Motivated as an underdog, Markelle Fultz embraces being overlooked

SUWANEE, Ga.—Spectators at this past weekend’s Under Armor Association AAU Circuit Finals might have had a little trouble locating five-star prospect Markelle Fultz. He was listed on the roster as No. 15 for the DC Blue Devils 17-and-under team. That number was nowhere to be found on the court. “They lost my jersey,” said Fultz nonchalantly warming up in an ill-fitting No. 11.

With dozens of college coaches and scouts sitting in the bleachers and standing along the sidelines eyeballing prospective recruits, any other incoming high-school senior would have been alarmed by the sudden blurring of identity.

Fultz, however, seemed unfazed. He is used to being overlooked.

A little more than a year ago, Fultz was a sophomore playing for powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School (Hyattsville, Md.) on the junior-varsity team. And his AAU Blue Devils weren’t yet affiliated with a major shoe company.

“I think I was always a very talented player,” Fultz said through a mouthful of braces. “I wasn’t always on the best teams, but I always pushed myself to be a better player. What happened to me was I finally got the right opportunity.”

That opportunity was a guest shot on the DC Premiere squad for the Las Vegas Fab 48 tournament last July. Playing a year up in age, Fultz powered the team to the championship. That led to an invitation to John Lucas’s Midwest showcase for underclassmen in Louisville, where Fultz continued to impress. Last year, he averaged 16.8 points and 7.9 boards per game as a junior on DeMatha’s varsity team.

Rather than try to slip that underdog tag in light of his newfound success, Fultz wears it proudly. “When I got my chance, I was filled up with anger for everybody overlooking me,” said Fultz. “I just took advantage—played very well, did very well against nationally ranked players.”

Fultz is now fielding offers from more than 20 colleges, including Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, and Louisville. And he has kept close tabs on his own rankings among the national class of 2016, which currently sits at 21st on and 23rd

“On the court I try not to think about the rankings,” said Fultz. “But off the court, I look at it a lot, just trying to see my position and see what I have to do to get better. And to see who is in front of me.”

That sort of frankness with the press—Fultz recently told The Sporting News that Kentucky was no longer his dream school because he “didn’t know (he) was going to be this good,” and The Washington Post that he’d like to be a college one-and-done—may come off as simultaneously naïve and a little bit cocky. But Fultz’s play on the hardwood displays the humbleness more befitting his backstory.

Before tip-off, he goes out of his way to bump the fists of each opponent, and he’s always there to pick a fouled teammate off the floor. A lanky 6-foot-4, he doesn’t show the explosive athleticism of some of his peers, instead sort of gliding up and down the court. He’s a quiet stalwart on defense, and his jump shot is a living sculpture.

Fultz’s height enables him to play all five positions in high school, and he says his body still hasn’t grown into his size-16 feet. But even as someone else’s No. 11 jersey hung loosely from his shoulders, the role of overachiever seemed to fit Fultz perfectly.

“My mindset is to always play like I’m not known,” he said. “I just act like there’s nobody in the stands, nobody watching me.”

That isn’t a hard scenario for Fultz to imagine.

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