2020 NBA draft: Marquette’s Markus Howard ready to prove he belongs in the league

Seerat Sohi
·8-min read

Imagine Markus Howard through his oldest brother’s eyes.

You’re Desmond, 10, duking it out with Jordan, your second-youngest brother, in the backyard of your new home in Phoenix.

Here comes Markus, ambling over, trying as always to be near you, to get in on the action.

You were the first person to put a basketball in his hands. And the first to take it away. You tower above him, whacking the ball out of Markus’ skinny little arms. Boom. Rejected. You know how that feels. Ow — an owie right in the gut.

You’d lower the rim for Markus. Then you’d tell him to go stand under the basket. Yeah, just like that. Don’t move, OK?

Then you’d lunge at him with the ball. Poster after poster. Markus would run into the house, eyes wet with tears, searching for his father’s arms. This is only gonna make you better, he’d tell his youngest son. Don’t worry about your brothers, he’d say, and hand him a snack.

Now imagine him as a junior at Marquette. You’re visiting Markus, attending every home game, sharing a bed and roughing it like you’re kids again. You watch Marquette lose in overtime to Providence and wait by the locker room for 45 minutes while Markus gets interrogated by the media.

Then you immediately trek a mile and a half to a meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It is, among other things, a safe space to discuss an utterly odd, pressurized existence on campus. Markus is the face and founded this branch with a friend. He bears the brunt. He’s grown into it. This, too, you were there for. Now look at him: Marquette’s Tony Robbins, listening, doling out wisdom, suggesting other athletes meditate. When you see what he’s morphed into, your gut swells with pride.

So the doubts mystify you.

Thanks, ironically, to Stephen Curry, short guards are falling out of fashion. After the Golden State Warriors torched the league, the entire basketball universe started shooting from deep, appropriating the skills that small guards used to distinguish themselves.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - FEBRUARY 29: Markus Howard #0 of the Marquette Golden Eagles dribbles the ball in the first half against the Seton Hall Pirates at the Fiserv Forum on February 29, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Markus Howard attempted 10.1 3-pointers a game as a senior with Marquette. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Markus, who was a senior when his season ended in March, finished as Marquette’s All-Time leading scorer. He was a consensus First-Team All-American and he led the nation in scoring at 27.8 points per game. He attempted 10.1 triples per game in his senior year and shot 41.2 percent, despite being the focal point of the offense.

You don’t go to a school like Marquette and put up those numbers and not get drafted. So what’s the rub? He’s 5-foot-11, so his fate tonight remains an open question.

Scouting is a lot like Tinder. At some point, you set a filter, consciously or subconsciously, and it’s usually at spectral 6 feet. “You’d think,” Desmond said, laughing, “if he’s 6 foot, he’s 7 [feet]. If he’s 5-11, he’s 4 [feet].”

Markus grew up practicing threes at halftime of his older brother’s games. He played on Jordan’s older club teams. His range, which he polished and sharpened every day, became his chief weapon against size. “From the day he was born, he was fighting — always fighting for something, fighting for food, fighting for his brothers’ attention,” says his dad, Chuck Howard.

Success invited more attention, and with it, more doubt. When Marquette came calling, folks wondered if he could hack it in the Big East. It went like it usually does. Sure, he works — really works. Sure, he’s skilled. And the touch. And the track record, yes, I hear that. But … man. Can he hack it?

Hacks. Markus graduated high school in three years, became one of the first top NCAA prospects to reclassify, showed up to Marquette as a 17-year-old freshman and led the nation in 3-point shooting.

Swell, right? But wait, why was he acting different?

Well, he was getting used to a lot: Milwaukee. College. Snow. Growing into the attention — to the doubt and the praise — took time. The glare can be harsh, unforgiving. “There was a lot that came with success,” says Markus. “Things I hadn’t been used to on a national stage. For me, it was just about being comfortable in my own skin, knowing it’s okay to make mistakes, took a little bit of time.”

When the world’s doubt conspired with his own, Marcus would implore: “Why would you think of what someone else has to say when we know what God has given you? Stats don’t lie — each year, the numbers go up, double teams increase, so you can’t tell me there hasn’t been progress.”

But the spotlight made him self-conscious, wary of working on his weaknesses. He felt like he had to be perfect. “Because of today’s environment, the feedback loop is larger and more expansive than ever for people in the public spotlight,” says Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski. “There’s people that will cheer your success, and you have to be able to process that and there’s people that will be negative, even with your successes, and you have to learn how to process that.”

Marquette stressed what Wojciechowski calls “the mental game.” Markus picked small, practical tricks, like snapping his fingers to snap himself into the moment. The staff also recommended a sports psychologist. “It sounds almost clichéd when you say the phrase ‘control what you can control,’” says Wojciechowski, “but I think with maturity and experience you realize that cliché has incredible value.” Part of growing up is about learning to mean the things you say.

That’s when things really got moving. He pored over game tape, in search of weaknesses to improve. The game slowed down. His pick-and-roll playmaking improved. He learned to score everywhere on the floor. He left Marquette with diabolical range, and while he waits for the draft, his agency, Priority, has been sending him things to work on.

“All the things I went through in college prepared me for a moment like this,” says Markus. “If I hadn’t had those experiences, I don’t know if I would have definitely been able to handle it the way that I did.”

Markus was in New York, preparing to play Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden, when the world, once so noisy he had to step back and learn how to handle it, abruptly stopped.

No more Seton Hall. No more March Madness. No more college basketball. No more college. He flew home during a pandemic in a daze that lasted days. But it didn’t take long for the itch to start. Within days, he’d developed a routine he’s stuck to since: bed by 9 p.m., up by 4:30 a.m. — no alarm necessary. First, he prays. Then he spends three hours in the gym with his brothers and his dad.

Chuck Howard, an ex-football player at Indiana University turned professional trainer, and Desmond run Jordan, who plays professionally overseas, and Markus through a series of stability and mobility sets. Chuck says Markus has gotten stronger and more agile since he played in March, even if he can’t show it to teams. To improve his reflexes, Markus catches tennis balls at odd angles. Two years ago, Chuck heard Steph Curry used a FitLight machine to improve his decision-making under duress and he got one for his facility. Just another tool to extract every ounce of potential from Markus’ body. Here, they can leave no stone unturned.

“I think that’s what they like about [basketball]: the fact that they can actually get better,” Chuck Howard says. “They’ve been around training all their life, always being in the gym with me. They understand the work ethic. All my work life, I’ve always been at the gym by 6 [a.m.]. They’ve taken it on.”

When Markus and Jordan were in high school, Desmond was struggling through junior college. His love for the game was waning, but he wanted to stay around it. He thought about becoming an agent, helping others find their calling. He loved the scintillating, life-affirming experience of watching someone you helped flourish.

One day when he was back home, a couple approached Desmond in the gym while he was working with Markus, and asked if Desmond could train their son. Five years ago, he started a training program called League Me. Having a hand in his brother’s improvement, like a defibrillator to the heart, reinvigorated his love for the game.

Desmond and Chuck have unique sweat equity in Markus’s development. “Every shot he’s taken in the offseason, I’ve rebounded,” says Desmond. “I was good enough that the boys looked up to it, and looking back, that’s good enough.”

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