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Why 5-foot-11 Markus Howard is the nation's most dangerous scorer

Sam Froling (left) goes up to block Marquette star Markus Howard. It has been a learning experience for Froling and his Aussie teammate, Jacob Epperson. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

While Zion Williamson and Duke get most of the attention this season, Marquette's Markus Howard has arguably been the greatest show in college basketball. He already has scored at least 45 points three times, including a 53-point effort against Creighton earlier this month. The junior guard has hit 10 3-pointers in a game. He scored 40 points in one half against Buffalo. Going back to last season, Howard dropped 53 in a game against Providence. He's the only player in the past 20 years of college basketball to post multiple 50-point games.

There just aren't too many players like Howard -- a 5-foot-11 guard who can seemingly get his shot off against anyone in the country, and is capable of going off for 40 or 50 points on a given night.

So we went around the country, gathering different viewpoints -- from opposing coaches and players, NBA scouts, ESPN analysts -- on what makes Howard so special.


Testimonials

Kevin Willard, Seton Hall coach (to reporters before a January game against Marquette): "I don't think you're ever excited to really go up against Markus Howard. It's like, are you excited to go get a colonoscopy? ... I think it's a totally different look than any player [we've] seen so far, just because of the range Markus can shoot with. I think that's the biggest thing watching them on film. Some of his shots are like, from the parking lot."

Davion Mitchell, Creighton guard (postgame after Howard's 53-point outing): "He's one of the best players I've played. He's a smaller guy, so I know he's probably used to making tough shots. Hands in his face, that's probably what he practices. He's probably almost mastered that. Sometimes a hand isn't good enough."

Nate Oats, Buffalo coach (postgame after Howard scored 40 points in one half): "We knew he was good. I saw him score 45 against [Kansas State]. I didn't think he'd do that against us. We've got two pretty good defensive guards. ... That was probably the best individual performance I've ever seen a kid put on."


What makes Howard so good?

Travis Steele, Xavier coach: "His range is when he walks in the gym. He can make them off the catch and bounce. He is constantly in motion, running off screens for shots. He is terrific in ball screens and isolations as well. You get so worried about his 3 that you have to guard him so close, which leads to drives for him. Incredible player."

Greg McDermott, Creighton coach (postgame after Howard's 53-point outing): "I compared him yesterday to Trae Young. I certainly think there are some similarities with his ability to make difficult shots. A lot of his 3s, Davion's right there hanging on him. When they create space and there's no ball screen, it's really tough to provide any help. ... I talked to several coaches who played him in the nonconference portion of the season, and the theme was, 'If he has one of those nights where he's making circus shots, good luck.'"

Seth Greenberg, ESPN college basketball analyst: "He makes tough shots, number one. He doesn't need a lot of room to get shots off. Playing without [graduated Marquette guard Andrew] Rowsey actually makes him harder to guard. The ball is in his hands more. He's playing against the other team's point guard defender. He's become more versatile. He's getting to the line four more times a game. He's playing with a better complement of players, too. Playing with the Hauser team [brothers Sam and Joey Hauser], they're better defensively.

"He's like a video game. He makes tough, tough shots. Doesn't need a lot of room. Has a little fade in his jumper. Getting to the line eight times a game right now. And driving more, he's getting other people involved more.

"And here's the thing, he's doing it at as a 19-year old. He's doing this as a 19-year-old junior. You think about what he did prior to that, as a 17-year-old. He's got a calmness about him. While he's doing what he's doing, it doesn't seem like he ever overreacts to anything. Unique release, though. He's got a really unique release. What he's learned how to do, he's learned to create separation as an ability to get to the line. He's improved his middle game and his runner. Little guards have to have a runner."

Paul Biancardi, ESPN national recruiting director: "In high school, Howard was in our top 100 as one of the more potent scorers in his class. His shot mechanics were effortless. Always confident in his knack to score. He has taken his work ethic to a gym-rat level. The big point here is that Marquette is playing to his strengths as an elite shooter in a point-guard's body,"

Adam Finkelstein, ESPN scout/recruiting analyst: "In high school, he was always a skilled and tough shot-maker, and even able to differentiate himself in settings like USA Basketball because of it. But he was extremely young when he arrived at Marquette, only 17 years old, and at least a year younger than most freshmen. On the surface, he had very limited upside in high school because he was undersized, under the rim and not explosively quick or fast.

