It has become all too easy to overlook any singular feat of greatness involving the three-point shot in this, the age of the long ball—of stretch-five fever and elbow-jumper embargos and the deification of Death Lineups and the proliferation of Daryl Morey proselytes. But Markus Howard did something for Marquette last season that deserves a closer look. We ought to appreciate how it happened and what it means.
Howard connected on 82 of his 150 attempts from three-point range, good for 54.7%, the highest percentage among qualifying Division I players. (His mark during Big East play was slightly higher: 57.3% on 96 attempts.) Howard’s marksmanship earned him a spot on the conference’s all-freshman team last season and its preseason second-team for 2017–18, boosted an offense that ranked among the top 10 in the country on a per-possession basis and helped the Golden Eagles claim their first NCAA tournament berth since Steve Wojciechowski was hired as the program’s head coach in ’14.
Few outside of Milwaukee seemed to notice, which is understandable. Howard’s team failed to crack 20 wins and entered Selection Sunday on the bubble after an opening-round Big East tournament loss to Seton Hall. In the Golden Eagles’ most notable game of the season, a 74–72 upset over then-No. 1 Villanova at the Bradley Center in late January, Howard turned it over twice, missed the lone shot he attempted and fouled out in only seven minutes. That he didn’t attract a lot of attention for his beyond-the-arc bombing in 2016–17 doesn’t mean it wasn’t incredible.
Anyone who kept track of him as a recruit could have, but probably didn’t, see it coming. He arrived at Marquette last year as the No. 71 prospect in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, a composite that incorporates data from multiple services, after a late reclassification from 2017 to 2016. That move had been in the works for a while, and Howard smoothed his transition to the college game by spending his final prep season at Findlay Prep, a high-major talent-producing powerhouse based in Henderson, Nev., that plays a national schedule.
By the time he suited up for his last game for the Pilots, Howard had evolved from a competitive kid trying to mimic Steve Nash who, as his older brother Desmond puts it, was “chubby and had goggles,” into one of the most potent scorers in the high school ranks. Desmond and Markus’s other older brother, Jordan, a senior point guard at Central Arkansas with a higher per-game scoring average than former Bear and Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, toughened Markus through physical, hours-long battles on the hoop in the backyard of their Chandler, Ariz., home. “We were really trying to bully each other,” Desmond says.
Howard laid waste to Arizona prep competition as a freshman, averaging 23 points per game and earning all-state honors at Gilbert Perry High, before committing to Arizona State in August 2014. Less than a year later, he backed out of a verbal pledge that he described as a “youthful” decision. Howard was drawn to Marquette, in part, by the presence of Stan Johnson, who recruited Howard while he was an assistant with the Sun Devils before joining Wojciechowski’s staff in May 2015. Howard committed to Marquette the following April, after a pair of visits to campus, over finalists Arizona State, Baylor and Central Arkansas.
He drew high marks from scouting services because of his scoring ability, and his pledge undoubtedly resonated as an important get for Wojciechowski, but with Markelle Fultz, Jayson Tatum, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson and others bathing in recruiting hype, Howard was relegated to the margins of the Year of the Freshman conversation that dominated the lead up to the the 2016–17 season. There were 13 point guards ranked higher than him in the class of 2016 247Sports Composite, and Sports Illustrated’s projection model did not peg him as one of the top 50 freshman scorers in the country.
Mark Howard down as a system oversight. He had a long track record of scorching nets from deep, including when he hit 40% of his attempts over two seasons at Gilbert Perry, according to MaxPreps; 15 of his 31 attempts at the 2015 FIBA Americas with the team USA U16s; and 18 of his 37 attempts at the 2016 FIBA World Championship with the team USA U17s. He had also spent years sharpening his stroke through exacting workouts with Desmond, a 23-year-old basketball skills trainer in Arizona.
Markus gets up between 500–700 shots in these sessions, which often take place twice a day during the offseason and extend out to halfcourt. Desmond described part of one workout: He’ll have Markus make 50 threes from one corner. The first 20 do not need to be consecutive makes, but the next 20 do, as well as the 10 after that. Markus will repeat that routine from four other spots (the other corner, the two wings, straight away) as he moves around the arc, and then do it again as he rotates back. Markus aims for a 70% make rate.
The goal, Desmond says, is consistency and efficiency. Desmond isn’t around to rebound for Markus or give him pointers in Milwaukee, but they’ll FaceTime during runs on the shooting gun. “I’m very maniacal with it,” Markus says of his workouts. “If I don’t feel right about it, I won’t stop.”
