Best freshman in the Big 12? K-State’s Marcus Foster is right there with Wiggins, Embiid et al
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The crazy thing is that The Dunk, all caps, the one against Gonzaga back on Dec. 21 — a Richter-scale throwdown so sweet, so macho, it comes with a definitive article, like Dwight Clark against the Cowboys or Cal players weaving through Stanford’s band — isn’t even the best one on Marcus Foster’s resume.
Oh, hell, no. Gerald Booker says No. 1 was in the spring of 2011, at an AAU tourney, when the future Kansas State guard caught the ball on the wing, went baseline, shot straight to Neptune and plummeted planet-side with a backward reverse slam that stopped traffic.
"This is when he really woke us up," chuckles Booker, one of Foster’s old coaches with the Dallas Mustangs. "I just turned around and the coaches just looked at each other and went, ‘Man, did you see that?’
"I think it was his way of letting everybody know that he was here."
He’s never left. While someone in a nice suit raves about Andrew Wiggins, while some hack with a laptop writes love sonnets to Joel Embiid, Marcus Foster is in the gym working, always working, always grinding, his ego at a slow boil.
"My goal was always (that) I wanted to go to Duke and play for Duke, because I really admired how Coach K runs his team and how good a coach he is. But they never recruited me," says Foster, the 6-foot-2 off-guard who’s leading the Wildcats in scoring (14.1 points per game), field-goal makes and 3-pointers. "So I always had in my mind, ‘Why didn’t (he) recruit me, and why didn’t they recruit me?’
"I’m looking at the freshman list; they always talk about (Duke’s) Jabari Parker and (Kansas’ Andrew) Wiggins and (Kentucky’s) Julius Randle and the Harrison twins, and you never see ‘Marcus Foster.’ I’m looking at it (as) I’m in the gym and I’m trying to prove to people I’m just as good as them."
Roughly halfway through his freshman year, the Wichita Falls, Texas, native has racked up more assists than Parker (27), more treys than Wiggins (33) and more rebounds than Andrew or Aaron Harrison (46). After averaging 16 points, 5.5 boards and 2.0 assists in massive Wildcat victories over George Washington and Oklahoma State, Foster on Tuesday was named the Wayman Tisdale National Freshman of the Week. K-State (12-2, 2-0 Big 12) will take a 10-game winning streak into Allen Fieldhouse against rival Kansas (10-4, 1-0) on Saturday.
"I didn’t expect to get this much playing time, or do the things that I’m doing right now," Foster says. "Coach (Bruce) Weber (told) me one time, ‘When you work, good things are going to happen.’"
Most parents keep a list of their kids’ friends’ home numbers near the phone. Alvita Foster had a list of high school gym and YMCA digits handy.
"Throughout high school, it was not even a problem of us not knowing where Marcus was," Foster’s mother says. "It was just trying to figure out which gym he was at.
"He would just go from gym to gym and then he’d run out (of them) and then he’d come home. That was the only problem we’ve had with Marcus, is trying to keep him out of the gym."
Marcus was the baby of the family, the youngest of three, growing up in a house dominated by faith, fellowship, basketball and a love for the Los Angeles Lakers. His older sister Jenny was a 6-foot-1 forward at Eastern New Mexico, and her one-on-one battles with Marcus became the stuff of family legend.
"(She) finally said I was better than her now," Marcus says proudly. "My senior year of high school, she finally said it."
Of course, he was better than most of his peers, too. Hirschi coach Donald Hedge says Foster finished his prep career as the No. 2 all-time rebounder in the history of the Wichita Falls school district, despite being only 6-2 and spending half his high school games out on the wing.
"The thing about Marcus is, he can do everything. He can do everything," Hedge says. "For us, he was our biggest starter, so he would guard the post, and he was my best post defender. But he was also my best perimeter defender."
Hedge challenged him as a sophomore to not be a specialty shooter, a one-trick pony, but to defend, rebound and generally set the tone. Meanwhile, schools from the Dallas-Fort Worth area that had seen him light up the scoreboards during AAU summer events horned in to try to convince him to transfer to the Metroplex.
"I’m riding him and sitting him on the bench, (saying), ‘You ain’t this and you ain’t that,’" Hedge recalls. "And these teams are going ‘We fly to all these places’ and ‘We play a national schedule.’ And you would have thought a 15-year-old kid would have bought into that. But he didn’t. Not only did he become my hardest worker, he became my hardest rebounder. He became our leader. He led us in sprints. He came in early. He stayed late. He just flipped the script.
"Some people practice, but he prepares to excel."
