MILWAUKEE — You can learn a lot about Markus Howard from the way he shoots a basketball.
His rapid release is more like a reflex. Shots launch at steep angles, so taller players can’t block the 5-foot-11 Marquette star. As Howard’s step-back jumpers whip the nets at the Al McGuire Center practice court on a recent afternoon, he shows a form that’s not just pretty-looking, but smart, refined and consistent. Like all skilled shooters and scorers, Howard has natural gifts, but he has harnessed and developed them to accelerate his career.
The little kid who dazzled YMCA crowds at his brothers’ club games with impromptu halftime shooting spectacles has done everything ahead of schedule.
He left high school after just three years, having won two youth gold medals with USA Basketball. He arrived with a college-conditioned body, thanks to rigorous training with his father and brothers. Last season, he led the nation in 3-point shooting percentage (.547) and set Marquette’s single-season record. Entering Wednesday’s game at No. 8 Xavier, he leads the Big East in scoring at 21.5 points a game. His 52 points at Providence on Jan. 3 set a Marquette single-game record and matched the most ever scored in a Big East contest. He’s the only Division I player without a missed free throw (minimum 2.5 attempts per game), making all 57 of his tries, and his past 64 stretching back to last season.
On March 3, when Marquette faces Creighton in the regular-season finale, Howard will turn 19.
“We tend to forget he’s only 18,” Marquette assistant coach Stan Johnson said. “We thought he was going to be a really good player for us, but he’s better than what we thought this early. That’s not surprising. He has a very high bar, high standards, and he always exceeds them.”
Howard’s rise might have been slower if he wasn’t the baby of the family. Still in diapers, 3-year-old Markus would watch his brothers Desmond and Jordan play one-on-one in the backyard. He went where they went. Even though their father, Chuck, played football at Indiana, the Howard boys were drawn to basketball, and Markus started younger than his brothers.
“I was never really around kids my age,” Markus said. “I was always around them and their friends.”
The family moved from New Jersey to Chandler, Arizona, around that time, and Desmond and Jordan quickly became known in the local basketball scene. They played on the same club team, and Markus would attend their games, bringing along a ball to shoot during breaks. It was at halftime of a game that Jordan heard the roar. He looked out to see Markus, maybe 6 or 7, shooting NBA-range 3-pointers to delight the YMCA crowd. “And making every single one of them,” added Jordan, now a senior guard at Central Arkansas. “They were cheering louder than the game. They all knew: Look out for the littlest Howard.” Asked about the story, Markus smiled. “I just wanted to shoot.”
Johnson noticed the shooting and scoring skills when he first saw Markus in an AAU game. Markus was in the eighth grade but acted older.
“What drew me to him was his maturity,” said Johnson, then an assistant at Arizona State. “You felt like he had all the intangibles.”
Howard was decisive, and not in a reckless, teenager-like way. He committed to ASU after his freshman year. A year later, the 15-year-old opted to leave Perry High School, where he had led the state in scoring (32.4 PPG) and earned all-star honors, for Findlay Prep, the Las Vegas-area hoops power that produced McDonald’s All-Americans every year. He wouldn’t go to prom or win a state championship, but he could fast-track his basketball development and learn how to live away from home.
Around the same time, Arizona State fired coach Herb Sendek, which meant Johnson was also out of a job. Howard reopened his recruitment, which intensified as he led Findlay in scoring (18.6 PPG).
When Johnson landed at Marquette, Howard was the first recruit he called, but the situation had changed. Rather than a 20-minute drive from home, Howard would have to travel 1,500 miles to a cold-weather, inner-city school. ASU remained in the running — the chance to play for Bobby Hurley appealed to Howard — and Baylor also pushed hard.
Ultimately, Johnson and Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski won out. In April 2016, Howard committed to the Golden Eagles, announcing his choice in a three-minute video that Jordan produced, which chronicled Markus’ basketball path and college options.
“Come fly with me,” Markus says at the end of the clip.
For most top-100 recruits, picking a college affords them a pit stop. Howard, meanwhile, kept the pedal down. A strong student, he also announced he would reclassify for the 2016 class to start his college clock sooner. “He’s a little different,” Chuck Howard said. “He’s not the kind of kid going out to parties. His social life is basketball.”
After spending 20 years with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski as a player and an assistant, Wojciechowski learned that a team’s best players deserve more freedom. Howard came to Marquette with creative license rarely given to 17-year-old college freshmen. He hasn’t made Wojciechowski regret it.
“Anybody who watches us play would say one of the things Markus has is the ultimate green light,” Wojciechowski said. “The fact that he can shoot off the catch and the dribble makes it unique because most guys can’t do both, even really good shooters.”
