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Why Markelle Fultz isn’t a defensive liability

The James Harden comparisons only work on one side of the floor

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The Markelle Fultz hype train is rolling high as ever and it won’t be stopping anytime soon. The number one prospect has quickly been gaining widespread praise for his elite offensive game that has drawn comparisons to players such as James Harden, Brandon Roy, and even Dwyane Wade. With that praise, however, has come one specific criticism of the 19-year old prospect, his defense.

Whether it’s Draft Express, amateur scouts, or even casual observers, the consensus seems to be that Fultz is a sieve on defense who most likely can’t share the floor with Isaiah Thomas for long periods of time.

I’m not here to tell you that Fultz will come into the league and become the next Kwahi Leonard, but after reviewing Washington’s season one thing became pretty clear; he’s not the bad defender that he has been made out to be. In fact, I’d even go as far to say that he’s actually a good defender and could be an even better one with the Boston Celtics.

To breakdown Fultz defensive potential there needs to a nexus of things to consider. First, who the Washington Huskies were as a defensive team, what were the causes of Fultz’s struggles defensively, and then where Fultz’s strengths can translate to an NBA team.

Washington Huskies Defense

It sticks out like a sore thumb and you don’t have to be expert to see it. The Huskies defense was dreadful. Per teamrankings.com, the Huskies ranked 319th out of the 351 Division 1 teams. That’s behind schools like Delaware, Drexel, and the Incarnate Word Cardinals (me either). Former Coach Lorenzo Romar played zone a majority of the season. Primarily it was either a 2-3 or a 3-2.

The problem with zone defense is instead of staying at the hip of a particular man, you’re defending a certain area. Against a bad team it has its advantages. The primary focus is to get teams out of the paint and shooting jumpers. But there are drawbacks. Any average college team knows that if you swing the ball consistently and get the defense moving from side to side you can get into the teeth of the defense. Those repercussions are even more serious for a team like Washington because their frontcourt consists of, 6’8 Noah Dickerson, 6’9 Malik Dime, 6’9 Samuel Timmins, and 6’3 Carlos Johnson who was frequently used as a frontcourt player. Needless to say, teams had the zone figured out, and the results for Washington turned out horribly.

David Crisp was one of the main culprits for the defensive breakdowns. The 6’0 guard constantly was either getting himself out of position in zone or unable to keep up with his man.

Defenses move as strings, specifically zones where if one player gets out of wack and other guys get into new zones to recover, the defense is toast. This happened a lot for the Huskies defense and a lot of those errors came in Crisp’s area.

Furthermore, when the team did play man defense, it actually wasn’t as bad, though a lot of that had to do with the fact that they usually only played that defense against lesser teams that they were confident they could keep up with. However, even then, the lack of size really hampered the team. The Huskies ranked 222nd in defensive rebounding percentage, and if already having a struggling defense wasn’t enough, giving up extra possessions only added fuel to the fire.

The next question is what was Markelle Fultz’s roles in all this turmoil?

Markelle Fultz Defensive Struggles

Though Fultz wasn’t the defenses main problem, he also wasn’t without blame.

As we’ll get to later, Fultz was a victim of some of his teammates defensive lapses, but it is worth noting that he did make a few mental mistakes of his own. At times he could step a too far from his zone and get messed up on the contest. Other times it seemed like he gave up position on defense in order to pursue blocks.

Here, this looks like a great play by Fultz, but at the next-level if he gave up position like that he would either get scored on, be called for a foul, or both.

Fultz makes mistakes. He’s not perfect. But a majority of his mistakes have a lot less to do with inability, and a lot more with mental lapses and some bad decision making.

Markelle Fultz as a defensive factor

The other side of this argument is that despite some of his flaws, Fultz is a positive on the defensive end.

Fultz gets a lot of credit for his ability to make big-time highlight blocks, but that same timing and anticipation is what also makes him an overall solid defender. Regardless of the competition, Fultz seems to know four things; where he is, where the ball is, where his man is, and how to move on a string. As the year progressed, Fultz became more vocal and by January he was already pointing out to his teammates where they were supposed to be on defense. Unlike his reputation, which paints him as a lackluster defender who didn’t want to play defense, Fultz was more than willing to back up his teammates and took more than his fair share of charges.

That last play raises another important point as well. Look at the time of the game. College has 20 minutes halves, 40 minute games, and Fultz averaged 35.7mpg. A majority of his break time comes in the first half which means it’s all too common to see Fultz playing the last 17 miuntes of the game straight. Despite this, he still regularly made great defenses plays near the end of the game.

When you’re playing that many minutes every night and accounting for almost half of your teams total offense, the sporadic mental lapses make more sense. It’s also possible that with more controlled minutes, Fultz would actually have less of those lapses. However, Fultz has shown an ability to defend at a high-level.

What should we expect from Fultz on the defensive end?

Markelle Fultz is not an elite defensive prospect, and this wasn’t written to tell you otherwise. However, that doesn’t mean he’s a pushover, and he shouldn’t be considered a net negative.

Defense is about team harmony, especially in the NBA. Guys moves are based on rotations that are based on where either the defense dictates the offense or where the defense has to recover after the offense throws them off. All five guys have to move on a string in order to make it work. The three most important attributes to be an effective part of the string are; a good physical profile, IQ/anticipation, and effort. Throughout the season Fultz has shown all of those traits and the ability to put himself on the line defensively while still leading an offense desperate for his production.

With that being said, making the transition to the NBA is hard for any rookie regardless of their defensive potential. Fultz is going to have his bad days like Jaylen Brown where a confident veteran knows how to get to his spots and has his way with an inexperienced player. However, similar to Brown, Fultz has shown enough to make one believe that he’ll be able to improve as the year progresses and should begin to show the ability to hold his own.

It’s easy to hear the James Harden comparisons and instantly attach the woeful defensive reputation, but the urge should be denied. Fultz was a star in a barrel of crabs that skewed how many people have interpret his game on the defensive end of the floor. When the team is bad defensively, it’s easy to put your hands up and just stop trying, and honestly, Fultz had every reason to do just that. However, he instead decided to continue to work on that end, continued to make plays, and showed that at his peak, he could even be a guy we consider a two-way star.

But as for now all you really need to remember is this; Fultz brings it on both ends of the court, and anyone who tells you different isn’t paying attention.

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