The three-point percentage that Howard put up last season is ridiculous on its face, but it’s even more staggering when placed into context. He’s one of only 17 players since the 1992–93 season to attempt at least 140 threes and connect at a 50% clip or better. Howard is the only freshman in that group, and he bested 15 of the other 16 members of it with his 54.7 3FG%. If we lower the minimum attempt threshold to 100, Howard stands out as one of only six freshmen since 1992–93 to sink at least half of his triples. One of the others was a Golden Eagle: NBA journeyman Steve Novak.
Howard topped all those frosh both with his percentage and volume. When he lets fly, the palm of Howard’s guide (left) hand faces the basket on the follow-through, a mechanical flaw that makes it look “like I’m going to give you a high five.” As long as Howard continues hitting at this rate, it’s safe to assume defenders will keep turning him down.
Howard doesn’t fit the mold of a one-dimensional perimeter sniper. Although he says “primarily, I feel I’m a great catch-and-shoot shooter,” Howard shines on off-the-bounce pull ups. He led all Division I players with a minimum of 35 possessions last season by scoring 1.404 points per possession on jump shots off the dribble, according to data from Synergy Sports Technology.
Howard is adept at manufacturing space when being guarded tightly, and at 5' 11" and 175 pounds with a running back-like build—his father, Chuck, played the position for Indiana in the 1980s—he can absorb contact while attacking the basket without being bumped off course. The possibility that Howard will disrupt his low dribble to quickly rise and fire keeps opponents on edge, and he cooked when Wojciechowski put him in pick-and-rolls last season. Per Synergy, Howard rated first among high-major players with at least 75 possessions handling the ball in pick-and-rolls by averaging 1.109 PPP.
Going under screens on Howard is a non-starter, and big men forced to switch onto him risk getting burned by an in-your-face trey. Watch this sequence from Marquette’s game against Seton Hall at the Big East tournament last March, in which Pirates forward Michael Nzei shuffles over to check Howard after a screen from Golden Eagles big man Matt Heldt. Howard gets Nzei dancing out by the three-point line, crosses him up, then uses a step-back dribble to open up just enough breathing room to launch over his contest.
To get a better sense of Howard’s impact in 2016–17, consider that he is one of only four freshmen since the 2010–11 season who posted a usage percentage of at least 25 in a minimum of 20 minutes per game with an Offensive Box Plus/Minus—a statistic that weighs contributions on that end of the court—of eight or more. The three others were guards who went one-and-done before being selected in the lottery of the NBA draft. You won’t find Howard on any credible 2018 mocks right now, chiefly because of his physical limitations.
Wojciechowski is going to play Howard more this season, and he’ll be free to let fly from deep whenever he gets a good look. Howard will have a “bright green” light, Wojciechowski says, but he’ll need to progress in other areas to help get Marquette back to the NCAAs. (We project the Golden Eagles as the Big East’s seventh-best team.) As a freshman, Howard turned the ball over on about a fifth of his possessions, slightly higher than the portion of his teammates’ baskets that he assisted while he was on the floor, and he forms half of a vulnerable defensive backcourt with 5' 11" redshirt senior Andrew Rowsey.
What could help the Golden Eagles play better D than last season, when they ranked 165th in Division I and second-to-last in the Big East during conference play, according to Kenpom.com: They spent part of the preseason holding bricks during drills. “We can’t afford not to have them on the court for long periods of time,” Wojciechowski says of Howard and Rowsey, who knocked down 48.4% of his threes against league competition (second only to Howard’s 57.3%) in 2016–17, his first season after transferring from UNC Asheville. “Then you just have to figure out how to make defense work with being undersized.”
Howard is aiming to hit 60% of his long-range tries this season. It probably won’t happen, but he can provide more value to Marquette’s offense even if his percentage declines by shooting more often and taking better care of the ball in more time on the court. With Howard, Rowsey and sophomore Sam Hauser (45.3 3FG% on 139 attempts in 2016–17) raining fire from deep, the Golden Eagles could push for a top-10 offense again. “It’s kinda hard for us to have shooting competitions,” Rowsey says of he and Howard. “Because we rarely miss.” Rowsey was joking, but that would have been a suitable explanation.
Howard’s form may well dip as a sophomore, and if its defense doesn’t perk up, Marquette could be left scrapping for an at-large bid and a plus-.500 Big East win-loss record again. What could happen this season, though, doesn’t take away from what Howard accomplished last season. It’s plain the three-point shot has seeped into the fabric of the college game, but Howard offered one of the most vivid examples yet of the amount of damage one player can inflict on the opposition while standing behind the arc.