Markelle Fultz is thinking big at Washington

Editor's note: The 2016-17 college basketball season will be the "Year of the Freshmen," featuring what could be the best class we've ever seen. Over the next two weeks we will get familiar with the best of the best, examining who they are and where each of the top 10 prospects in the 2016 ESPN 100 came from.

Read more: No. 10: Duke's Frank Jackson | No. 9: Kentucky's Malik Monk
No. 8: Michigan State's Miles Bridges | No. 7: Washington's Markelle Fultz
No. 6: Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox | No. 5: Kentucky's Bam Adebayo
No. 4: UCLA's Lonzo Ball | No. 3: Duke's Jayson Tatum
No. 2: Kansas' Josh Jackson | No. 1: Duke's Harry Giles

SEATTLE -- His story says Jordan.

His play screams LeBron.

And when his playing career is all over, Washington's Markelle Fultz wants to be in a category all his own. Not just listed among the all-time greats, but above them.

"My mindset is different from a lot of people," Fultz said. "You ask people their goal and they'll say to make it to the NBA. My goal isn't just to make it there, it's to be the best that ever played."

It's not an outrageous vision to the 6-foot-4 native of Upper Marlboro, Maryland. He knows how far he has come in only three short years when, as a 10th-grader at perennial prep powerhouse DeMatha High School, he did not make the varsity roster. Now he's being projected as potentially a top-three pick in the 2017 NBA draft if he decides to bolt college after one season.

His fast rise isn't the absurd piece in all of this. Fultz says it's crazy the way people react to him now. It seems with every new interview there's a new way to critique a guy who has yet to play a college game.

"People go from why don't I smile, to the JV story, to just the way I play is awkward," Fultz said. "It's been kind of weird, but I'm used to it now."

Ah, the JV story. Like Michael Jordan, Fultz didn't make varsity as a sophomore and ended up playing on the junior varsity team. He already has grown tired of having that story regurgitated time and again, but finally accepted that it's "going to be the story for the rest of my life."

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, for one, loves that story. Without it, this could have been an entirely different story for the Huskies. Had Fultz made varsity as a sophomore, there's a good chance a school closer to home would have noticed him first and Romar never would have been able to pry him from the East Coast.

Instead, associate head coach Raphael Chillious arrived early to scout a varsity game when he noticed Fultz playing junior varsity. He played nearly every position on the floor and always seemed to make the play that was needed at the time.

"I called Lorenzo and told him, 'Coach, you're going to call me crazy, but this kid is 5-foot-9. If he grows he's going to be a NBA All-Star -- not a NBA player, an All-Star,' " Chillious said.

Fultz did grow between his sophomore and junior years, prompting Romar to have the same giddy reaction the first time he saw Fultz play in person. Romar called Chillious and asked if they were being "Punk'd." Washington was the only major Division I school watching Fultz play, but it was clear to the Huskies that he was going to be a special talent.

Fultz played everything from point guard to power forward, which is why many schools who ended up recruiting him late in the process viewed him as a wing.

"I thought, I don't care who has not offered him or what anybody says -- call him a 2 or a 3 -- that kid is an NBA point guard," Romar said. "The way he moved, the feel he had. And, that game, I don't think he was playing hard. You could just see it."

Everyone sees it now.

What they didn't see is how all the small details worked together to get him to this point.

Ebony Fultz, his mother, said she didn't have a grandiose plan of grooming her son into an NBA player when she first sought out a basketball trainer when he was around 7. She started taking to Keith Williams, a former high school classmate who taught basketball fundamentals to kids as young as 5.

Her plan was simply to get Markelle involved in something he enjoyed to occupy his time. She wanted him active.

The only thing she knew for sure is that she didn't want him to play football. She viewed it as too dangerous, although there was that one season she relented and Fultz played on the offensive line for the team at the Marlboro Boys & Girls Club. He dreamed of being a running back, but the coach's son got all the carries.

She also enrolled him in karate classes, where he worked his way up to a green belt. He learned a lot of things he hopes to never use, "stuff like if somebody tried to stab me, I could get a knife out of their hands."

What stayed with him from karate was the self-discipline he learned, which ironically led him to stop the pursuit of a black belt. He wanted his focus, and all of his free time, to go toward basketball, so he left karate behind as he went to high school.

Fultz always showed Williams he had a will to work hard. When he broke his right wrist playing on Williams' 15-and-under AAU team, Fultz showed up the next day at the gym shooting and dribbling with his left hand. Williams helped Fultz cultivate his competitiveness.

"We definitely paid attention to rankings, and yeah we did kind of target guys," Williams said. "We were playing in one tournament and a guy called me from Charlotte and was like, 'Hey, you want to play against the Atlanta Celtics?' And I was like, 'Yeah. They got Kobi Simmons [who this season is a freshman at Arizona] on that team, they got another kid that's ranked really high.' ... And so, yeah, we did target those kids."

Now Seattle is a target for NBA scouts. Fultz has made the must-see list, as many teams have already been through to see him practice. What they've learned is that Fultz is still holding on to that 10th-grade version of himself. He still views himself as an unknown entity just trying to make a name.

That approach has endeared him to his Huskies teammates.

Sophomore guard David Crisp was one of Fultz's hosts when he came on his official visit. As Fultz catapulted in the rankings before arriving on campus, Crisp expected a different person to arrive as well.

"When he came I knew they were saying this kid is going to be one-and-done, and when it got closer to him getting here I saw stuff [about Fultz] moving up, like he might be top five or the No. 1 pick," Crisp said. "I was like, man he might be kinda cocky. He's like really the opposite."

Romar has held Fultz out from several early practices to rest him. When Fultz is on the sideline, it's not unusual to see him filling water cups during breaks as if he were a team manager.

"He doesn't have that part of him that says, 'I'm Markelle Fultz, who are you?'" Chillious said. "That doesn't exist."

That's why Fultz has no desire to talk about the NBA right now. He's just trying to lead the Huskies back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011. He's afraid that if he stops to think about the future, he'll get passed by in the process by someone who was like him in the 10th grade.

"I want to make sure that I'm not the one that lets up, because I know that some people let up that I passed now, I outworked them," Fultz said. "I want to make sure that I'm always working. I'm trying to get in front of everybody so far ahead that there's no way they can catch me."