The most remarkable aspect of 2019’s most remarkable college basketball player is his age: Markus Howard just turned 20 years old. The Marquette junior guard is one of the youngest players in his class, yet the 5-foot-11 Howard has spent this revelatory season torching all comers.
Howard, just named the Big East Player of the Year, was still 19 when he put up the first of his nine 30-plus-point games (fourth-most in Division I this season). He was still 19 when he scored 40 points in a half—including 10 points in 70 seconds—versus Buffalo. He was just 19 when he scored 53 points against Creighton, connecting on 10 three-point field goals—several from well beyond NBA range—and he was just 19 when he scored 1.28 points per possession—using only 16 possessions—in the follow-up against the Bluejays, an early March loss. Howard’s junior season has largely been a launching pad to showcase an absurd level of offensive efficiency and perimeter shooting, a thumb in the eye of those who still doubt him because of his age or his size.
“Given the level of defensive intensity Markus faces, and that teams are geared to stop him every game, his efficiency has been extremely high,” says ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla. “There are few guys his size that have accomplished what Markus has accomplished, and it is a testament to his unique and high level skillset. He is one of the best small scoring guards that college basketball has seen.”
Before his junior season, Howard was a complementary piece to the Marquette offense; the Golden Eagles could depend on players like Andrew Rowsey, Katin Reinhardt, and Luke Fischer. Howard’s previous contributions, while just as scintillating, merely boosted Marquette’s offense, which is why his output this season is so interesting. He is Marquette’s offense.
Howard accounts for 37 percent of the squad’s shots taken when he is on the court, and only one other Division I player—Campbell’s Chris Clemons (who played 125 more minutes than Howard)—has a higher rate with greater efficiency. Similarly, among players ranked in KenPom’s top 10 for usage rate, only Murray State’s Ja Morant (21.5) has a higher Game Score (a stat created by John Hollinger to measure a player’s all-around performance) than Howard (16.8).
The team’s success—both in Big East play, where the Golden Eagles earned a 2-seed in the conference tourney, as well as in the Big Dance—depends wholly on Howard’s sui generis ability to score in spite of defensive pressure. Sure, brothers Joey and Sam Hauser have averaged a combined 24.6 points per game, but their output is largely dependent on others creating scoring opportunities for them. Per Hoop-Math.com, 35 percent of both Hausers’ two-point field goals in the halfcourt are assisted; just five percent of Howard’s are.
“You have to throw the kitchen sink at him,” says Fraschilla. “He’s seen so many different defensive schemes, he’s like a magician.”
And even when an opponent thinks Howard has been slowed, flummoxed by the cavalcade of lanky athletic defenders, he can casually pull up from NBA range: Per Will Schreefer of The Stepien, Howard has attempted 192 NBA threes in 2019, and made 42 percent of those shots. That makes him the best high-volume shooter of NBA threes since Schreefer began tracking the shot distance in the 2013–14 season—a by-product of daily workout sessions with his older brother, Desmond, who encouraged Howard to make at least one half-court shot (“How else could he have expanded his range?” Desmond jokes).
It has proven almost impossible to contain Howard. In the past decade, according to BartTorvik.com, just a handful of high-major players six feet or shorter used more than 20 percent of their team’s possessions while posting an offensive rating higher than 110, connecting on 40-plus percent of threes, and posting a true shooting percentage of 60 percent or greater. Howard has done it three times, the only player in the group to achieve that high a level of efficiency more than twice since 2008.
Per Synergy Sports, Howard also ranks second nationally for points per play in the half-court (.997 PPP, among those with 650 plays), and against man defenses, which Marquette has faced 97 percent of its offensive possessions (because who would zone a player that converts 42 percent of his threes), the guard scores .98 points per play—a rate which leads DI by a wide margin. And he is more than capable of knocking down a shot with a hand in his face: two-thirds of his catch-and-shoot jumpers are guarded, and Howard still scores 1.52 points per jumper, which leads DI.
But the stats don’t wholly convey Howard’s swagger. To watch him is to anticipate greatness. Unlike Duke’s Zion Williamson, who is an athletic marvel, Howard’s slight frame and stature don’t intimidate, but like Williamson, Howard’s play is a study of body control, spacing, and sheer confidence. During that March loss to Creighton, he rebounded a first-half miss, received a screen from the trailing Marquette big just past the half-court decal and pulled up, splashing the net. It didn’t matter that just over a minute remained in the half, and that if Howard had held the ball, there was the potential for a 2-for-1—he had a glimmer of daylight, and that was all he needed.
Marquette’s next game, against Seton Hall, was Howard’s worst performance of the season—he was just 2 of 11 from the field in the loss—and yet those two makes were indicative of Howard’s skillset. Both were threes—one with a defender draped all over him, the other a breakdown of the Pirates’ defense—and both showcased that no matter how well an opponent defends the guard or how cold his hand that day, he’ll keep shooting.
That ability to create his own spacing defines the threat Howard poses. He possesses a bevy of step-backs, hops, and James Harden-esque double stepbacks, all of which provide him ample room to quickly unleash a jump shot: a swift flick of the wrist sends the basketball on a high arcing parabola towards the rim (which is why he is so often able to avoid having his shot blocked when switched on larger defenders). The best example of the variety of his offensive counters was Marquette’s win against Buffalo. The Bulls are one of the best DI squads at harassing and pressuring ball handlers, and while Howard did commit six turnovers, he also posted an effective field goal percentage of 66 percent.
Buffalo’s Nick Perkins switched onto Howard following a pick and roll, and Howard hit the big with a double step-back, creating a foot of space, which is all the guard needed to swish his three. The next play down the court, Howard did it again, this time side-hopping into a three after shedding Davonta Jordan, one of the nation’s best on-ball defenders, for the briefest of moments.
He would clinch the game several minutes later, using his left leg to propel himself backwards and to the right, creating just enough distance between the defender; the resulting three gave Marquette an insurmountable 18-point lead.
“Markus has a remarkable ability to create his own shot for his size,” says Fraschilla. “A defender thinks he has taken away his air space, but Markus has tremendous footwork, so a guarded 21foot shot becomes a wide open 24-foot shot.”
Fraschilla adds, “He’s a bit like Kemba [Walker]. While Markus isn’t the athlete Kemba is, Kemba wasn’t then the level of scorer or shooter Markus has been. He just has a Kemba-ability to play at his size and be highly effective and skilled.”
And, like Walker, Howard is the type of player whose skillset plays especially well in March and who has the ability to lead his squad deep into a tournament.
Matt Giles is a writer for Longreads, and he also freelances for several other publications, including the New York Times, New York magazine, the Washington Post, Bleacher Report, and FiveThirtyEight.