"In my mind, his evolution since then has been both about the progression of his skill set but also because he's been equally committed to his body. His ability to develop strength in his core, be able to play through contact, and most importantly, create separation off the dribble with those step-backs that have become sort of like his calling card. That's all tied to his physical development."


How to slow down Howard

Opposing coach: "It's definitely a unique preparation for him. You develop such an appreciation for the degree of difficulty in some of the shots he makes. He can get hot, he can go on a run. We've been as close as you can possibly be on closeouts and you've got a guy who's 5-foot-11 and can barely see the rim, and he's drilling shots from all over the floor. Like, oh, my God. You have to have a short memory and do the best you can every single possession. Over the course of time, you have to make him work. He doesn't come out of the game very much. Get him to the point where he's worn out late in the game. This year, he's let it come to him some early, and it's given him more stamina late in games to close for them.

"First thing is the drag ball screens. Most teams have their drag screener behind the ball. With Marquette, their drag screener is ahead of the ball. It's weird. If your big guy isn't up, he's able to come off those drag screens. And if your pick-up point is any lower than the NBA line, he's in perfect range. That's the first job. The second job is last year with [Andrew] Rowsey, they used Markus coming off screens. Making sure you do a great job with your ball-screen coverage. We were trying to hard-hedge him as much as possible and take his shooting rhythm. But you have to stay with the ball and make him pass. The big guy has to know you're staying with No. 0 until he passes. If he hits Theo John or Matt Heldt on the roll, then so be it.

"We've been as close as you can possibly be on close-outs and you've got a guy who's 5-foot-11 and can barely see the rim, and he's drilling shots from all over the floor. Like, oh, my God." opposing coach, on Markus Howard

"He loves to shoot step-backs off his left hand. Create space for step-back 3s. Have a readiness for that as best you can. We thought length, as much as possible, while still having quickness to chase him around. Make him shoot over size for an extended period of time was something we wanted to do. If you get yourself in position with bad closeouts, he's got a better middle game than most people realize. Pull-ups and floaters. Make him shoot tough 2s. Contest until the very last second. Make him shoot hanging, floating 2-point shots. Those are shots he doesn't convert at as high a rate as those rhythm 3-point shots.

"The other thing is, can you get him to play defense? Teams have had success getting him in foul trouble. If you have a guard who can take him into the post, he might let you score because he doesn't want to foul. A drive quickly to the baseline. A quick rip that's he's not expecting. He'll put two hands on the driver, it's a foul. And then they have to take him out of the game, or he scales back to where there's no resistance."

Opposing coach: "He gets off shots. Really good shooters make tough shots. The thing is to have good length. Length is not the only thing that bothers him, because he blows right by you. But you have to switch screens. Fresh bodies with length crowding him puts him in a little bit of a bad place. Make sure he doesn't get out in transition. Teams that have done best against him [have been] ultra-physical when he doesn't have the ball, which is tough to do in college. But we try to be extremely physical with him when he doesn't have the basketball. Make him a driver. He makes all these shots, but he's no bigger than 5-10, 5-11. If you have good shot-blockers, run him off the line, make him a driver, make him finish over tremendous length. Length on and off the ball. The other thing is making him see bodies, make him feel like he has nowhere to go. Bottling him up is really important. A lot of teams blitz him. Put a tremendous amount of ball pressure on him once he gets in scoring position.

"He's really, really good. He's bound to have a good game. But make him uncomfortable, make him a 2-point shooter, make him a driver. You can't let him get off 10 or 13 3s.

"The other thing is making him guard. I don't think he's a good defender whatsoever. Making him fight through and over screens. He's going to get dinged up a little bit. Just watch some of the screens teams set on Steph Curry. They're all legal, but they're hard. Don't let him have a night off. Whoever he's guarding, go at him. Make him uncomfortable, he'll lose his aggressiveness. He's not running free comfortably at that same pace. Instead of playing at 100 percent, he's at 88 percent and he's losing his legs and he's hesitating. Get him involved in stuff at both ends of the floor. Make him have to guard and make him feel like we're going at him.

"He understands the game and he's a winner, but his natural response to getting scored on is to get the ball and try to get it back. And I don't think he's as good like that as opposed to playing in rhythm. You can't let him get eight straight points, 11 straight points. Make him feel like there's a lot of eyes and bodies and hands on him throughout the game."

