John McGrath

Markelle Fultz in the NBA Draft? Probably should have happened a year ago

Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar, right, talks with Markelle Fultz during a timeout against UCLA in February. Fultz is predicted to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft while Romar is now an assistant at Arizona.
Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar, right, talks with Markelle Fultz during a timeout against UCLA in February. Fultz is predicted to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft while Romar is now an assistant at Arizona. AP

The NBA draft on Thursday is looming as a milestone occasion at the University of Washington, which never has sent an athlete into a major pro sport as a No. 1 overall draft selection.

The Philadelphia 76ers are about to change that history by using their first-round choice on former UW guard Markelle Fultz.

Those three or four Huskies fans watching the TV show will see Fultz put on a 76ers cap and wonder how it was possible somebody announced as the best in his draft class played on a team so wretched that head coach Lorenzo Romar got fired.

That the Huskies season devolved into a train wreck had little to do with Fultz, a low-key freshman with big-time skills. Although surrounded by teammates either unable or disinclined to compete, he managed to keep the drama to a minimum.

A sore knee put Fultz on the bench during the home-stretch phase of the schedule, and with millions of dollars at stake, nobody would have blamed him for quitting on what obviously was a lost cause. But he yearned to return, and he did.

Still, through it all, Fultz knew, and Romar knew – all of us knew – an 18-year old on the cusp of a lucrative professional career did not belong in college. He belonged in the NBA, or better yet, the kind of a stepping-stone program associated with baseball’s minor leagues.

A kid leaves high school, determined to make some money for playing a game he’d play for free, and is challenged to confront the many ancillary issues in his new life. Affording young athletes a chance to deal with injuries, homesickness, an angst that creeps into doubt –all these guys are just as talented as I am? – is the essence of minor-league development.

Pro baseball figured this out decades ago. Pro basketball is still working on it.

If you’re a potential star with ambitions of advancing to basketball’s most elite level, the way to go is attending one year of college. It’s a flawed system that deprives everybody: College players not interested in academics, college fans not able to identify with the teams they once followed, and college coaches – Lorenzo Romar serves as Exhibit A – whose lessons are best appreciated over the long term.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, speaking on ESPN radio the other day, proposed a sensible solution.

Krzyzewski noted that in theater and music, “if you’re 16 and you’re really good, you go a different path” than pursuing a traditional college education.

“I really think high school payers should be allowed to go pro,” he continued before adding a subtle but substantial caveat: Those who decide not to go pro would be required to attend college at least two years.

“So you can legitimize being in college, going for an education,” Krzyzewski said. “You don’t just use the college system as a kind of training ground.”

The baseball model may not be perfect, but it’s worthy of emulation: High school players in the U.S. and Puerto Rico are free to sign contracts when their class graduates. Those who attend junior college are eligible to sign after two years, and those who go to college must wait three years.

Rules for international players do not apply, which explains how the Seattle Mariners, in 2002, signed a Venezuelan pitcher named Felix Hernandez to a contract at age 16.

Hernandez was destined to take a different path. Markelle Fultz is similarly gifted, but the NBA forced him to enroll in college for a year, presumably sitting in a classroom seat that could have occupied by an actual student.

I wish nothing but the best for Fultz, whose lone season with the Huskies – a 9-22 record, 2-16 in the conference – gave him a glimpse of what awaits him with the perpetually inept 76ers.

Nice kid, impressive talent, but he never belonged at a university where his dreams were so vastly different from everybody else in the graduating class of 2020.

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