How did Markelle Fultz lose to Yale? Let one of the Bulldogs explain ahead of draft

John Tomase
May 31, 2017 - 1:24 pm

The knock on Markelle Fultz -- that he only won nine games in college -- has been reduced to some glib shorthand: "He couldn't even beat Yale."

You've read it online, you've heard it on talk radio, and if you've paid any attention to the NBA draft, you've probably thought it, too.

How can a potential franchise guard and the presumptive No. 1 overall pick lose twice as many games as he won? And how can his sheer talent not overwhelm a group of Ivy Leaguers?

And yet Yale dominated Fultz's college debut. The Huskies opened on Nov. 13 at home, and man did the visiting Bulldogs lay a licking on them. The 98-90 final doesn't do justice to how completely the defending Ivy League champs controlled the game.

Yale raced to a 29-11 lead, led by 14 at the half, and was only briefly threatened when Fultz came alive late. He finished with 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists, but missed a 3-pointer in the final two minutes that would've cut it to three.

With the Celtics picking first and Fultz the consensus No. 1 overall choice, his college record will be critiqued between now and June 22 when NBA commissioner Adam Silver steps to the microphone, so it's only fair to ask -- how exactly did Yale prevail?

We put the question to Bulldogs freshman guard Miye Oni, who also debuted that night and responded with 24 points, six rebounds, and three assists. In a phone interview, the California native provided some insight into Fultz's game, the limitations he faced given the rest of Washington's roster, and why losing to Yale isn't actually grounds for disparagement.

"I haven't heard that he couldn't beat us specifically," Oni said. "I've heard the knock on him that he couldn't win games. I don't think that's really fair to him, because I don't think he had the quality of team that other people had in his league."

Anyone who watched Yale in the 2016 NCAA tournament shouldn't have been surprised. The 12th-seeded Bulldogs beat Baylor in the first round and then gave fourth-seeded Duke everything it could handle in a seven-point loss. 

The Bulldogs played the entire 2016-17 season without star guard Makai Mason, who broke his foot in a preseason scrimmage, but it didn't stop them from winning 18 games and falling to Princeton in the Ivy League title game. Oni ended up averaging 12.9 points and earning a spot on the All-Ivy second team.

On the night of the opener, Yale remained formidable. Oni put it in terms Celtics fans would understand.

"You didn't know who was going to score, because we had so many weapons," Oni said. "Look at Boston without Isaiah Thomas. You're like, 'I don't know who's going to score -- Horford, Bradley, Jerebko, Olynyk.' That's kind of how we were."

The Huskies, meanwhile, added Fultz, but lost Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray to the first round of the NBA draft. The rest of the roster was young and unproven and finished 9-22.

"It's an interesting dynamic," Oni said. "It's almost like they didn't expect Dejounte Murray and Marquese Criss to both leave last year. They had talented players, but a lot of them are young and weren't expect to play as much right away. You look at their league, you have UCLA, Arizona, Oregon. Oregon has Dillon Brooks, he's a player of the year. Arizona has a stacked team. UCLA has a stacked team. They didn't have those type of guys. . . . Not because they didn't have talent, but because of the multiple NBA players on the other teams in their league."

Yale dominated the glass, 42-29, which compensated for Washington blocking 15 shots. Oni was impressed with Fultz's effortless scoring, which he believes will translate better to the NBA game. While he noted that Fultz can knock down open 3-pointers, he described him as "more of a scorer than a shooter."

"It's how smooth and how easy he scores," Oni said. "I didn't really notice that when I was playing. Then I look at the game after like wow, he just glided to the basket and finished. I think he'll be really successful in an open floor NBA game, more even so than college, because his game will translate really well. He has a long wingspan defensively, and he can use that offensively, also. He has a tight handle and long arms, so he kind of moves a lot with his dribble. That smoothness to his game will help him a lot."

One aspect of Fultz's game that has drawn some attention is its low-key nature. He may dominate the ball as a point guard, but he's not considered an in-your-face personality. Oni doesn't see this as a weakness, and he has a theory for why Fultz doesn't pound his chest like other blue chippers.

"I think it's because of how he came up in the basketball world," Oni said. "He started on JV, blew up a little bit late, so he didn't have that typical hype-since-eighth-grade type of thing. I think that will actually benefit him, because it will motivate him to keep working and keep getting better, because he didn't have the NBA scouts at his 10th grade games like a lot of No. 1 overall picks have. I think that's why he's not like that. He doesn't have that ego in him, which is a good thing for him, because that also brings players down a lot of times. I just think that's his personality. He's a laid-back guy. A lot of people try to knock him for it, I don't think it's a big deal at all. It's just not typical."

Oni said that Fultz talked a little bit of trash, but nothing out of the ordinary.

"He's a very competitive player, but he didn't have the type of really aggressive attitude you usually see from those type of guys," he said. "He's his own person, so everyone is different. He was still very effective, even though he wasn't the typical, 'I'm going to dunk on you,' like a mean type of player."

Perhaps that attitude will translate to unflappability in the NBA. Oni believes that Fultz will benefit from the spacing of the pro game, which should help him make an immediate impact.

"He'll have more space on the floor," he said. "Just his ability to use ball screens to manipulate them and score off them in every way will help him a lot. He has enough size to finish over big guys. He can pull up, mid-range, shoot a floater. There's a lot of room to isolate and use ball screens, more so in the NBA than college. I think that will benefit him a lot. I can see him scoring a lot from an early age in the NBA."

And when he does, Oni and Yale will be able to say they stood toe-to-toe with him in his debut, on his home floor, and prevailed.

"I hope he does very well in the NBA," Oni said. "That will always be a good reminder -- we beat this guy, we can play at the top level. If he's succeeding in the NBA, then why can't I? Why can't someone else? If you can play against him, you can play against anyone."

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