SEATTLE (AP) — His final moments of college were spent as a cheerleader. Reduced to sitting on the bench of a glitzy Las Vegas arena, hoping the teammates he bonded with for his one season could extend their run another day so he could cheer again.
This was not the script expected for Markelle Fultz, arguably the best player ever to step foot on campus at Washington. He dazzled on the floor, but by the end, he was a spectator, with concerns about his future trumping any short-term benefit of his college cameo.
Fultz spoke extensively with The Associated Press four times during his freshman year: in October, before the season began; in late January, with the Huskies 2-6 in conference play; in February, after Fultz missed two games because of a sore knee; and after Washington's season ended with a 78-73 loss to Southern California in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament.
The conversations showed an unexpected maturity for a kid who won't turn 19 years old until May. Fultz understood his standing in the basketball world, living up to the expectations of a star even as his team fell short. But Fultz also flashed some teenage tendencies, like spending maybe a little too much time practicing trick shots or a craving for Chick-fil-A.
Depending on the analyst, scout or pundit, Fultz is expected to become the highest drafted player ever from Washington. He's universally regarded as a top-five pick in a class that includes Dennis Smith Jr., another potential lottery pick who failed to reach the NCAA Tournament in one year with NC State.
Despite Fultz's remarkable talent, Washington had other deficiencies that led to a 9-22 record and a sixth straight season missing the main event of March Madness.
The following are snapshots of the four conversations with Fultz over the span of 4½ months, a season that did not follow an expected course.
OCT. 27, 2016
Fultz lives two lives.
On the court, he is a star even before his first college game. A distributing point guard with scorer skills. One of Washington's most lauded recruits ever. If not for NBA requirements, Fultz would be a professional already.
Away from basketball, Fultz is quiet, even a little shy. When he came to Washington a year ago shortly after signing with the Huskies, fans who lined up before the game shouted and chanted his name until Fultz took down the hood covering his face and waved meekly.
"I don't want to seem like I'm cocky or flashy or anything like that so I try to be mostly unnoticeable," Fultz said. "Like when somebody sees me I always speak to them. I say what's up and stuff like that. It's just the way I go around. I don't want people to think like, 'Ah he's trying to stand out' and stuff like that."
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar praises Fultz's skills and attitude. No one says he's one-and-done but it's understood. A talent like Fultz doesn't stay in college longer than needed.
There's optimism Fultz could maybe get Washington back to the NCAA Tournament. Two first-round picks from last season — Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss — couldn't.
"I'm always thinking about basketball. I really don't know what I would do if I didn't play basketball. When I'm on the court I feel at peace really. It feels like my home," Fultz said.
JAN. 27, 2017
Fultz is living up to his billing.
The Huskies are not.
Fultz leads the Pac-12 with 23.4 points per game. No freshman since California's Shareef Abdur-Rahim in 1995-96 has led the conference in scoring. In his past four games, Fultz scored 30 or more three times and had 28 points in the other outing. He would be in the national player of the year conversation if not for Washington's 9-11 record.
"I'm always worried about the team. If it wasn't for the team I wouldn't be able to have my personal goals. I go into every game looking (out) for the team," he says after practice. "I'm never looking for myself. I never worry about myself. But what makes my team better is when I'm scoring or being a playmaker on the court."
Fultz is the only constant on an inconsistent team. They don't play defense. Their scoring comes in spurts. Sophomores who were expected to mature after getting extensive minutes as freshmen have plateaued. Heat is building around Romar and his job security.
Fultz is the beacon keeping Washington basketball interesting. But the individual success and team failure has left him open to critics.
"People are always talking about the one-and-done, comparing me to a lot of different players in the conference and around the country," Fultz says. "A lot of people try and compare me to Ben Simmons, which I think is nothing alike."
FEB. 14, 2017
Fultz's season has taken a drastic twist.
Unknown to most, he has been dealing with soreness in his right knee. He is averaging 36 minutes but was unexpectedly on the bench for a pair of losses at Colorado and Utah.
"Terrible. One of the hardest things I ever did in life really, just sitting out from something I love is tough. And seeing the team not come out with the 'W' puts even more on it," Fultz said. "It's for the better of me but it's tough sitting out. Just sitting on the bench really makes me want to go back out there even though I'm hurt."
Fultz was injured not by a specific moment but through the accumulation of use without much time off. Fultz went from high school ball into a spring filled with all-star games, followed by a stint with USA Basketball at the FIBA Americas under-18 championships and finally a Washington tour of Australia — all before his first official college practice.
Fultz couldn't remember missing a game because of injury.
"Every time I usually get hurt I play through it," he said. "When I was younger, I would get hurt a lot and play through it. Now I think about my career and sometimes you have to sit out."
Fultz agrees his future prospects were a consideration.
"I've got a lot of wear and tear on my body. I need to rest it and treat it the way you should treat it as a college athlete and my mindset is to be the best player I can be while I'm out there and if I can't do that I feel like I'm hurting the team. If it was up to me, I probably would have played but the doctors had a big role in it too, telling me to take my time."
MARCH 8, 2017
The only year Fultz will play in college ends with a whimper. His final game came Feb. 18, a loss to Arizona. Fultz missed Washington's final four games, capped by a Pac-12 Tournament loss to Southern California, one of the last four teams in the 68-team NCAA field.
All Fultz has heard the past three weeks is speculation that he's not really injured and is simply sitting out to protect his NBA future with Washington having no postseason hopes. It hasn't helped that only vague descriptions of Fultz's injury have been provided, like knee soreness.
In the locker room of T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Romar reveals that Fultz could have played short-term, but his long-term future was considered. Fultz says he's experienced swelling in the knee regularly and scoffed at those questioning his commitment.
"They sound stupid," Fultz said. "Anybody that knows me knows that I'm going to play basketball no matter what. If I've got a broken foot, I'm going to go try to play, but the doctors stopped me from playing. If it was up to me, I'd be out there hooping with a broken hand, broken anything. It's kind of funny for me to hear that."
Thirty-six hours later, Washington issues a release that ends Fultz's collegiate career. He's bound for the NBA, always his final destination, his one polarizing season in purple and gold complete.
"It hasn't gone how I wanted it to go but I'm happy," Fultz said before leaving Las Vegas. "I've built brothers on this team. We stick together even though we was going through all that. I've built many relationships that will be with me forever."
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