Opposing coach: "They're easier to guard without Rowsey out there. You only have one guy that's going to shoot with that type of range. Markus doesn't have the deep, deep range that Rowsey did. He doesn't spread your defense out as much. It's harder to shrink the floor when he's at the top and he's got Rowsey on one wing and [Sam] Hauser on the other. I know they're a better team this year, but from a defensive standpoint, it's an easier game plan without Rowsey because you can focus in on Markus. [Editor's note: these quotes were collected prior to Marquette's wins over Georgetown and Providence, in which Sam Hauser scored 56 combined points.]

"And as good as he is off ball screens, we'll live with him trying to break us down and getting into the paint. Guys that size have trouble seeing through bodies in the paint. Get him off the line and he's no longer a 3-point shooter, and now he's almost gotta score. Once they're in 'go' mode, you know it's going up. Make him take a contested 2, don't foul him. You can't send him to the line. Avoid him going to the free throw line and make him a playmaker. Put up pressure to pick up the ball earlier as opposed to staying home. At that size, it's really hard to score on three guys."


Comparisons

Greenberg: "You're talking about 50 and 53, that's rare air. The kid at LSU, Chris Jackson [Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf], that's who he reminds me a little bit of. He was like a video game as well. I look at the Big East and the guards they have in the Big East. There's serious ball-guards in that league. I can't remember a guy, in all my years in the ACC and the Big East, I didn't play against a guy like that. As good as Gerry [McNamara] was coming off screens, he didn't do the things that this guy is."

Biancardi: "He reminds me of former Boston College star Dana Barros."

Finkelstein: "You know who he reminds me of? Everyone's going to talk about Trae Young and the shots he's making, but I think of D.J. Augustin, Damon Stoudamire, J.J. Barea. Can he be the exception to the rule like some of those guys?"


NBA potential

Mike Schmitz, ESPN NBA draft analyst (provided via text): "There's no question Markus Howard has captured the attention of NBA scouts with his near-unprecedented production as a 19-year-old junior. Although he'll turn 20 in March, the list of under-20 prospects to average over 25 points per game in the NCAA since 2000 is short -- Michael Beasley (2008), Kevin Durant (2007), Steph Curry (2008), Trae Young (2018), Chris Clemons (2017), Keydren Clark back in 2004. [Howard, whose average took a hit when he did not score and was limited to three minutes due to back spasms against Georgetown, is averaging 24.4 points per game.] In the new NBA full of pull-up 3s, Howard certainly fits, as he's the most efficient pull-up shooter in high major college basketball (minimum of 100 attempts) with a greatly improved pick-and-roll game. He's done an excellent job with his body and is steadily improving his floor game as a facilitator.

"With that said, Howard isn't seen as a surefire draft pick at this stage. The biggest question is whether or not he can survive defensively on an NBA floor at 5-11, 175 pounds with a 6-0 wingspan. The list of current NBA players with a sub 6-1 wingspan starts and ends with J.J. Barea. With Howard likely to always be a minus on the defensive end, he'll have to be that special offensively to warrant playing time, so using his senior season to become more of a playmaker for others and a better finisher (41.4 percent at the rim) will help improve his stock with an eye toward the 2020 draft in hopes of carving out a role as a Quinn Cook-type."

NBA executive: "I had almost written him off at the end of last year, because he wasn't a full-time point guard and he had trouble defending college guys who weren't even prospects. This year he's making me reconsider. He's creating, he's at least trying to defend, and obviously he's a phenomenal shooter off the bounce. That last part is his one real NBA skill. I guess I remain unconvinced about the rest, enough that it would be hard to imagine him getting guaranteed money if he came out this year."

Greenberg: "Without a doubt [he can play in the NBA]. He doesn't have the vision that Trae Young had. Trae Young's vision was his greatest asset. I'm not sure he has that vision where he sees plays before they happen. But without a doubt. I have this philosophy: there's always a place for shot-makers. He's a shot-maker. And there are other guys like him, maybe an inch taller. I think he has the ability to create a little bit of separation. Like a quarterback that creates windows to throw through, I think he's a little guard that creates separation."

Finkelstein: "I think we always thought he'd be a really good college player, I don't think we ever expected him to do the things he's been doing. Physically, he has progressed further than we have seen. He's still not the prototypical NBA guard and he probably never will be. Can he continue to defy the odds? I think it's an uphill battle, but he's certainly done that through his college career. ... He would have to try to be the exception to all the rules to make it at that highest level. But I think he's going to get a whole lot more consideration now than we expected coming out of high school."