The Washington Huskies won nine men’s basketball games last season. They posted the worst conference record in the history of the program. They finished the season on a 13-game losing streak, after which they fired their coach and hired a new one.
And yet when the 2017 NBA Draft begins at 4 p.m. Thursday in Brooklyn, the Huskies will almost certainly have produced the No. 1 overall pick, an achievement never before accomplished by a UW men’s basketball player.
Markelle Fultz, the sensational guard whose one-year stop at UW was overshadowed by the team’s miserable record, is expected to be selected by the Philadelphia 76ers, who will pick first for the second consecutive season.
It was long speculated that Fultz would end up in Boston, as the Celtics won this year’s lottery for the top pick. But Boston and Philadelphia altered the landscape of this year’s draft by agreeing earlier this week to a trade that sent Philadelphia’s No. 3 overall pick – plus a future first-rounder – to the Celtics in exchange for the No. 1 overall pick.
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The 76ers would not have done that, of course, if they did not badly want Fultz, a native of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, whose reputation as a future star has grown exponentially over the last few years.
Consider his ascension: Relegated to DeMatha Catholic High’s junior varsity as a sophomore, Fultz grew from 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-4, won league MVP honors as a junior, became a 5-star recruit, committed to a struggling Washington program despite offers from college basketball’s bluebloods, was named a McDonald’s All-American, helped the Under-18 Team USA squad to victory in the FIBA Americas World Championships shortly before arriving at UW, then averaged 23.2 points, 5.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game during his only collegiate season.
That was enough to earn first-team All-Pac-12 honors, as well as third-team All-America recognition from the Associated Press. And now he is poised to become the Huskies’ first No. 1 draft pick. (The late Bob Houbregs, picked No. 3 overall by Milwaukee in 1953, is currently the highest-drafted player in school history.)
Fultz is coveted for his elite versatility and natural instincts as a scorer and distributor. He finishes well at the rim, possesses a crafty mid-range game and is an excellent 3-point shooter. His defensive intensity lagged at times during his one season at Washington – but then, so did that of each of his teammates – and he missed six of the team’s final eight games due to a knee injury. Still, there is little dispute that the unassuming, likeable guy from Maryland could be the most talented player to ever wear a Huskies uniform.
The incongruity of the school’s first-ever No. 1 pick playing for one of the worst teams in program history is surely not lost on UW supporters. Fultz’s status as the top prospect in this year’s draft only adds to the frustration felt last year, when star freshmen Marquese Chriss (No. 8 overall to Phoenix) and Dejounte Murray (No. 28 to San Antonio) were both picked in the first round despite UW missing the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive season.
That streak is now at six years, and former coach Lorenzo Romar is now an assistant at Arizona after UW fired him in March. Still, once Fultz is picked Thursday, Romar will have produced six first-round picks in the last six years, a feat unheard of at UW prior to his tenure. Of the 13 first-round picks in UW history, nine – soon to be 10 – have come under Romar’s watch. (Another fun bit of history for UW fans: the Huskies are about to have the top pick in both the NBA and WNBA drafts in the same year, as Kelsey Plum went No. 1 overall to the San Antonio Stars. What are the odds that will ever happen again?)
In Philadelphia, Fultz will join a young core that includes last year’s No. 1 pick, former LSU forward Ben Simmons; former Kansas center Joel Embiid, the No. 3 overall pick in 2014; and former Duke forward Jahlil Okafor, the No. 3 overall pick in 2015. All have battled injuries since their arrival in Philadelphia.
The 76ers haven’t had a winning record since the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12, and they haven’t won more than 28 games in any of the last four seasons. They have long asked their fans to trust “The Process” as they have stockpiled top draft picks after each miserable season.
Perhaps Fultz will be the one who makes it all worth while.