Markelle Fultz's story mirrors Michael Jordan's, but new chapter awaits

Markelle Fultz's story mirrors Michael Jordan's, but new chapter awaits

CAMDEN, N.J. — The myth took flight as the man once did himself: Michael Jordan was cut from his high school team.

The truth was more complicated, more nuanced, but that stood little chance against the legend: Michael Jordan was cut? How does that happen?

Jordan did nothing to correct the record as the years passed and his accomplishments accumulated. Rather, he used this supposed snub as fuel, powering him through what is arguably the greatest career of all time (with allowances for Wilt, LeBron and a few others).

So now here comes Washington point guard Markelle Fultz, taken first by the Sixers in Thursday's NBA draft (see story).

No one can say how his story might unfold. Nor is anyone suggesting that it will wind up anything like Jordan’s.

Certainly, though, one of the early chapters reads much the same way. He too was cut from his high school team. He too rose above that. He too uses that slight, if it can even be called that, as motivation.

“I always have a chip on my shoulder, no matter what,” he told reporters Wednesday, on the eve of the draft.

So the comparison to His Airness holds up in that way, at least. Anything beyond that is a stretch, though it should be pointed out that one member of ESPN’s broadcast crew, Jay Bilas, compared Fultz to James Harden on the air Thursday night, and that another, Jalen Rose, likened him to Bradley Beal.

“I definitely see myself as a superstar, as one of the best players coming into the NBA,” Fultz told reporters Wednesday. “I’m going to have to earn it, though.”

His friends have little doubt that he will.

“Every time I see him, I feel as though he gets better, so I expect him to keep getting better,” said Reggie Gardner, once his teammate DeMatha High School, in Hyattsville, Maryland. “I think the sky’s the limit for him.”

“I’m expecting him to do big things,” said another former teammate, Ahmad Clark. “He said he’s going to win Rookie of the Year. I don’t know if he can win MVP yet, but I can see him winning it down the road in his career.”

DeMatha is one of the nation’s great programs, a school that has sent players like Adrian Dantley and Victor Oladipo to the NBA (not to mention former Sixer Jerami Grant). Fultz arrived there as a 5-foot-9 freshman five years ago and was immediately consigned to the JV team. Same thing the next year — “even though,” Clark said, “he was good enough to play varsity.”

That left an indelible impression.

“He still is trying to prove himself,” Clark said. “He still feels he has to play that certain way.”

That’s a rare thing, DeMatha coach Mike Jones said, before invoking a familiar comparison.

“You can think of Michael Jordan taking every perceived slight and using it as fuel and motivation for going after his goals,” Jones said. “I think Markelle is one of those unique individuals that does the same thing: Anything that doesn’t go the way he wants to, he doesn’t pout about it. He doesn’t sit back and try to blame it on this or that. He just says, ‘You know what? I’m going to prove you wrong.’ And I think that’s a great quality to have.”

Jones was, of course, the guy who assigned Fultz to the junior varsity. He recalled there were some older kids — “and kids in his class, too,” he added – who he regarded as superior players. 

“He clearly proved me wrong,” Jones said. “I think he’s done that and then some.”

At the time, things were touch and go with Fultz. Keith Williams, who had coached and mentored him beginning at age 7 at the Run 'n Shoot Athletic Center in Forestville, Maryland — not far from Fultz’s home in Upper Marlboro — wanted him to transfer.

“I wasn’t happy,” Williams said. “I thought he was losing time in development.”

The way Williams tells it – and the way Kent Babb wrote it recently in The Washington Post — Fultz’s mom, Ebony, cast the deciding vote. She had raised Markelle and his older sister Shauntese as a single parent. She wanted her son to get a good education.

So in the end, he stayed at DeMatha.

“Obviously,” Williams said, “it all worked out.”

“My confidence and my goals never changed, no matter what,” Fultz told reporters in New York on Thursday. “(Being cut) just made me realize that it’s … a hill I have to get over, and I just started working even harder.” 

He grew seven inches to 6-4, his current height, before his junior year, then starred on a team that went 33-4 that season, and one that went 32-5 the next. He was also the shining light of a 9-22 Huskies team in 2016-17, averaging 23.2 points, 5.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds.

Rest assured that Jones “absolutely” sees the parallels to Jordan’s story, and that he’s fine with it.

“I don’t know whatever happened to that coach,” he said, “but I’m very secure in my ability to coach the game of basketball, and I will be the first one to say when I’ve made a mistake. Clearly not having Markelle on the varsity was a mistake.”

Jones has good reason to feel secure, seeing as he has won over 400 games in 15 years at DeMatha. As for Jordan’s coach all those years ago at Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C., it was one Clifton (Pop) Herring, profiled five years ago by Thomas Lake in Sports Illustrated.

Lake wrote that like Fultz, Jordan had yet to have his growth spurt as a sophomore; he stood just 5-10. Laney had two experienced guards on the varsity but needed a big man. Herring, as a result, kept 6-7 Leroy Smith instead of Jordan.

We all know what happened down the road. The title-winning shot at North Carolina. The six rings with the Bulls. But Jordan never forgot his days at Laney. As Lake wrote, Jordan invited Herring to the ceremony for his number retirement in 1995, and introduced him as “the first guy to ever cut me,” eliciting boos from the sellout crowd in the United Center.

Jordan went on to say that Herring also worked with him early every morning before the following season, but according to Lake added, “He knew he made a mistake! He just tried to correct it.”

