MILWAUKEE — From a charismatic 19-year-old who scores bushels of points for Marquette, here comes a reassurance: Our national culture might have progressed in its estimation of people under 6 feet tall pursuing the art of basketball.
For one thing, add up the heights of the top 10 scorers in college basketball during the past 35 seasons: In only six seasons has that sum come in under 750 inches (that’s 6-foot-3 on average), yet four of those seasons have come in the past five years, with the three seasons of lowest aggregate height in the past four. For another, here’s what Markus Howard, 10th-ranked Marquette’s 5-11 swish-maker, reports about his early years:
“I can’t really recall anybody putting me down for my size or anything,” he said. “Even if they did, I didn’t really care. From a young age, I was just always really, really, really aggressive, just in terms of how I approached the game, how I played it, my intensity I played with. That was always something that, you know, I prided myself on, and it never really dawned on me that I would ever be too small to play the game. Now, for me, I mean, some things come harder than others just because of my size, but that doesn’t really affect me. I try to, you know, find ways to just work it out, find ways to adjust to what I’m seeing.
“Yeah, you know, if a problem’s being presented in front of me, I’m going to do whatever I can to solve that. So, you know, whether that’s a certain type of defense that’s put in front of me, I’m going to try to figure out a way to break that down.”
More than somewhat like Stephen Curry, who clearly has influenced this era of shot-makers with lean bodies who function well in the forests, Howard can punish you if you leave even a millisecond of opening along the three-point arc.
He epitomizes a basketball culture that has gone outside. Says his 24-year-old brother, Desmond, who trains Markus in basketball, “If you’re looking at height, you’re wrong.”
As of Friday morning, Markus Howard stood fifth in the nation in scoring at 24.6 points per game. He had loosed 45 points upon nationally ranked Kansas State, 45 upon nationally ranked Buffalo (with the spectator treat of 40 in one half), a Big East-record 53 on Creighton. He had established himself as a spectacle and joined a throng of top-ranked scorers who lack outsize height: 5-9 Chris Clemons of Campbell at No. 1 (29.0 points per game), 6-1 Antoine Davis of Detroit at No. 2 (27.1), 6-2 Justin Wright-Foreman of Hofstra at No. 3 (25.1), 6-foot Jermaine Marrow of Hampton at No. 6 (24.6) and 6-1 Carsen Edwards of Purdue at No. 7 (24.5).
Together, they are emblems of a game that has grown more beautiful by tilting toward the smaller man.
“No, I think it’s definitely fading away,” Howard said of height prejudice. “It’s something that you just look at, guys who just score the ball really well are primarily guards. And I feel like that’s just kind of the shift of the game now, kind of being catered more toward the shooters. And, you know, the people who create. I think people who are at my height are really aggressive, and they have that confidence. It shows when you have leading scorers who are under 6 feet.”
Said Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski, the Duke point guard of 20-ish years ago, “You know, kids have gotten so good with the ball and off the dribble, where you can take advantage of a very talented guard and their ability to get where they need to get to put the ball in the basket or to make, you know, advantageous plays for their team.”
Asked how he might guard Howard, he said: “Well, you could be a lot more physical when I played. So I’d foul out probably in about 90 seconds in today’s day and age. But, you know, Markus has such a knack for creating separation, and obviously that step-back shot is one of his primary ways of doing that. I think it’s something that he learned because he wasn’t the biggest guy. He wasn’t going to shoot over people, so when you’re being guarded closely, you have to figure out ways of creating space, and that step-back is a great way for him to do it, for sure.”
Said Porter Moser, the coach at Loyola Chicago, that 2018 Final Four qualifier: “The three-point line’s such a weapon. . . . With the changes three, four years ago about no hand-checking, guards are able to freely get to the rim. They’re able to move more freely. The flow of offensive numbers has gone up. I think that benefits guards more than post. I still think they allow more physicality in the post than they do on the perimeter. That’s helping guards. . . . You’re also seeing more teams play four out, one in. Like, we play four guards, one big. You don’t have this traditional two bigs.”
Said Desmond Howard, in rather a definition of basketball itself, “If you have freedom, then you’re playing to your personality.”
For Markus Howard, it’s all about the solving. He has had to solve since his earliest memory, which is of himself at 3 straining unsuccessfully (at first) to join his two older brothers on their backyard half court in New Jersey, before the family moved to Arizona. He has a brother Jordan, the middle of the three sons, who finished third in the NCAA in scoring last season as a 5-11 guard at Central Arkansas and now plays in the NBA G League. He has parents he reveres for their relentless work, most of it as a husband-wife team on his father’s personal-training business. He has incorporated training methods hatched by his father, Chuck, a former college football player at Indiana.
“We call it ‘rock hill,’ ” Markus Howard said. “Actually, so, when we moved to Arizona, we had, like, a landfill that was near our house. That was a landfill, like a big dump. It was like a big hill, and there’s nothing but rocks on it, and so now they actually made that landfill into a community park. And so this community park has a slope, or a hill, it’s probably about 40 feet going up, and it’s made up of all rocks, so it’s literally 40 feet, a slope of rocks. You can walk on it, but it’s, like, rigid, so it’s hard to walk on it.
“So like what we do to work out, we’ll do rock hill, so we’ll run up the hill. So we’ll start on the ground where it’s flat, and you run up this slope, on rocks, so it’s harder to run than a straight path. So that’s kind of our workout that we’ll do. We’ll do like a mile, me and my brothers, then we’ll do, like, 20 hills.”
On nights such as Tuesday in Milwaukee, the challenges of basketball reality will bob to the surface and howl. There will come a team such as St. John’s, of which Coach Chris Mullin said, “We’ve got some length.” A game such as the Red Storm’s 70-69 win over Marquette (19-4) will showcase some of the inconveniences a 5-11 player can face, as when Howard blew past the defense only to have the 6-9 Sedee Keita trail him and reject from behind his layup attempt. Yet with Howard, there’s the ironclad sense he will see his 7-for-32 showing in two games against the Red Storm’s lengthy defense as merely opportunity to forge solutions.
“We get lost in the 53 and the 45,” Desmond Howard said, “and the reality of it is he’s a young man” — a young man in a sport never more welcoming to young men both smallish and excellent.