Our Nobel Peace Prize-winning player profiles Series nears its triumphant end. Previous entries in this oeuvre have focused on Josh Smith, the walk-ons, Moses Ayegba, Jabril Trawick, Aaron Bowen, Mikael Hopkins, D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Bradley Hayes, Stephen Domingo, and Reggie Cameron.
A successful season this year will depend on a favorable answer to a number of different questions: D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera's development; Jabril Trawick's jump shot; Josh Smith's commitment and conditioning; Mikael Hopkins's ability to finish around the rim; Aaron Bowen's focus and ability to carve out a role in the offense; Stephen Domingo's confidence; and Reggie Cameron's ability to do anything other than shoot the lights out. These uncertainties are common, particularly with youngsters who round into more complete players as their careers progress.
Not too long ago, Markel Starks was one such uncertain, incomplete player. As a freshman, Starks was pressed into service when his predecessor Chris Wright suffered a broken bone in the hand late in the 2010-11 season. Markel wasn't prepared to replace Lumpy, and failed to connect from long distance or to set up his teammates in limited action for the rest of the year. The next season, Markel took a big step forward while still remaining far short of a finished product. As a sophomore, Starks had moments of brilliance, most notably canning four triples and 20 points in a thrilling road win at Louisville. Still, he was wildly inconsistent, and by the end of the season had lost his starting role to an ascendant Otto Porter.
Last season's statistics: 12.8 ppg, 3.0 apg, 1.8 rpg, 1.3 stl pg, 41.7 3FG%
Entering Starks's junior season, Georgetown lost its three leading scorers from the season before and had a particularly depleted back-court. As a result, Starks figured to take another big step forward in his third season. For the first couple of games, Starks still looked the part of a role player, failing to produce when Porter went down with a mild head injury. But the dimmer switch in the Barclay's Center flipped on Starks's game, as he tallied a total of 43 points in split decisions against UCLA and Indiana.
That set the stage for a successful third year for Starks. He scored in double figures in 21 of 32 games, upped his three-point shooting to a near-elite 41.7 percent, and led the team in assists. Just as importantly, after a pair of seasons in which Starks's defense was inconsistent, he made a commitment to guarding the ball, often hounding his back-court opponent into missed shots and finishing second in steals among Hoyas.
Even so, Starks had unfinished business coming into his senior year. Despite being the second-leading scorer on the regular season Big East champion, Starks received relatively little recognition, as the spotlight instead shone on Otto Porter, who put forth one of the great seasons in recent Georgetown memory. When Greg Whittington tore his ACL in June, the stakes for Starks's final go-round were heightened still more.
With those greater ambitions for his senior season, Starks sought out a bigger stage than Kenner League during summer play. He made the rounds at various skill camps frequented by the nation's elite college players, drawing high praise for his work ethic and performance. When he returned to the Hilltop, Markel turned in strong performances at summer league play, slashing to the basket, scoring at will, and distributing ably. After an eventful off-season, Starks looked primed for a big senior season.
As a senior, Starks will need to smooth over a few rough patches. Last season, he still had occasional lapses in production, scoring five points or fewer five times (though just once after Greg Whittington became ineligible). With Whittington and Porter both unavailable this season, Georgetown will rely on Starks as a primary scoring threat. He also will be its presumed top distributor and a veteran of a defensive core that that will require collective commitment to replicate its success from last season.
Preseason press suggests that he's prepared for the task. After a busy off-season testing himself against other top-flight college points guards, Starks said, "I’m ready to check some names off this year. People need to know who I am." Starks also already is receiving some national recognition, having been one of 45 point guards named to the watch list for the Bob Cousy Award. With those raised expectations, can Starks deliver?
Starks takes the next step forward, becoming the team's first and most reliable offensive option. His outside shooting improves from its already high standards, as Starks connects on nearly 45 percent of this three-pointers. A lethal long-distance threat opens up driving lanes, which Starks uses to set up his teammates and finish near the rim. On defense, he continues to make up in effort what he lacks in length and size, hounding opposing ball-handlers into mistakes. He makes good on the preseason all-Big East selection, averaging 15 points, 5 assists, and 2 steals, and leads Georgetown to a conference championship and post-season glory.
Starks remains solid but unspectacular, plateauing from a good junior year. Heavy minutes take their toll as the season wears on, and tired legs lead Starks's jumper astray. Other Hoyas fail to provide significant scoring support, and the Georgetown offense frequently stalls. Georgetown tops out in the middle of the new Big East and slips off the NCAA Tournament bubble in the season's final days.
After three seasons of patient and steady progress, Starks now finds himself as the team's leader, vocally, by example, and in production. Georgetown will need him to continue that progress to advance its own fortunes.