Herring, who Lake wrote has since been wracked by mental illness, was unable to make it to Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction in 2009. But Smith was there, and Jordan sounded some of the same notes, saying that he wanted to make sure “the coach who actually picked Leroy over me … understood — you made a mistake, dude.”

The Sixers can only hope, then, that Markelle Fultz rises to a point where he is somewhere in the same stratosphere as Michael Jordan.

In another sense, they can hope that he rises above.

Sixers acquire Latvian center Anzejs Pasecniks in trade up to No. 25

Sixers acquire Latvian center Anzejs Pasecniks in trade up to No. 25

Updated: Friday, 12:10 a.m.

The Sixers on Thursday traded for the No. 25 overall pick, Latvian center Anzejs Pasecniks.

The Sixers traded the 2020 top-20 protected pick they acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder for Jerami Grant this past season, according to ESPN's Zach Lowe. The Sixers have a crowded roster and will likely stash the 7-foot-2 Pasecniks overseas while he develops.

"Sometimes, especially an organization at the stage we're at in terms of building, you can only have so many young players," Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said. "The players in question are all subject to international contracts or contracts that would require buyouts. And perhaps there's even been some discussion with the representation or agents for those players that there's no intention to come over at this stage."

Pasecniks still has a year left on his contract for next season and also has a club option for the following season. He said he'd love to play in the NBA right away, but he understands it's the team's decision. He was just excited to be drafted by the Sixers.

"It was great," Pasecniks said of his name being called. "I think the moment they drafted me it was an amazing feeling. At this moment, I've still got a smile on my face."

Pasecniks weighs in at just 229 pounds, so his goal will be to gain strength to compete with NBA bigs. The 21-year-old Pasecniks is an athletic 7-foot-2 big that played on the Latvian national team with the Knicks' Kristaps Porzingis. Pasecniks said the two are friends and speak about once a week.

He spent last season overseas in the Liga ACB in Spain. Playing in the league's toughest division, his stats aren't overwhelming: 7.8 points and 3.1 rebounds in just 16.5 minutes a game. He knows he'll have to develop aspects of his game before coming over.

"I'm sure in a couple months I'm going to grow my game 1-on-1," Pasecniks said. "Because we don't do that in Europe. They don't want us to play 1-on-1. They want to share the ball. I hope that I'm going to grow my game 1-on-1. Get stronger and that's what I'm going to do in [the next] couple months."

The Sixers still had four second-round selections — they kept two of their picks (No. 36 Jonah Bolden and No. 50 Mathias Lessort) and reportedly traded the other two (No. 39 Jawun Evans and No. 46 Sterling Brown(see story).

Sixers select Markelle Fultz with No. 1 overall pick in NBA draft

Sixers select Markelle Fultz with No. 1 overall pick in NBA draft

CAMDEN, N.J. — Markelle Fultz is a Sixer.
 
What seemed highly unlikely up until last week became a reality Thursday night when the Sixers selected Fultz first overall with the pick they acquired from the Celtics.
 
The Sixers traded the third pick and a future first-round pick to move up for the 6-foot-4, 195-pound point guard out of Washington. Fultz averaged 23.2 points (47.6 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three), 5.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds last season. He led all freshmen in the nation and the entire Pac-12 in scoring. Defensively, Fultz boasts a seven-foot wingspan. 
 
Fultz is the best fit for the Sixers among all players in the draft. The team has been in need of a go-to scorer and cannot head into next season relying on Joel Embiid when it is unclear how many games he will play. The Sixers tied with the Bulls for 24th in long-range shooting (34.0 percent), were 25th in points per game (102.4) and 27th in field goal shooting (44.2 percent). Fultz will give them instant offense. 
 
Fultz can create a dynamic backcourt duo with the 6-10 Simmons when last year's No. 1 overall pick is running the floor. This week, Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said Simmons doesn't necessarily have to be the point guard in order to be the facilitator. 
 
"Anytime I make a selection, whether it's one or 30, you're looking for talent, character, fit," Colangelo said Monday, remaining mum on a specific player.  
 
Fultz traveled from Maryland to the Sixers' training complex in Camden, New Jersey, Saturday as trade talks heated up. He arrived wearing his own Sixers hat, later posting a photo of himself entering the training complex on Instagram. He also posed for a picture with Simmons, Embiid and Robert Covington following his workout. This image set off a social media frenzy as the group gave a glimpse into what the Sixers' future could look like.

"It would be great," Fultz said Saturday of playing for the Sixers. "Get up and down. They're big on defense, so I think the tools that I have to be a defensive player will help them get out in transition. I'm a pretty good shot blocker for a point guard, so I think helping them with that, everything will pretty much help with that."
 
The Sixers got Fultz at a relatively low price considering they kept No. 1 protections on the pick they traded. The Celtics will receive the 2018 Lakers' pick if it falls between Nos. 2 and 5. If that does not convey, the Celtics will receive the more favorable of the Sixers' and the Kings' first-round picks in 2019, as long as the better pick is not No. 1. If one of those picks in 2019 are first overall, the Celtics will get the less favorable of the two. 
 
With all these conditions, the Sixers have protected themselves from a "2013 Celtics-Nets trade" situation. That's how all of this was possible in the first place from the Celtics' side. 

Fultz is the missing piece to round out the Sixers' backcourt and foundational core. Expect them to target veterans in free agency to provide leadership for this young core. 

What is Fultz's biggest fit, though?

Perhaps the fact he thought he came up with the phrase "trust the process."