One of the most exciting things about marquee games, is the marquee matchups found within them. With rival Washington coming to town, the Gonzaga backcourt gets the opportunity to test itself against one of the premier players in the country, freshman point guard Markelle Fultz, a potential #1 NBA draft pick and destroyer of game plans.
Fultz’s talent speaks for itself (22.7ppg, 6.6agp, 6.7 rpg, 54% FG). He’s a dynamic player with the ability to get in the lane and finish above the rim, or hurt teams with his outside shooting (48.1% 3PT). Players like Fultz always present problems for opposing coaches, as his ability to create for himself and others will stress a defensive system. To contain Fultz, Gonzaga’s coaching staff may elect to slide Silas Melson into the starting lineup in place of Jordan Mathews.
Melson has graduated into the role of defensive stopper, and he does it well. We have written before about Melson’s excellent defensive efforts against talented wing-scorers like Isaiah Whitehead, Malachi Richardson, and Brandon Taylor. Fultz presents an entirely different challenge than any of those players, and will almost certainly be the best player the Gonzaga guards, and specifically Melson, will see this year.
The best defensive players relish the opportunity to matchup against premier talents. For Melson, this is an excellent opportunity for him to measure his abilities against a future NBA lottery pick. Fultz measures in at 6’4” and 195 lbs, so Melson’s not giving up anything there and he’s an excellent athlete in his own right. But Fultz’s 6’10” wingspan and incredible ability to change speeds either in transition or in the half court, is what separates him from most guards.
Fultz tends to be a high dribbler who plays a little upright, and whoever is defending him (I’m assuming it will be Melson for long portions of the game) will be enticed to play aggressively for steals. However, Fultz does have excellent handles, and coupled with his ability to change speeds, he often leaves defenders in his wake who are overplaying him. Melson, et. al., will need to stay very disciplined and not overplay, with the objective to keep Fultz in front of them and corral him to help defenders in order to force the ball out of his hands. Easier said than done, but it has to be the objective.
A big key in the scouting report will be Fultz’s 65.5% free throw shooting. Fultz is simply too good to be locked down for an entire night, even by someone as good as Melson. The key for the Zags will be not to allow Fultz to get easy finishes at the rim when he beats his man. Fultz is an excellent finisher in traffic, so the Zags may be better off simply fouling him at the rim, provided they don’t let him get off an and-one opportunity. Fultz’s free throw numbers indicate he’s least dangerous from the charity stripe, so unless he proves otherwise during the game, sending him to the free throw line isn’t the worst outcome.
Gonzaga will defend as a unit, and teams have to against players as good as Fultz. I’m sure Nigel Williams-Goss, Josh Perkins, and Mathews will all take turns cycling onto Fultz on defense throughout the game, but those guards will need to stay fresh for the offensive end, so I’m expecting Melson to draw the lion’s share of the work on Fultz. It will certainly be a fun matchup to watch.