Markelle Fultz, Four Years Later.

Four years ago — on this day — was the first time I ever saw Markelle Fultz play basketball. He broke his wrist, and was back in the gym the next day.

I jotted the name down on my notepad and seared it into my memory. I remembered it right away; partially because it was the first time I’d ever seen “Markelle” spelled that way, but mainly because I had never heard his name before.

At that time, I knew everyone’s name. For about a year and a half, Maryland and D.C. high school basketball was my life. I ran a website about it, I helped run tournaments, I was launching a regional scouting service. All that said, I could not believe there was a kid with legit game that I hadn’t yet heard about.

“Oh, he played JV this year? That’s why.”

But Keith Williams — his trainer, and one of the most well-known and respected figures in the DMV basketball community—told me this kid was the real deal, so I took his word for it. I put “this Fultz kid” on the top of a 15U “Others to Watch” list for our 2013 DMVelite Invitational in Bowie (Md.) City Gym—the first time his name ever appeared in any sort of media coverage—and I jotted his name down on that yellow notepad.

Tomorrow, four years and a day later, I will hear a man tell me Markelle Fultz’ name again.

This time, it won’t be for a watch list, and it won’t be his trainer.

This time, it will be Adam Silver — and he will be telling me that Markelle Fultz’ is the first overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.

— — —

I won’t lie; I wasn’t all that impressed the first time. The kid was good, but he was a bit small (maybe 5’10 at the time), didn’t score much, and seemed like he floated a bit too much.

He had a couple things going for him, though: he was long, moved well, and had a nice first step. Near the end of the first half, he started to turn it on. A couple buckets, a steal and transition assist. I thought he was decent, and Marcus Helton — my colleague at DMVelite and the DMV’s foremost hoops expert — was really impressed, and asked if we should consider putting together a brief write-up on him for our event notebook.

And then Markelle Fultz broke his arm.

Well, it was actually his wrist. But if you ask some people, he broke his arm; that’s the story we all have gotten used to telling. The details are all a bit foggy now, but I guess that’s how legends are grown.

He’s not wearing New Balance anymore…

Fast forward to September; I had just finished up my first month of college at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I was back in Maryland for our first-ever DMVelite 80, a one-day showcase event pitting the Top 80 players in the DC/Baltimore/Northern Virginia area against each other, regardless of high school or shoe brand affiliation.

At the time, this was a novel concept, and the event was LOADED.

Our invite list included five-star recruits, future NBA players (Chinanu Onuaku), guys who would go on to win League POY and All-American honors (Melo Trimble), national champions (Phil Booth), a handful of thousand-point college scorers, and more.

The day turned out to be everything we could have asked for, and then some. But a few invited players didn’t show up, including Onuaku and a handful of borderline D1 guards.

There was also one guy whose name wasn’t on the invite list, but showed up anyway. Actually, he showed up an hour early. Who does this kid think he is?

His name was Markelle Fultz.

He had recovered from his wrist injury, looked a slight bit bulkier, and wait…did he grow a couple inches, too? I could have sworn he was only 5’10.

As these things go, the details are all a bit foggy, but Markelle had either shown up to support his friends in the event, or because one of our DMVelite organizers—Mike White, another big name on the DMV hoops scene—told Keith he’d be able squeeze Markelle in that morning.

As the (self-appointed) unofficial head of player selection for the event, I wasn’t having any of it.

This was a big deal to me; my first event. I’d been laboring over these player selections for months. I had a color-coded Google Doc with depth charts and rankings and date of last contact. I obsessed over every tiny detail and potential matchup, and even enlisted a new friend at UNC to help me match up jersey sizes to player heights. It bordered on insanity, but I insisted: everything had to be perfect.

We set a very basic ground rule when it came to player selection: eligible players needed at least one Varsity HS season of playing experience and one summer at the 15U-17U under their belt. This ensured a fair evaluation method, and excluded rising freshmen.

Mike, Keith, Marcus, and our CEO Chris Lawson somehow convinced me (told me?) to ease up, and DeMatha’s JV point guard broke the rules.

Markelle Fultz — future No. 1 NBA Draft pick — grabbed one of the extra jerseys, jumped in, and got after it. None of us gave it a second thought.

Markelle held his own at that event against the biggest names in the DMV and the country. He put himself on the map with the 50 or so local hoops junkies in Prince George’s County, but that was about it. I went back down to Chapel Hill, Marcus kept his eye on him and hundreds of other local players in fall leagues, and that was that.

In December, I returned to PG County for a strong high school showcase tournament we had organized; DeMatha was the headliner. Fultz was nowhere to be found. I asked Marcus about it…turns out the kid who turned heads at our marquee September showcase was back on JV for another year.

“Damn, JV again?” I remember saying to myself. “What a bad look for our event.”


— — —

That season, he faded from memory a bit, but was back with his DC Blue Devils squad for the summer season, this time with a healthy wrist. Marcus reminded me of him and suggested we throw him on the DMVelite 80 watch list before the summer began. Sure, why not.

