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What Makes Markelle Fultz An NBA Draft Favorite

If early reports turn out to be accurate, Markelle Fultz is headed to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers traded the third pick in this year’s draft and a protected first round pick in either the 2018 or 2019 draft to the Boston Celtics. It’s a mammoth deal for both teams, and it has ramifications for the long-term outlooks of both. But lost in the commotion of assets changing hands and the deal’s implications on other big-ticket trades are the particulars about the player at the heart of the deal: Fultz himself.

Playing in the Pacific Northwest on a nontournament team (and missing a chunk of time because of injury) made Fultz one of the most anonymous presumptive No. 1 picks in living memory. Just about every argument about the Washington Huskies guard is phrased in the subjunctive — a theoretical commodity more than a concrete set of skills. But dig down into what actually makes his game so good and it becomes obvious in a hurry that Fultz is a monster.

Fultz has been billed as a pick-and-roll playmaker, which is true but vague. He doesn’t sit up high and find long, surprising passing lanes like James Harden does, nor does he feint and jab on a defense until it cedes ground like Chris Paul does. Fultz’s game is built around his jumper and his handle. He’s a strong shooter off the dribble and a strong enough dribbler to operate in tight spaces and get to the rim, where he’s an excellent finisher. This means defenses have to crowd him wherever he is on the floor, whether it’s 25 feet from the rim or having turned the corner on a pick and roll. And if a defense sends help, he’s a willing passer to the open man, even if that means a 40-foot, cross-court pass.

The Huskies scored 109 points per 100 plays1 when Fultz passed out the pick-and-roll, including 115 points per 100 on passes to spot-up shooters. To get a sense of how much the team relied on Fultz, consider those numbers in their full context. On spot-up jumpers that weren’t set up by a Fultz pick-and-roll or taken by Fultz himself (101 points per 100 plays), the Huskies managed just 82 points per 100 plays. That’s dreadful. That would have ranked 333rd out of 351 D-I schools. But Fultz was able to draw so much attention and create such good shots for his teammates that they went from one of the worst-shooting teams in the country to one of the best when he set them up.

Not just any player commands the sort of defensive attention Fultz saw — even when he is by far the best player on his team. And what makes Fultz special is how good he is shooting off the dribble in traffic. On all pull-up jumpers, he scored 102 points per 100 plays, which is already very good. But when he was working out of the pick and roll, that number shot up to 118 points per 100 plays, as Fultz took advantage of the little bit of daylight created by the screen to get a slightly better look or to a better spot on the floor.

Having a god-tier pull-up jumper is an increasingly critical skill for NBA guards, but so is finishing at the rim. Being a genuine threat on the drive is the reason the pick-and-roll offense works — it’s what makes James Harden and Russell Westbrook nightmares for opponents and what powers the LeBron Offense in Cleveland. And Fultz scored 130 points per 100 plays when going to the rim out of pick-and-roll plays. He has a tight (though not exactly dazzling) handle — aided by a nice little hesitation/head-fake move that freezes defenders who have to respect that pullup — and he uses it to get into the lane at will.

All that said, the most spectacular offense in the league can’t do much for you if you’re giving up points at the other end. The Huskies were abysmal on the defensive end — they ranked 250th of 351 D-I men’s teams in defensive SRS — and Fultz’s personal numbers aren’t much better. He ranked in the bottom third of all D-I men’s players while defending all but one shot type, according to Synergy. But the defense Fultz plays in the NBA will be much different, mainly because the Huskies spent a lot of time in zone, and that asks players to do very different things to contest shots and deny space than pro-style defenses. But defense should still be a concern. Fultz has good physical tools — he averaged 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks per game — and he was actually quite good the few times he was isolated in man-on-man situations, but his attention away from the ball will need the same improvements as most rookies.

Fultz is a top overall prospect because he’s very, very good at things that are fundamental to the pro game — pick-and-roll playmaking, pull-up shooting, finishing at the rim. He has fewer jaw-dropping highlights as fellow prospects Lonzo Ball or De’Aaron Fox do (though he does have a few); but he has fewer holes in his game, as well. If there’s one thing that could unravel his game as a pro, it would be his shot not translating. It’s not exactly the same species of skepticism as the concern trolling over Ball’s shooting form, but there’s at least some reason to wonder if Fultz will be as lights-out from deep in the NBA. His range doesn’t extend far beyond the college line, and his release is on the slow side. Just as concerning, he shot 64.9 percent on foul shots, which ESPN Insider’s Kevin Pelton pointed out is a slightly better predictor of NBA 3-point shooting ability than college 3-point percentage on its own — and Fultz wasn’t overwhelming enough from 3 (41.3 percent) to make up for the free throws.

But the way Fultz had to manufacture his offense should also be taken into account: He practically never had an open shot he didn’t create himself. He scored 116 points per 100 plays coming off of screens, but that was largely because of the same things that make him good in pick and rolls, not effective screens. Fultz’s Washington teammates didn’t set great screens, but this is an area where he needs to improve as well. If Fultz is going to play off the ball in the NBA he’ll have to improve his feel for how to angle his runs to get the screener between the defender and the spot where he wants to catch the ball.

This of course leads back to the question of how Fultz will fit in with the Sixers. Given that early reports suggest forward Ben Simmons, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, will play a de facto point guard role for Philadelphia, an ideal fit for Fultz might be as a sort of über-Bradley Beal. John Wall handles the majority of playmaking for Washington, and Beal runs off of flare screens and other off-ball actions to free himself up for jumpers. But when Wall doesn’t have the ball, Beal runs a fair bit of pick and roll himself (despite being a weak dribbler) and generally controls the offense. A similar division of labor between Simmons and Fultz would make a lot of sense for Philly.

But that’s deeper into specifics than we need to go for now. Teams tend to find ways to make things work with players who can dribble, pass and shoot. For now, Fultz is a perfect fit for a Philly roster that needs ballhandling and shooting, and just as important, a perfect fit for the directions the NBA game is headed.

Footnotes

  1. Per Synergy Sports Technology

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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