Howard has attempted 570 shots in 49 career games. This season, he has taken 45 more shots than teammate Andrew Rowsey, the Big East’s No. 2 scorer (20.8 PPG).
He takes bad shots, but, as Wojciechowski noted, “His bad shots are better than other guys’ good shots.”
Howard was missing shots to start Big East play, going 6-of-19 in a loss to Xavier and then 4-of-14 in a win over Georgetown, his lowest career percentage (.286) for a game in which he played more than 20 minutes. On New Year’s Day, Johnson called with a message: You’re the only one who can defend yourself. Free your mind, and you could have 40 soon.
Two nights later, 40 looked unlikely. Howard hit just 2 of 8 shots in the first half at Providence. But 19 seconds into the second half, he hit a 3-pointer. Next possession: Another jumper. Then, another 3-pointer. He would hit three 3-pointers during a two minute, 25-second span. Marquette trailed 77-71 with 1:59 left before Howard scored eight points (part of a solo 18-point run) to force overtime. He hit three more 3s in the first 122 seconds of the extra session as Marquette won 95-90.
“It happened in a blur,” he said. “I got so caught up in the game that I kind of lost myself. I didn’t realize after the fact that I scored 52. My teammates were all getting hyped and I was like, ‘What’s going on?'”
Howard’s line: 52 points on 17-of-29 shooting with 11 3-pointers — a Big East record — in 44 minutes. Wojciechowski had seen former Duke star J.J. Redick get hot, but Redick’s college career high was 41. For Johnson, the closest comp was former Utah Jazz star Karl Malone dropping 50 in the 2000 NBA playoffs.
“What’s impressive,” Johnson said of Howard’s night, “is most of it came in the most crucial time. He’s fearless.”
Jordan Howard was sitting in the locker room at Sam Houston State, stinging from Central Arkansas’ 82-76 loss despite contributing 25 points, when his phone buzzed with an ESPN notification and a string of texts. Snapping out of his funk, he texted Markus. They talk after every game. Each lists the other as his favorite college player. Jordan, also 5-11, is actually the more prolific scorer: He ranks fourth nationally in average (24.5 PPG) and on Saturday became Central Arkansas’ career points leader.
FaceTiming later that night, neither brother could say a word. They just smiled.
“To score 52 at that level at his age is something that’s unheard of,” Jordan said. “It’s everything we could have imagined and worked for.”
There has been work. Plenty. The Howard family training program began when the boys were young and continues when they’re home on “breaks.”
Markus and Jordan meet Desmond for 6 a.m. basketball skills workouts. A former Phoenix College player who now runs the League Me training program, Desmond trains his brothers for three to four hours. They practice shots they wouldn’t take in games — think Steph Curry’s warm-ups — but also many game situations.
“A lot of things that me and my brothers do, not many people can and will do. But when you’re doing what you love with who love, it’s never a hassle.”
After lunch, Markus and Jordan meet with Chuck, who trained pro and college athletes for years before becoming the corporate wellness administrator at Grand Canyon University. They work on speed, strength, agility, balance and recovery, doing everything from explosive jump training to parachute running to the slide board to pool work.
At night, Markus and Jordan will go back to the gym and shoot. They repeat the regimen five to six times per week.
“Intense and unorthodox,” Markus said. “A lot of things that me and my brothers do, not many people can and will do. But when you’re doing what you love with who love, it’s never a hassle.”
They do it because it’s what they’ve always known.
“It’s great to see it now,” Chuck said. “I remember taking them to the gym at 4 in the morning and them having a little cot in my office. I’m sure they were hearing me yelling and motivating our clients. Now it’s a part of who they are.”
Marquette’s training program wasn’t a dramatic adjustment for Markus Howard, but he had to evolve in other ways: decision-making, defense, diversifying his offense, constantly facing the opponent’s best defender. Although Howard’s 3-point percentage has dropped this season, he’s shooting 58.7 percent from inside the arc. He’s averaging more than an assist more per game (3.7). Marquette doesn’t have captains but Howard is “our emotional leader,” Wojciechowski said.
“At times, he makes it look real easy, but it’s not easy for any young player coming into college,” Wojciechowski said. “There’s a learning curve, there’s an adjustment, whether you’re Markus Howard, Jabari Parker or whoever.”
Howard and Wojciechowski have discussed the NBA, which Wojciechowski fully expects Howard to reach. His size will be scrutinized, but Johnson sees some J.J. Barea in him, as well as Eddie House, a 2,000-point scorer at Arizona State who played 11 NBA seasons.
The interesting part: After years on the fast track, Howard looks at the last step differently. He is, after all, only 18. “I want to make sure I don’t just make it,” Howard said. “I want to stay and maintain a career.”