DeMatha coach Mike Jones was a little frazzled Monday. It was signup day at DeMatha’s basketball camp and the noise level was a little much.
“The first day of camp is always crazy,” Jones said.
It was a day like that a little over a decade ago that Jones first noticed a little 8-year-old guard named Markelle Fultz.
When Fultz’s name is called Thursday night as the No. 1 pick, he will be the 23rd graduate from DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.), who will be taken in the NBA draft since it began in 1947. But the first one to be selected with the top overall pick.
Only one other high school, Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), has had more players drafted (25) and unlike Oak Hill, players generally attend DeMatha for all four years, not just their final year or two for seasoning.
“I think it’s a combination of things,” Jones said. “The greatest thing is this area and the culture. This is is not a football (area), but a basketball one. But I do believe there’s a culture at DeMatha. If you come here, you’re going to work hard, you’re going to grind it and you’re really going to put in the hours. Being a private school, we’re able to work with the players year-round and the success of the guys who came before sets the standard of the people after them.”
Many of DeMatha’s former players come back to the school during the summer to work out. When DeMatha’s current players see those workouts, it’s easier to sell the the Stags’ system. The Stags have three players currently in the NBA: Jerami Grant, a forward with the Oklahoma Thunder; his brother, Jerian Grant, a forward with the Chicago Bulls; and Victor Oladipo, a forward with the Thunder.
“When Jerian was going through during his time off from Notre Dame, he lived in L.A. for a little bit with this uncle (former NBA Player Horace Grant) and he spent some time with Victor (who was then with the Magic) down in Orlando, but the bulk of that time, he spent every single morning here to work out. This was while school was going on and in the summer. The greatest thing about that is when the kids came to school, they saw him faithfully working out and they’d stop. He was in here, killing himself. It was amazing to watch. That was a key moment for a lot of our players in the last two or three years.”
DeMatha’s basketball tradition is unrivaled, partly because of the stability of its coaching staff. For the past 60 years, there have been two head coaches — Jones, who also is a coach with USA Basketball, for the past 15 years and the legendary Morgan Wooten before that. Part of that tradition is players have to wait their turn to star. Only a handful of players, no matter how talented, started as freshmen for the Stags. Adrian Dantley and Danny Ferry were two of the rare exceptions and Notre Dame signee D.J. Harvey is the first player under Jones to start for the varsity all four years.
“All the guys we have now in the NBA if you include Markelle, not one of them played varsity basketball as a freshman,” Jones said. “Jerami played on the JV team. A lot of kids want instant gratification. Every single NBA player had the exact opposite approach.”
Fultz, is a 6-4, 194-pound point guard with a strong outside shooting touch. He averaged 23.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists this past season. However, like Oladipo and the Grants, he was not that highly recruited as an underclassman. Fultz was cut from the varsity as a sophomore, when he was still only 5-9, and there were other slights, including when the Washington Post named St. John’s guard Anthony Cowan, who averaged 10.3 points a game this past season at Maryland, as its Player of the Year over Fultz in 2016. Fultz was second team ALL-USA that year and while the two guards chosen ahead of him (Lonzo Ball and DeAaron Fox) will go high in the draft, they will likely go after Fultz.
“He did get better at everything,” Jones said. “He worked to get better at everything. One of the things that benefited him was having some disappointments. I think Markelle takes any disappointment or failure and uses it as motivation. When he got cut from the varsity, he literally went back to the gym and said, ‘I’m going to prove these guys wrong.’ A lot of people don’t take that attitude.”
DeMatha won’t pass Oak Hill any time soon on the list of most NBA draftees as the Warriors have two likely late first-round choices in Dwayne Bacon and Sindarius Thornwell. Another player, Harry Giles, who played briefly for the Warriors before injuring his knee, will also likely be drafted in the first round.
Thursday, Jones will make a trek that is becoming familiar, one that he also made in 2013 and 2015.
“I will be in New York. I will get on the train Thursday, go up to New York, attend the draft and basically get on the train right after the draft and come back so I can be in camp for the last day on Friday,” Jones said. “I get to go up and at least be in the building when it happens. … It’s pretty cool. For me, obviously, I’m very proud of Markelle and all the other USA Basketball guys there that I’ve coached.”