FORT WORTH, Texas — Markelle Fultz could still taste the blood in his mouth after the game. He had been popped by an elbow coming around a screen early in Washington’s loss to Texas Christian and spend nearly 40 minutes trying to ignore the bleeding and the gauze that he replaced every timeout.
This season has now hit Fultz in the mouth literally, as well as figuratively. The 18-year-old freshman phenom is currently projected as 2017’s first overall pick by Draft Express, and he committed to Washington last season wanting to pave his own path. Instead, he saw two expected teammates jump to the NBA last year and now has witnessed his team lose back-to-back games to TCU despite Fultz’s combined 48 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists in the two games.
“It just motivates me,” Fultz said. “(It’s) something I got to learn from.”
Of course Fultz hasn’t learned it yet, because his teams have barely lost. His under-18 Team USA squad swept through its five games undefeated in the FIBA Americas this summer, and his high school DeMartha lost only four games during the regular season last year. But now in Washington, relying just on Fultz’s brilliance may not be enough.
Washington has missed the NCAA Tournament five straight years now, a frustrating showing for head coach Lorenzo Romar after three Sweet Sixteen appearances between 2005 and 2010. DeJounte Murray and Marquese Chriss were both thought to stay for their sophomore seasons, too, but both declared for the draft after late season surges.
“It was a challenge, because usually when you get a guy that’s one-and-done, you know it coming in,” Romar said. “But no one including DeJounte and Marquese knew that they were one-and-done.”
Now it’s just Fultz. During Wednesday’s game on the road against TCU, five days after facing them in Washington, it looks like Washington might have figured it out. They had lost 91-80 the previous Friday, but marched out to a 19-3 lead. Fultz was superb —he started the scoring with a turnaround jumper and followed it with a four-point play from the top of the key while pulling down seven rebounds in the first 10 minutes.
Fultz’s biggest strength is how smooth he is with a basketball. It looks completely natural and organic as Fultz filled up a box score — 14 rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block to go with his 21 points — even as TCU threw frequent double teams his way. Fultz did turn the ball over six times, a season time, but he made those mistakes — putting too much on a cross-court pass and stepping out of bounds on a baseline drive — more than TCU’s defense caused them.
But the good times and the 19-3 lead didn’t last for Washington. TCU tied it with about five minutes left in the first half, and ran away with the game about halfway through the second.
“He’s still a freshman,” Romar said. “But he’s immensely talented. He’s learning too, at the same time. He’s having a heck of a year for us right now and as our team gets better, he’s going to continue to get better.”
TCU might be better than expected, meaning Washington’s back-to-back losses won’t look quite as bad when they make their case for the tournament. But losing three games already shows that the Huskies will struggle this season. Their best hope is just what Romar said — that Fultz somehow gets better.
That sounds like a ridiculous request for someone already averaging 23 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, but that’s Fultz’s entire backstory. Three years ago as a sophomore, Fultz couldn’t even make DeMartha’s varsity squad. By his senior year, he had butted his way to the top of a loaded national recruiting class.
“When I first met him, he was a junior in high school,” Romar said. “He’s taken another jump about every three months since then and I don’t see it stopping.”
Fultz wants that, too. Sixteen NBA teams sent scouts to Fort Worth to watch him play on Wednesday, including Michael Finley and general manager Donnie Nelson from the hometown Mavericks, but he insists he doesn’t even pay attention to that.
“I always come out playing like I’m the underdog on the court,” Fultz said. “I never want anyone to catch up to me, that’s just how I look at it.”
That comes straight from his upbringing in the Maryland suburbs outside D.C.
“My mom did a good job making sure I worked for everything I got,” Fultz said. “Really, it just helped me realize the real world and how people who don’t have everything have to work for stuff.”
In three years, Fultz has developed as a pick-and-roll ball handler and improved as an athlete. Called a streaky shooter over this summer, he’s hitting 48 percent of his three-pointers so far at Washington. Fultz hasn’t really learned to lose, though. As a potential first overall pick in next year’s draft, maybe Washington is giving Fultz that chance.
Fultz is already learning. If there was any lingering frustration from this game, it didn’t show in his post-game interview. He talked about it being disappointed to lose despite playing well, and then stuck his tongue way out to show the cut in his mouth from the elbow when asked about it.
“I just felt like I had blood in my mouth the whole game,” he said. “But I just had to play through it.”