The freshman may have scored 23 points per game and led a relatively young school to its first boys basketball state semifinal in school history, but Markus Howard is pretty cognizant of making an assist first.
He averaged nearly three of those per game during the 2013-14 season, but when a conversation begins with Markus, he invariably deferred to the older brother.
Jordan Howard was “the guy” at Perry until his younger brother arrived, and while the older Howard became more of a facilitator and leader, Markus immediately became something the East Valley hasn’t seen from a freshman basketball player in at least a decade.
The attention surrounding Markus grew with each passing 20- or 30-point game — both he and Perry coach Joe Babinski noted the 40 points he scored early in the season against eventual state-semifinalist Dobson as an “arrival” — but Markus’ rapid ascension to being a premier player in Arizona and the 2013-14 Tribune Player of the Year was always flanked with the knowledge his older brother’s selflessness and sacrifices helped make it happen.
“Jordan was always understanding with any situation,” Markus said. “The way he handled it was unbelievable and I think it was unselfish to figure out it was best for the team, to be an all-around player and not just a scorer. But to let me do what I can do, he’s real mature and did what it took to win games.”
Perry won a lot of them (26) until eventual-champion Corona del Sol ended the Pumas’ run. Markus was often unstoppable in the process. He scored not only in bulk (he scored at least 30 points five times and at least 20 points 16 times) and efficiently (51 percent shooting), but he did it in the waning seconds on multiple occasions.
Playing with and against older kids growing up — his brother and friends — helped Markus evolve earlier and quicker than most high schoolers (youngens or upperclassmen).
He still had to carry the seniors’ bags and be a ball boy as freshmen often do, but Babinski noted his cornerstone player’s maturity, practice habits and competitiveness are contagious with teammates. His intellect and demeanor are a glimpse into why he was unfazed by playing top Arizona competition, in bigger arenas before thousands of onlookers, taking the big shots and navigating through any kind of defenses being drawn.
Even with the graduating senior class Perry is about to lose, the Pumas like their chances next year with the group coming back and a couple upcoming from the lower levels. It’s a big reason why he’ll be counted on to help lead teammates on and off the floor next year as a sophomore, to not only improve his shot, defense and on-court vision, but be more of a vocal leader.
It’s a lot of the “glue” game, intangibles similar to Jordan’s role this season, and while he’s headed to play at Central Arkansas this fall, Markus is creeping closer to the full-court press of elite college programs who believe they can suit him best.
For most everyone else, even the best of the best, it’s a lot of pressure. But thanks to his parental upbringing and older brother’s influence, it’s more of the same.
“Throw anything at him and he’ll compete,” Babinski said. “He’s the best competitor I’ve been around. He just does whatever circumstance happens and what is thrown at him. For a young kid that’s really special. Most kids don’t until they’re juniors or seniors in high school, and even then many don’t. He’s never intimidated by the moment. He just ignores everything else. If I knew how I’d have five or six state championship rings.”
Being this close to its first — and possibly moving closer — always starts with the team’s best player. The latter was made clear from day one.
“I expected to make an impact but not as big as I thought,” Markus said. “I still want to make a bigger impact. You can’t really predict these things but not as big of a scale.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune assistant managing editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or (480) 898-6576.