Is Markelle Fultz the next James Harden? | Marcus Hayes

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Markelle Fultz catches the basket while working out for the Sixers at their training complex on Saturday, June 17, 2017 in Camden, New Jersey. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

NEW YORK - At this point, Markelle Fultz has only a wispy mustache. Soon, though, Josh Jackson believes Sixers opponents will Fear the Beard.

"He's really similar to James Harden right now," said Jackson, the Kansas product who is projected as a top-five pick. "They can both score in so many different ways. They're very athletic. They're both great passers."

Imagine if Bryan Colangelo, the NBA's crown prince of nepotism, has acquired the next James Harden . . . by using an "asset" acquired by deposed front-office renegade Sam Hinkie, whose team-building theories proved too revolutionary even for the NBA.

Could they win co-Executive of the Year? Would they be inducted into the Hall of Fame together?

Poll

Will Markelle Fultz be worth the No. 1 overall pick?

On Monday, the Sixers traded up from No. 3 to land Boston's No. 1 overall pick. They wanted to snag Fultz, a guard out of Washington considered to be the best player in the draft.

Of course, he should be, if he's being compared to an MVP candidate and a franchise player.

"That comparison is spot on," said Duke's Jayson Tatum, who also will be gone within the draft's first 30 minutes.

What about Harden's notorious disdain of defense?

"OK, Markelle might be a better defender than James Harden," Jackson said with a laugh. "I'll give him that."

Certainly, the Harden comparison seems optimistic; and, no, neither Jackson nor Tatum has GM'ed anything more than a fantasy team. Still, there's no reason to think Fultz isn't a foundational player. He's fast and tough and springy, a 6-4 magician with a wingspan a touch under 6-10 - descriptions and dimensions almost identical to Harden's when he exited Arizona State. Fultz weighs about 25 pounds less than Harden, but that's not necessarily a bad thing; Harden never seemed undernourished, and Fultz's body is ready for the NBA, as is.

Harden made 37.7 percent of his three-pointers in two seasons in college, 40.7 percent as a freshman. Fultz, a one-and-done, hit 41.3 percent.

Tatum, Jackson and the rest of this deep, versatile class spoke at the annual predraft media availability, which provides an honest look at the players with virtually no filters. Three years ago, Dario Saric blew away the crowd with his maturity. Two years ago, Jahlil Okafor seemed uninterested. Last year, the day before the Sixers took him, Ben Simmons commanded the room.

This year, Kentucky assassin Malik Monk stole the show, with his colorful Gucci sneakers, his brilliant smile and his refreshing candor. He's from Bentonville, Ark., and he loves squirrel hunting and his .243-caliber rifle, and he once caught a "humongous" 20-pound catfish. Monk was the smallest guy in the room, but he packed more charisma into his 6-3 frame than the rest of the players combined.

Fultz, by comparison, was composed and sharp. No player projected as much confidence; remarkable for a guy who won only nine games during his one college season.

Then again, Harden never questioned his abilities, either; not after Hasheem Thabeet went No. 2 overall, which dropped Harden to No. 3; not after he came off the bench for his first three seasons, in Oklahoma City; and certainly not after new Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni made him a point guard this season. Harden had been an All-Star shooting guard for the previous four seasons in Houston.

If D'Antoni's bold experiment hadn't worked, Johnson and Tatum probably wouldn't be comparing Fultz to Harden. But it did, and they are, and it all signifies that the NBA has evolved from its strict, five-position formula into a more complicated calculus that demands versatility from every player.

Not long ago, Fultz would be considered a scoring point guard; Simmons, a ballhandling power forward. Now, they're just basketball players.

"Look at the Cavaliers," said Jackson, who is a small forward. "Sometimes they had three small forwards on the court at the same time. Sometimes four."

Jackson had been asked about landing with the Celtics, who, in Jae Crowder, have a fine starter at small forward; and who, in Jaylen Brown, have a breathtaking talent on whom they used last year's No. 3 overall pick. Tatum plays small forward, too. Jackson and Tatum are especially relevant to Philadelphia, where former D-League star Robert Covington appears to be their answer at small forward.

In exchange for dropping two slots, the Celtics received, from the Sixers, a conditional first-round pick via the Lakers in 2018 or the Kings in 2019. Those picks probably will be very good, but they also could be mediocre.

All of which means Celtics president Danny Ainge believes that Jackson or Tatum (or maybe either) plus the future pick are worth more than Fultz . . . which, ostensibly, would mean Ainge doesn't think Fultz is the next James Harden.

Remember, Ainge's credentials include the Kevin Garnett/Ray Allen/Paul Pierce/Doc Rivers title in 2008; then, dismantling that core and quickly rebuilding the C's into the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference this season, all the while developing league's best young coach.

Ainge might just know something Colangelo doesn't.

Then again, Ainge might just think this draft is loaded.

"I think it shows they think the top five players are interchangeable," Tatum said.

Perhaps they are.

Consider that Tatum said he plays most like Paul George, a four-time All-Star for the Pacers. Jackson said he resembles Spurs star Kawhi Leonard.

Lonzo Ball understands the comparisons to Jason Kidd, but Ball - who is considerably more reserved than his hype-man father, LeVar - declined to compare himself to anyone.

"I try to be my own player," Lonzo said.

He has the right idea. It took Leonard five seasons to become an All-Star. It took George three seasons, and Harden needed four. None of them is exactly a replica of any player who came before them.

Years from now, Colangelo (and Hinkie) won't be judged on whether Fultz becomes the next Harden. They'll be judged on whether future No. 1 picks might become the next Fultz.

hayesm@phillynews.com

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