Foster averaged a double-double as a junior and a senior, lifting Hirschi’s Huskies to the Class 3A Region I title game last winter, scoring 28 and grabbing 12 boards in the final against Abilene. It got the point where at halftime of some games, fans would approach Foster for autographs as he was heading to or leaving the locker room.
I think he’ll be licking his chops at that one (playing Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse). Just to know that Wiggins has gotten all the hype.
Gerald Booker, Foster's former AAU coach
"And it didn’t phase him at all," Hedge says. "You would think a kid would get a little big-headed and get a little arrogant. And it just didn’t phase him.
"I told (K-State assistant Alvin) Brooks the other day, I said, ‘If you put Marcus, right now, on the Miami Heat’s roster, he would be in the rotation. He would be in the 8-9-man rotation, just because he can do everything. He’s got an NBA body, he can handle it, he can shoot it he can defend it. He’s got the body. He’s got the quicks. He’s got the IQ. He would play for the Miami Heat. Right now."
Duke never called. Neither did Oklahoma State, despite seeing a lot of Marcus over the years, having recruited several of his AAU teammates, including swingman Le’Bryan Nash. Cal-Berkley kicked the tires, but the final cards on the table were Creighton and Kansas State. From there, it was just a matter of geography: The Bluejays were heading to the bright lights of the Big East, but the Wildcats would play in Texas, where Foster’s family and friends could see him in person.
In hindsight, K-State fans should thank Brooks for his eye and diligence, and Booker for often burying Foster on the Mustangs’ bench. The AAU coach jokes that his rotation — and Foster’s lack of time in it — was the "best defense" against the budding prep sharpshooter. College coaches who had turned up to scout Foster usually came away without seeing enough of him to form a fair judgment.
"Actually, I almost cut him, because when he was a freshman, he was a little, scrawny kid," Booker says now. "If it wasn’t for (Mustangs head man) Tony Johnson, he probably would have got cut."
But Marcus got a lot bigger — from 170-ish pounds as a freshman at Hirschi to more than 200 now — and a lot more assured. Although the Wildcats had seen something in Foster, a little spark, Hedge isn’t sure they knew for certain exactly what they were getting, either.
"I told Coach Brooks when they signed him, I said, ‘Y’all just got the steal (of) the nation,’" the Hirschi coach says.
"They’re kind of like, ‘Yeah, yeah, he’s all right.’ I said, ‘Brooksie, he will start for you as a freshman.’ And Brooksie called me, not long before the (opener) and he said, ‘You’re right, man. You told me this kid was going to start.’"
After Foster dropped 15 points and five boards on Ole Miss on Dec. 5 — including a 3-pointer from the left corner to help ice the contest — Rebels coach Andy Kennedy likened Marcus to K-State icon Mitch Richmond, hardly faint praise. Foster heads into the weekend fourth in the Big 12 in 3-point makes; according to the website Sports-Reference.com, he’s also sixth in the league in defensive win shares (1.1) — the only freshman among the Big 12’s top 10 — and 13th in overall defensive rating (92.4).
"Being a scorer, you have to be able to do different things," Foster says. "You just can’t just do one thing (well)."
Fundamentals. Family. Faith. Foster is on the usher board at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Wichita Falls. Humble. Reverent. Courteous. And driven like a ’68 Mercury Cougar.
Why hello there, Allen Fieldhouse.
"I think he’ll be licking his chops at that one," Booker says. "Just to know that Wiggins has gotten all the hype. He likes playing against the best. Him coming from Wichita Falls, not getting a lot of national hype, he’s always felt forgotten."
"It’s not personal at all — with anybody," Foster says. "I don’t take it (personally) with anybody. Just because Wiggins and me, we’re both talented freshmen, my mindset is not, ‘I’m going to prove to people that I’m better than him’ … it’s going to be just to prove that my team is just as good as his."
The steeper the climb, the louder the engine roars. As a 10-year-old, so the story goes, Foster attended a summer hoops camp at Midwestern State dressed head-to-toe like Kobe Bryant, blew past everybody in his age group and forced them to move him up a few classes. When that didn’t feel challenging enough, he demanded to take on the counselors, the Midwestern players, the college guys. One of those college guys, LaKeith Grant, got a kick out of this cocky little upstart and became like a big brother.
"The most important thing is, he likes being the underdog and flying under the radar," says Grant, now a basketball coach at North Mesquite (Texas) High School. "He’s got a little chip on his shoulder. And back home, we’re like, ‘What y’all are talking about, we (already) knew he could do this.’
"It’s just the rest of America is catching up to knowing where he’s at. A lot of y’all have not seen Marcus Foster’s best game yet."
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.