dreams of returning to the Big Dance seemed to evaporate by mid-December, making Fultz a nonfactor in the national player of the year conversation. The Huskies lost their season-opener to Yale, and a few weeks later they embarked on a four-game losing streak: back-to-back losses to TCU, in a bizarre scheduling quirk, followed by a blowout loss at Gonzaga and a home loss to Nevada. LSU offered glimpses of its potential with wins over teams like Kentucky and Texas A&M. This Washington team hasn't shown any such potential, particularly in the embarrassment at Gonzaga in which it was run out of the gym, 98-71, and allowed 23 points to its former player, transfer Nigel Williams-Goss.
Washington went just 7-5 in nonconference play with zero wins over top-200 KenPom teams, and after Wednesday night's loss at Arizona State, it is 2-6 in Pac-12 play, with one of those wins over what could be a historically bad Oregon State team.
The Arizona State game was typical. Fultz played 39 minutes. While he played a more passive distributor role early -- something Simmons was often criticized for -- he ended up shooting 11-for-23 from the field and had 28 points, nine assists, eight rebounds and two steals. The rest of the Huskies shot just 18-for-49, and Washington lost by 11 points to an Arizona State team that has a 10-11 record.
With 10 games left, Washington sits at 9-11, ranked 146th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings with particularly rough numbers on defense. While it has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2011, it has not finished a season with a losing record since going 16-17 in 2008. Barring a massive change in fortune, this team is heading straight toward a losing record, especially because it already played its only game against Oregon State and still has two games apiece left against heavyweights Arizona and UCLA. That includes a trip to Arizona on Sunday.
Last year's team went 19-15 with a senior guard, Andrew Andrews, who averaged over 20 points per game; a one-and-done top-10 pick forward, Marquese Chriss; and a one-and-done first-round pick guard, Dejounte Murray. That team fell short of the NCAA Tournament. All three are gone, and Fultz alone hasn't been able to fill the void himself, leading to team results that are bound to put 15th-year coach Lorenzo Romar on the hot seat, with the season seemingly lost already and the presumed one-year-only presence of Fultz wasted.
A late-bloomer in high school, at least for a five-star recruit, Fultz played on the JV team at powerhouse DeMatha in Maryland as a sophomore, then broke out as a junior. Washington was first in the door to recruit him, and Fultz rewarded the Huskies' persistence by signing to play in Seattle while spurning offers from national powers like Kentucky. A 6-foot-4, 195-pound point guard, Fultz was rated the No. 5 overall recruit in the class of 2016 by 247Sports' composite rankings, amid a loaded freshman class.
Like Simmons, Fultz could be a No. 1 overall pick in the draft despite not playing for an NCAA Tournament team. If Fultz is the No. 1 pick, he would also be the first college player since LaRue Martin in 1972 to play on a team with a losing record in his final season. Martin, a center for Loyola-Chicago, was on a team that went 8-14, but he was drafted by Portland with the first pick in large part because of impressive individual efforts against UCLA's Bill Walton and Marquette's Jim Chones. Martin ended up being one of the biggest draft busts of all time.
Fultz is in a different situation than either Martin or Simmons. Unlike Martin, he's a known quantity who could have gone straight from DeMatha to the NBA if it was still allowed. And while Washington is having a hugely disappointing season, Fultz doesn't have quite as much supporting talent as Simmons did. He also isn't the consensus No. 1 pick that Simmons was, thanks to stiff competition from fellow freshmen like UCLA's Lonzo Ball, Kansas' Josh Jackson, N.C. State's Dennis Smith, Duke's Jayson Tatum and Kentucky's Malik Monk and De'Aron Fox.
It's a wide-open, potentially loaded NBA Draft, and despite playing on a team with a losing record, Fultz still appears to be the best bet to be picked first, and deservedly so.
Fultz's game may not quite reach the excitement levels of the fast-paced Ball at UCLA -- Ball also benefits from much better talent around him -- but he is the total package for a point guard prospect. Fultz has enough size and can handle physical play. He's patient. He's an effective distributor who creates opportunities for teammates and anticipates openings that few other players can see. He shoots over 40 percent from 3-point range. He rebounds well. He's a solid defender. He gets the ball to the rim and can be an efficient scorer.
Fultz's 23.6 points per game rank fourth nationally and lead all players in major conferences. He's 13th nationally in assists per game. According to Sports-Reference, he joins Evan Turner and Penny Hardaway as the only players to average 20 points, six rebounds and six assists per game since 1993.
Fultz is showing no signs of letting up, as his 28 points at Arizona State broke a three-game streak of 30-point outings. His game has few weaknesses, making every Washington game a strange two hours in which Fultz is often playing at a significantly higher level than the rest of his team while also proving to be a patient floor general. In a sense, Fultz is getting fitting job training: As a top-five pick, he's likely heading for a roster that ranks near the bottom of the NBA, one that won't have immediate success as a team.
For now, there are 10 more regular-season Washington games left to enjoy. Turn on the Huskies while you can, because even though the game might not be great, Fultz is quietly putting on one of the best shows in college basketball anyway.