In the often unpredictable world of the NBA, there is some symmetry in Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons likely becoming teammates as pros.
Barring an unforeseen change, Fultz will be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft on Thursday night, joining Simmons with the Philadelphia 76ers in an attempt to invigorate a once proud franchise. Two stars worthy of the top pick in consecutive years, neither of which was able to lead their college programs to team success in their one season on campus.
LSU didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament in Simmons’ lone year in Baton Rouge before becoming the top pick by the Sixers last year, and Washington finished 9-22 this season with Fultz.
Of course, that’s about where the connections between Fultz and Simmons end. They have different skillsets and personalities, but will likely be at the core of how Philadelphia tries to return to relevance.
Fultz is a natural talent on the court that moves with fluidity and ease, and his abilities and tendencies have been dissected heavily heading into Thursday’s draft. Off the court, he is exceedingly loyal to those that believe in him.
He is also a fan of posting trick shots to social media. A lover of Chick-fil-A and his own homemade fried rice. His drive and humility comes from once being cut from the varsity of his high school team.
“When I’m on the court, I feel at peace really,” Fultz said in an interview last October with the Associated Press. “It feels like my home. I’m always thinking of something creative to do like trick shots or something like that. It’s just something about the basketball court that touches me, it makes me feel like nothing is wrong on the court.”
Kelsey Plum, the former Huskies guard and NCAA all-time scoring leader in women’s basketball, became buds with Fultz during the one season they were both at Washington. She says Fultz has remained grounded despite the circus atmosphere.
One of her most vivid memories: A Friday night that Fultz joined Plum for dinner after her game even though he already had eaten.
“He came and sat with me while I ate at a restaurant. I don’t know any number one pick that would do that on a Friday night. God knows what you could be doing in college on a Friday night,” Plum said. “That’s just the type of guy he is. I’ve always respected that about him. He really has never changed who he is.
“For someone that is such a superstar, he stood out to me because he was so humble and under the radar,” she continued. “That’s kind of an oxymoron, but I mean he is so not into himself.”
Fultz was hyped as a possible No. 1 draft pick from the time he stepped on campus at Washington. Whether he was worthy of such a selection was debated endlessly because of the failures by the Huskies. They lost the final 13 games of the season, six of which Fultz was a spectator because of a knee injury. The head coach that first believed Fultz could be a star, Lorenzo Romar, was fired from his alma mater.
“It was very tough. Nobody went in thinking we were going to lose that many games,” Fultz said recently after a workout with the Los Angeles Lakers. “But I think I built relationships and we learned more than you could ever learn losing that many games. How to fight through adversity, sticking together, sticking with each other through everything off the court, on the court. I think that was pretty big.”
Despite the losing, there have been very few questions raised about Fultz’s capabilities as a pro. He’s been hounded with comparisons to fellow point guard Lonzo Ball — and the success Ball had with UCLA in his one college season. But it’s not just Ball that Fultz will forever be compared to. It’s De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith and the rest of the talented point guards in the class.
“I respect all of them. They all got different types of games,” Fultz said. “I believe I fill in every box on both ends of the floor. I think that’s what the difference is.”
AP Sports Writer Greg Beacham contributed to this report.