PULLMAN – Washington’s basketball team is no longer buoyed by Markelle Fultz, the top pick of the 2017 NBA Draft, but opponents still can’t expect to beat the Huskies without keeping the Pac-12’s top-scoring freshman guard in check.
UW lost one – Fultz scored 23.3 points per game during his lone season in Seattle – but gained another in Jaylen Nowell, whose 16.4 points per game lead the Huskies and rank second among Pac-12 rookies, next to Arizona forward DeAndre Ayton.
Nowell has reached double figures in all but one game this season and UW’s scoring-savvy guard brings his glowing numbers into a rivalry matchup at Beasley Coliseum on Saturday between the Huskies (11-4, 1-1) and the Cougars (8-6, 0-2).
It’ll be the first Washington State’s seen of Nowell as a college player, but one member of Ernie Kent’s staff has plenty of fond memories of the young Huskies star in a purple uniform.
Before coming to UW, Nowell was a four-year prep standout at Garfield High – a 3A powerhouse in Seattle that won 213 games and a pair of state championships from 2009-17 under the direction of former coach Ed Haskins. In April, Haskins left Garfield to join Kent’s staff in Pullman as an assistant.
His first season at WSU has somewhat doubled as a reunion tour – Haskins will see at least three of his former Garfield players this season – and Saturday’s rivalry game figures to be a precious one for both the player and coach.
“It’s always love with me and Jaylen,” said Haskins, who already ran into ex-Garfield guard B.J. Blake (Idaho) and will re-connect with Daejon Davis (Stanford) in Pac-12 play later this season. “I always want to see him do well, but he knows me and I know him and we’re going to compete until the 10th degree. It’ll be definitely different with not coaching him and him not coming to our bench, but I know he’s where he’s supposed to be and so it’s very, very exciting.”
Haskins was not merely a four-year basketball instructor for the UW freshman.
He’s known Nowell since birth and has memories of the young boy trudging into Seattle Pro-Am basketball practices wearing his shoulder pads and football spikes. Nowell, no older than fifth grade, sat atop the wooden bleachers and watched his father gallop up and down the floor alongside Haskins and other members of the Doug Christie League Pro-Am team.
Haskins and Mike Nowell – more commonly known as “Big Mike” – were longtime friends and well-respected figures among Seattle’s vibrant basketball community. Mike Nowell was an all-conference player at Clark Atlanta University and spent time playing professionally in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA).
Before dying of cancer in 2015, he offered years of his life to the hoops scene in the Puget Sound – as a coach for the Rotary Style AAU club, as an assistant to Haskins at Garfield and as an aid to Cameron Dollar at Seattle U.
When his father passed, Jaylen Nowell was a few months removed from his standout sophomore season at Garfield, one that saw him capture a 3A title with the Bulldogs, scoring 23.3 ppg en route to first-team all-state honors.
“It was very, very hard on the family,” Haskins said, “but I think it really brought them closer together and gave the boys a lot more focus on what they really want to do.”
The city’s tight-knit basketball family embraced Jaylen, who received messages of encouragement from Seattle basketball titans Nate Robinson, Jamal Crawford, Brandon Roy, Tony Wroten and others.
“All those guys stepped in,” Haskins said.
So did Haskins.
“I feel like I played the role I was supposed to play and I think some of that was father figure, maybe uncle, friend, coach,” he said.
Haskins is preparing for an unusual role on Saturday: opponent.
When UW fired longtime coach Lorenzo Romar, a number of the Huskies’ high-profile recruits reneged on their commitments, including top prospect Michael Porter Jr., who fled to Missouri, and Davis, who signed with the Cardinal.
Nowell vowed to remain a Husky, pledging to first-year coach Mike Hopkins, who’s already led UW to major wins over Kansas and USC.
“These kids have to make the right decision for them and Lorenzo was a great influence on a lot of those kids in the city,” Haskins said. “And with Jaylen, if you looked on his Twitter, his Instagram whatever … Jaylen is committed to the town and I think more than that, he’s committed to his family. His mom, his little brother that are obviously both right there.”
So what can WSU expect from UW’s high-scorer on Saturday?
Nowell, according to his old high school coach, is “probably one of the best scorers out of Seattle in the last 10, 15 years at least.” Haskins adds that “he can just put the ball in the hole in a myriad ways, he’s an underrated three-point shooter … a determined driver and he’s a mid-range assassin.”
And lest you think the Cougars are better suited to stop Nowell than most because his longtime mentor is sitting on the WSU bench …
“First of all, have you seen Ed play defense,” Kent joked Thursday. “Secondly, (Jaylen) would shoot over the top of him anyway cause Ed’s so short. So that ain’t going to help us at all. I think he’s a really, really terrific player.”
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