Lorenzo Romar had 25 minutes to spare between meetings Tuesday afternoon to talk about Markelle Fultz, and he chuckled when he heard you issue the prefacing phrase, No sense dancing around the topic, so… Romar had been Fultz's coach at the University of Washington, and he knew the question was coming before you asked it.
"Why didn't we win more?" he said over the phone.
Well, yes. That is the question, isn't it? The 76ers will select Fultz with the first pick in the NBA draft Thursday night, and the prospect of adding a 6-foot-4 combo guard — an ideal stylistic complement for Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and the rest of the Sixers' roster — has infused the franchise and its fans with giddiness and hope. Yet out of Fultz's only season of college basketball, there's a red flag on his curriculum vitae, a big honking pimple on an otherwise flawless complexion. Forget the uncertainty that accompanies any draft pick. Forget the six late-season games that Fultz missed because of a knee injury. Washington finished 9-22, a bottoming-out that cost Romar his job after 15 years there, and if there were concerns over Ben Simmons' talent and intangibles after Louisiana State went 19-14 with him, then the Huskies' record with Fultz must fire off signal flares and set off sirens about his character and ability, right?
How good can the kid really be if his team didn't even reach the NCAA tournament? If his team didn't even reach .500? If his team won just nine games?
"Having coached him and been around him," said Romar, now an assistant coach at Arizona, "I'll just say this: Anyone who said that would definitely not want to play against him."
It's hardly surprising to hear a college coach stand up for one of his players, especially one who averaged more than 23 points, nearly six rebounds and six assists a game, and shot 48 percent from the field. And Romar's defense of Fultz must be placed in context: When someone wonders why Washington was the 11th-best team in the Pac-12, the implication isn't merely that Fultz didn't win more. It's that Romar didn't win more. He was the one with the great player, the prospective No. 1 pick, and the season still fell apart. Any indictment of Fultz is an indictment of Romar, too, and it's natural that he would want to frame the failure in the best possible light.
Presumably, though, the Sixers were aware of and familiar with whatever circumstances Fultz had to overcome, whatever blame he genuinely deserved to bear. They scouted him all season, Romar said. "You could tell they really, really liked Markelle. They thought he'd be the best fit for them of anyone in the draft." And nothing about the Huskies' deterioration — their record was their worst in more than two decades — dissuaded Bryan Colangelo and his staff from keeping Fultz atop their draft board.
"So many times," Romar said, "you'd just say, 'He's one of the top scorers in the NCAA. He's the leading scorer in our league. He's averaging 23 points a game. We put a lot of pressure on him. OK, get a few more rebounds. Get a few more steals.' You find yourself, because he is such a gifted player, trying to get him to do all these things. He welcomes that. What's great about him is he never criticized his teammates one time.
"It had nothing to do with Markelle. We weren't the Keystone Kops. We weren't this awful team. We were young, and he was young. The team with the same ability and more experience would have done a lot better. You take the same team and bring them back next year, and there's no doubt in my mind it's an NCAA tournament team. It wasn't a scrub team that Markelle had."
But Chriss and Murray improved enough to become first-round draft picks. Chriss went eighth to the Sacramento Kings, who then traded him to the Phoenix Suns, and the San Antonio Spurs selected Murray with the 29th pick. Fultz was on an island.
"There was no one who thought they'd be gone after a year. No one, including themselves," Romar said. "Markelle saw that, and I think he was a little disappointed at first because he wanted to win, no doubt. He wanted to win, and he knew the big burden was going to lie on him. He knew that."
"He can't put the ball in the hoop for everybody," said Chillious, now an assistant coach under Kevin Ollie at Connecticut. "He can't rebound for everybody. He can't get them layups and make their free throws. If the guys we had were a year older, we would have won more games. But it was a really, really young team and inexperienced. Had Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray been there, we would have been like some other teams, like the UCLAs of the world. We would have had three first-round draft picks."
They didn't. They had one, and it's on Fultz to prove his coach's words true, that he was a diamond in a swamp, that even the best player in the draft couldn't singlehandedly rescue a college basketball team from a miserable season. So many times, Lorenzo Romar asked for more from him, and maybe the proper question isn't, Why were the Washington Huskies so bad if Markelle Fultz was so good? Maybe the proper question, for the Sixers at least, is, How bad would they have been without him?