The most impressive thing about Markel Starks isn’t his ballhandling, passing or scoring, though you won’t play point guard for Georgetown unless you’re pretty darn good at all of that. What really stands out is that Starks has finally grown up.
The former know-it-all freshman has improved so much as a junior that anyone who watched the Hoyas could see why Coach John Thompson III has confidence in Starks. Previously, Thompson’s thinking on the subject wasn’t clear to others.
Without Starks, there’s no way Georgetown would have had such a surprisingly successful season. It’ll get even better if the Hoyas, who are seeded second in the South Region, make a long run in the NCAA tournament. Georgetown expects Starks to get them going, and with the season he’s having, the team should count on him.
The statistics show that Starks finished second on the Hoyas in scoring and led them in assists. Factor in that Starks shot an impressive 41.8 percent from three-point range for the Big East regular season champs (Georgetown shared the title with Louisville and Marquette), and he definitely deserved to be selected third-team all-conference.
But the numbers reveal only part of Starks’s importance. Here’s the rest of the story: Georgetown’s offense stalls when Starks leaves the court for long stretches. It happened again in the Hoyas’ last game.
After Starks fouled out early in overtime, his teammates looked lost on several possessions during last week’s loss to Syracuse in the semifinals of the Big East tournament. Forward Otto Porter Jr. is the Big East’s best player, and he may be second to none in the nation, but there’s no doubt about who runs the Hoyas’ show.
“Markel . . . he’s like a boost for us,” Porter said. “Whatever the situation, we’re better when he’s out there.”
It wasn’t always that way. Until this season, Starks wasn’t consistent. Too often as a freshman and sophomore, he missed whatever point Thompson was trying to make. Teaching moments for Thompson were often wasted on an unreceptive pupil.
And as difficult as it was for Starks to accept failure, he eventually had to be honest with the guy in the mirror. “It was so frustrating,” he said. “There were a lot of restless nights.”
Most of the pain was self-inflicted. Starks figured he would make a smooth transition from Georgetown Prep to college. And why not? Everything usually fell into place nicely for Starks. He was one of the best players in Maryland while growing up in Accokeek. A two-time All-Met selection and a top recruit, Starks thought he was unstoppable. There’s nothing like the confidence of youth.
Problem was, Starks had no idea about what he didn’t know. He found out the list was long.
“When you come to Georgetown, you have to grow up,” Starks said. “You go from being an adolescent to a grown man in a very short period of time. And basketball and life . . . it’s a correlation. When I first got here, I was 19 years old.
“I thought I had seen it all and done it all. . . . But at the same time, I’m coming into a place where there are other alpha males. They were all competitors, too. . . . I didn’t really think about that.”
Thompson never intended for Starks to make a major impact as a freshman. He didn’t need Starks to do much. Thompson’s plan was for Starks to play a little behind Chris Wright, a three-year starter at point guard, and then take over quarterback duties as a sophomore.
The glitch was that Starks grew frustrated on the bench his first season. His uneven play as a sophomore last season called into question whether he ever would get it completely?
“You have to make that adjustment,” Starks said. “And that adjustment was a little tough when I first got here.”
But Starks never forgot what had helped him get to Georgetown: hard work. After last season, he basically lived in the gym. Starks spent every free moment working on his game: shooting, passing, decision-making. Thompson has noticed positive changes.
“You see the progression,” Thompson said. “This is lost a lot in college basketball these days because everyone is so focused on the-one-and-done [players], but with Markel you’ve seen what I would call a normal collegiate progression. He went from playing [little] as a freshman, to having his ups and downs last year to being . . . consistent this year.”
Starks is hoping for a big finish in the NCAA tournament. Georgetown faces 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast on Friday in Philadelphia. Despite falling short of their goal of winning the Big East tournament, the Hoyas have not “lost focus,” Starks said. “It’s just time for us to regroup.”
Starks would know. He pulled himself together after a setback and became a man in the process.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
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