There is a story developing in the NBA this season that I couldn’t wait to watch—successfully—unfold. Although perhaps unexpected by some, it is nothing now. The plot has been written multiple times only with different characters since the league became a thing more than a few decades ago. This time, though, it is different because of the mystery surrounding its first chapters. I’m talking about Markelle Fultz’s late rise with the Orlando Magic.
We all know the story by now. Fultz was a no. 1 pick in the NBA draft back in 2017 in what marked the Philadelphia 76ers final “Process” year. Aiming for the best-available prospect on the board, Philly had drafted a bunch of big men years before and was now getting a couple of game managers in Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz with back-to-back selections. Given Simmons’ point-forward profile, though, Fultz seemed a good piece to play along with Simmons.
Time-travel all the way back to July 2017 and the pick wasn’t crazy at all. Fultz came from playing for Washington in the NCAA ranks and the only player giving him fits on draft day could have been Lonzo Ball—although with the Lakers having the second-overall pick it all seemed destined to end as it did. Fultz wasn’t anything new, either. He had been a star at a high-school level playing at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, MD and graduating in 2016 as the fifth-best prospect in his class only behind Josh Jackson, Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, and Lonzo Ball.
In the day and age of the one-and-dones, Fultz was always destined to use the NCAA as a mere bridge to his pro-tenure at the highest of levels playing for an NBA franchise. It was only a matter of months playing collegiate ball until the day arrived.
Buried in the depth of the 2016 and earlier classes of HS seniors were a bunch of other less appealing and unknown names back then, either in their years of college basketball or about to enter the DI along with Fultz: Jamal Murray and Lauri Markkanen you might have heard of; John Collins and Kyle Kuzma I bet you didn’t.
While Fultz was the fifth-best prospect in 2016 and arguably on par with the likes of Murray (10th in 2015) and Markkanen (36th in 2016), Collins (185th by 247Sports in 2015) and Kuzma (187th in 2013) had it much tougher in his early days. Fast-forward a bunch of years and you’ll find the current situation, or even more disheartening, the one at the end of the 2017 season after Fultz’s first year as a pro was completed—if we can even use that word.
After being named POY in Washington as a junior at DeMatha, being declared the MCDAAG’s MVP in 2017, committing to the Huskies, and even getting the FIBA Americas U-18 chip with USA in 2016—to what he added another MVP award in the tourney—Fultz’s 2017 NBA season amounted to all of a disappointing 14 of a potential 82 games due to some never-understood injury issues. One season later, and after 19 more games as a Sixer, Philly decided to cut ties with the former no. 1, highly-coveted pick and sent him packing to Orlando for Jonathon Simmons and a couple of draft picks.
At the same time, in February 2019, Ben Simmons was an All-Star, and Jamal Murray, Lonzo Ball, and Jayson Tatum were getting huge amounts of love that brought them close to the final call to make the event. All of those were clear-cut one-and-dones but their career paths, at least on the first few chapters, couldn’t be more separated from that of Fultz.
Not a lot of people believed Fultz could ever return to give back the value once put on his name back in that summer night of 2017, yet here we are in 2020 with Fultz getting back to what we expected from him and guiding the Magic. If Fultz recovers his aura and fulfills his potential, his couple of bad season to start his pro-career will just become an asterisk in his full profile once all has been said and done. If he does not, though, he will be another forgotten soul and another what if in NBA history books.
What about the other names I dropped earlier? What about the Collinses’ and Kuzmas? Well, they are living proof of how you—whether you’re reading this as a fan, a parent, or a high-school/college player yourself—should never trust the rankings scouting service tag kids with. Collins was never ranked higher than 182nd and his last position in the 2015 HS class sat at 214th. Kyle Kuzma, a prospect from the 2013 HS class of seniors, never saw his name ranked higher than 239th. There were more than just a few players above them, and you would have been forgiven for not knowing them when they became part of your alma matter roster, or even when they were drafted with the 19th and 27th picks of the 2017 draft respectively.
Low-ranked prospects are long-shots and high-upside bets normally cheap to acquire and without expectations attached to them. High-ranked kids are always in the spotlight, expected to thrive in every level they play at, and deemed busts at the slightest of slips.
High school basketball and its recruiting trail is far from that of high school football. There are not four thousand kids playing the sport every year that make it to the scouting services leader boards. During the past 10 years, the average HS class contains 550 kids with lows near 340 and highs near 740. Between all of those players, there will always be hidden gems and glaring—not to the naked eye—busts.
Situation and personality can make or break a prospect. Fultz happened to be a high-heralded one, but landing in Philadelphia and the expectations around the team and the player himself possibly killed his chances. Moving to an under-the-radar environment did wonders for him. It could be the case of currently-developing, once-highly-coveted prospects such as Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol—both of whom are part of the Nuggets organization and are following long-term paths with focus on their future rather than the present no matter their cache as high-school prospects.
Given that players enter the NBA without having any control of where they play for the first few years and their starting landing spot, fixing on early prospect rankings is plainly ridiculous. They can choose the high school they attend, somehow move themselves to this or that college provided they are offered a scholarship, but after that, it’s all a blank, fully unwritten book that might or might not align with the players’ profiles.
That is mostly why you—a prospect—should always bet on yourself, and why you—a fan, a parent, a scout,...—should never trust the rankings but the name attached to them. That is where the upside truly resides, and not just in the number sitting next to an alias in a seemingly infinite table of stacked rows full of prospects’ bio information.