Three years after playing varsity basketball for the first time, Markelle Fultz starts the next chapter of his career down the road from where it all began.
The No. 1 pick in the draft makes his NBA debut for the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night at the Washington Wizards, about a half-hour from home. Fultz, who grew up in nearby Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and played at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, will have many friends, family members and former coaches in attendance.
Fultz called the setting for his first pro game “anything you can wish for.” It’s his first game near home since high school.
“Being able to have his first game in his backyard, I’m so happy for him,” said Keith Williams, Fultz’s AAU coach, trainer and mentor. “It’s perfect. It couldn’t have worked out better.”
Not wanting to throw Fultz “into the fire,” Sixers coach Brett Brown is easing the 19-year-old in by bringing him off the bench after missing portions of the preseason with shoulder and knee injuries. Fultz will be just the third top pick since 2003 to be active and not start his season opener, joining Anthony Bennett and Andrea Bargnani.
“I’m doing whatever I have to do to win,” Fultz said Wednesday morning. “If I’m helping the team, then I’ll be out there.”
Expectations are high on the University of Washington product, so starting close to home is a substantial positive for Fultz, who was cut from his high school team as a sophomore and came back to become a blue chip prospect.
“The world’s going to spin pretty quickly,” DeMatha coach Mike Jones said. “Sometimes things are going to seem like they’re a blur to him. Him being able to get started on that journey here, in front of a lot of people that supported him and looked up to him I think is a great thing.”
Fultz hasn’t allowed himself a lot of time to dwell on his whirlwind journey, his growth spurt or how he got to this point.
“Just thinking about the growth I had and how quick it came, it came real fast,” Fultz said. “But every time I start to think about it, I just go in the gym and work so I don’t get overwhelmed or anything like that.”
Fultz will face 2010 top pick John Wall, and Williams hopes Fultz doesn’t feel too many jitters in his first pro game.
“He’s normally a real calm spirit,” Williams said. “For him, a guy with his type of talent, all he’s got to do is be aggressive. I think the rest of it will play out really well for him.”
Fultz is joining a young Philadelphia team featuring Joel Embiid and 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, who will also be making his NBA debut after missing all of last season with a foot injury. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Fultz is expected to share the ball-handling duties with Simmons, and there’s plenty of intrigue about how he’ll handle the jump.
“I know he’s a strong, athletic point guard that brings a lot of toughness to the game,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “I like what I’ve seen so far, regardless of limited playing time. But he has great size. He has great size, and you can’t teach that. He’s a strong point guard that’s going to have a bright future.”
Williams thinks Fultz, if given opportunities, could average 18 to 20 points a game as a rookie. After seeing Fultz think the game beyond his age, Jones has high expectations for him.
“He’s capable of being one of the best guards in the NBA,” Jones said. “Every year he’s going to get better and better and better. I know that’s his goal, and I’ve learned through the years to never bet against him. I know that he wants to be the best player he possibly can be, and with each passing month of this season, his rookie year, he’s going to push himself to that.”
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