He dominated with the Blue Devils at 16U, and played up an age group with the vaunted DC Premier 17U squad in Las Vegas to end the summer. That’s when the chatter really began. DePaul, Xavier, Cincinatti. “Washington?”

Nevertheless, he earned his spot at the DMVelite 80 that year. There was a jersey waiting for him this time, and he was ready to rock:

For the second year in a row, he showed up an hour early. For the second year in a row, DeMatha’s JV point guard broke the rules.

But this time, he more than held his own. He owned it.

— — —

You know what happens next — the rest is history. No matter what Markelle does in his NBA career, his story will live on in DMV hoops lore forever.

He joined the fabled DeMatha Stags varsity program for the entirety of his junior season, and — true to form—he owned it.

Markelle tore up the toughest high school basketball league in the country (WCAC), and then dominated every event in which he appeared on the whirlwind summer basketball circuit. His senior season, he did it all again.

Every award, honor and accolade you could think of…Markelle pretty much won them all. I don’t need to tell that part of this story.

So what gives? How did this kid go from 5-foot-10 kid in a hot gym in Bowie to the supposed savior of an NBA franchise…in four years?

From a basketball perspective, it’s fairly straightforward. Markelle had a trainer (Keith Williams) who pushed him to his limits, and then Markelle went ahead and redefined those limits for himself.

He was part of arguably the nation’s best, most storied high school basketball program, and got his lumps in every day in practice for four years. His work ethic in the gym made him one of the few players prepared to dominate a summer circuit from start to finish, and then continue that momentum into his senior year. And it certainly helped that he grew from a lanky 5’10 to a legit 6’4-plus and filled out his frame a bit. It helped that his legs got stronger and he could get more lift on his jumper.

It also helped that he had people in his corner. That his mother has always had a vision for him. That his high school coach, Mike Jones — yes, the one who kept him on JV for two years— truly had his back on and off the court. And it helped that the local coaches and hoop heads and dads and moms and youth of basketball-crazy PG County lifted him up and supported him, rather than tearing him down.

And to pull back a layer, it probably helped that he had two years of relative anonymity in a world filled with middle school rankings and 10-year old mixtape phenoms. While those kids showed off for cameras against weak opposition, Markelle Fultz worked on his game, his body, his attitude, his vision.

The guys invited to that showcase ahead of him? They had jerseys waiting for them that Saturday morning. Markelle Fultz decided to go ahead and take one for himself. That’s just how he does things.

— — — 
Fast forward to September 5th, 2015. In my world, it’s an early morning at Wise High School in Prince George’s County, and it’s the third annual DMVelite 80.

I came back up to Maryland the night before, and four years into it, I was feeling pretty tapped out of the grassroots basketball world at this point. But I was particularly excited for this event, because Markelle told Marcus he’d come through and support.

Just as we liked to claim that the event helped put Markelle on the map, the claim was mutual: he was a HUGE part of the DMVelite 80. It had become an annual highlight for our company, bringing national media attention and local headlines along with it.

I was eager to say hello and congratulate him on his recent commitment to Washington and send him off with well wishes. On top of that, I was honestly curious how his newfound celebrity might have affected him. By that point, the “lottery pick” talk had already begun turning into a deafening roar, and everyone knew that was just the beginning.

We knew he would show up and hang out for a bit to support his friends. After all, that’s just what he does.

(Look no further than Markelle’s Twitter profile on Saturday — the day he knew he would be the top pick — and you will find a retweet of a hype video featuring high school teammate Josh Carlton, who is now playing at UConn.)

About an hour before the event, I see Markelle walk in.

Early, as always.

He’s wearing street clothes with headphones in; I dap him up briefly, offer my congrats, ask him if he really is sitting out the event, and go run off to make sure everything is set up for a smooth event. The next hour is a blur, welcoming our national media guests, setting up chairs, tracking down volunteers and distributing roster packets.

Next thing I know, station work was underway in the auxiliary gym, and I see a familiar face attached to a hesitation dribble and pull-up jumper I could spot anywhere.

Markelle Fultz — future No. 1 NBA Draft pick — grabbed one of the extra jerseys, jumped in, and got after it. None of us gave it a second thought.

— — —

The last time I saw Markelle was this March, at USC’s Galen Center in the final regular season game of the Pac-12 season. He was sitting out with an injury, but recognized me and came to say hello before the game. We talked about how his freshman year was going, I told him I was moving to California, and he asked if I’d been back to Maryland recently. After a couple minutes of small talk, he apologized; he couldn’t chat any longer.

He was injured, but had to go fill his “assistant coach duties” (his words, not mine). Off he went, rebounding for players and helping them stretch.

And true to form, that’s nothing new for Markelle, either.

Four years before Draft Day, to the day:

— — — —

The views and opinions above are my own.