With his decision on where to go next very much up in the air, CJ Fulton is a prospect who is just working on his game for now. Emmet Ryan caught up with the Belfast Star point guard, for whom basketball runs in the family
It’s the middle of the third quarter and Belfast Star are toast. They trail Dundalk Ravens 43-25 and have just been terrible all day. Even with lots of time left, there is no reason to believe Star are going to do anything to deny Dundalk a maiden trip to the Irish U18 men’s cup final.
Then CJ Fulton happened. Having endured a poor shooting display in the first half, the third generation prospect went off. He either scored or created pretty much everything for Belfast on a 34-9 run to close out the game and take the W 59-52. Another trip to the National Basketball Arena in January was secured, he’s well used to those between Star and his school St Malachy’s. Fulton is a force of nature at underage level.
Still he was annoyed at himself when he met me outside a rainy Neptune Stadium a few hours later. His first half shooting performance had disappointed him, he knew he could do better.
“Basketball’s a game of runs. We just couldn’t make a shot in the first half. We got a lot of great energy off the bench, hit some shots, and got us back into it,” Fulton told BallinEurope.
Currently preparing for his A levels, the final exams in Northern Ireland, Fulton is only playing on three teams this year. It’s a slight step down in terms of schedule, barely, as he is only playing with his school, St Malachy’s, the Belfast Star U18 team and the Belfast Star Super League team. He isn’t playing U20 with Star to provide him with some sanity, although that list of ‘only’ three involves some qualification.
He still has duty at national team level this summer with the U18s and he might well get an invite to Mark Keenan’s training camp for the Irish senior squad. There’s also non-basketball commitments, he is still playing Gaelic football with his school although he has stepped back from club play with St Enda’s…I’m guessing because he has to find time to eat occasionally.
“It’s tough. The toughest thing about school is just balancing with all the sporting commitments. I work hard and, whenever I have time, just get the homework done.”
It doesn’t hurt that his dad, Adrian, is a teacher in his school. Both Fulton’s dad and grandfather, Danny, are legends in the sport over here with the elder being inducted into the Basketball Ireland Hall of Fame last year. There was no way Fulton was not going to be a baller.
“I’ve had a ball in my hand since I was a baby. It’s a big point of conversation throughout the week, it just runs in the family,” he said.
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There wasn’t much crossover between Adrian Fulton’s playing career and CJ’s youth, you won’t find many photos of the two of them in poses similar to a young Luka Doncic and his dad Sasa.
“I don’t remember him playing much. I’ve seen one clip of him playing St Vincent’s, I think, it was years ago. It was three minutes and he had like three turnovers, I give him some slagging about that but I know he was a great player,” said Fulton.
Doncic is one of the biggest inspirations to Fulton, along with some of his own current teammates who he remembers watching while growing up.
“In the NBA I like Luka Doncic, he’s one of my favourite players. Steph Curry as well. In Ireland, growing up, it was probably the Quinn twins, I went to the same school as them and they’re great role models for me,” said Fulton.
The comparison with Doncic, of playing senior ball well before turning 18, is received fondly by Fulton but he wouldn’t be the first to make it himself.
“It’s a bit different playing for Real Madrid than Belfast Star but he seems to have handled it fairly well.”
Fulton shot to prominence in Ireland and beyond in a a schools game in early 2018. Then just 15 years old, he made 15 threes in the U16A final over St Mary’s CBS the Green from Kerry.
First up in our 2018 highlights is the day CJ Fulton hit 15 three-pointers for St Malachy’s of Belfast to see his team home to #SubwaySchoolsCup glory 🏀🏀🏀🏀 #Beast @BelfastStar64 #ReelingInTheYears pic.twitter.com/riD4Tkv8a2
— Basketball Ireland (@BballIrl) December 31, 2018
Fulton, who is a naturally pretty quiet, noticed the increased attention and likes that is has more people talking about the sport. “People are coming up to me before and after games saying ‘you’re the guy who scored 15 threes’,” he said.
A few months later, having just turned 16, Fulton would become a regular fixture in the senior ranks. Belfast Star’s Super League team is coached by his father Adrian and they had some injury issues in the back court, he didn’t need to look far to make a call.
Fulton immediately looked like he belonged although there has been a noticeable step forward in his game at the higher level this season.
“That was the biggest challenge last year and this year, just the physicality and the length of guys. Last year’s experience really challenged me. That’s why I have gone a bit further this year,” he said.
“It’s just playing week in, week out, training with guys like that.”
The slighter build of Fulton wasn’t too much of a hindrance that first season but there was one game where it noticeably hurt Belfast. UCD Marian’s point guard tandem of Barry Drumm and Scott Kinevane flat out bullied him on the floor in the cup semi final in 2019.
He’s bigger now, albeit with room to fill out, and is taller than his dad, listed at 6’1” and looks at least an honest 6 foot even. All the time, he’s focused on learning and it’s paying off as Belfast are firmly in the title race for this year’s Super League.
“It’s been great, the Quinns give me lots of advice. The chemistry among the team has really improved this season. It’d be huge [to win a title with Star]. We were devastated last year at the Mardyke when Marian blew us out in the cup semi final. We lost the the Champions Trophy final last year too,” he said.
“The crowds up in Belfast are amazing to see. There’s a great buzz behind the club with people coming to watch Super League games every Saturday night.”
With his many commitments there is always the fear of burnout but Fulton is lucky to have coaches who don’t want to waste his talent.
“All the coaches understand that if I need a night off or to rest a wee bit, they let me do that. I have limited time outside of basketball, I just try to hang out with my friends and watch TV,” said Fulton.
“I just know that school and club U18 I’m going to be more of a scorer. In Super League, I still have to score but I am more of a facilitator. Having the two roles helps round me out as a point guard.”
There’s also the matter of what comes next. There are offers to play college ball in the US, but Fulton is smartly keeping his cards close to his chest. He’s got exams to work on for starters, and is leaving the decision on whether he will even go to the US until after the basketball season in Ireland concludes at the end of March.
“I’m still not sure what I want to do. If I was to go to America, it would probably be prep school then college. I’ve got a few looks from colleges and prep schools,” he said.
“Before I go into college, I need to get stronger and quicker. I’d need to work out every day over in prep school, just strength and conditioning.”
The option to stay home is still very much there, hence the A levels being on his mind, and Fulton has a plan if he takes that route.
“I’d probably go to uni here and stay with Star. I’ve applied for both Queen’s and Jordanstown, I’m still not sure but I’d probably go to Jordanstown for sport science,”
The temptation to go to the US has to be strong, especially for a Belfast lad. In 2017 and 2018 he got to see D1 teams come over and play in front of huge crowds at the Hall of Fame Classic in the city’s SSE Arena. After a one year hiatus, it’s coming back next Christmas. The attraction of being with a D1 school and playing in front of an enormous home crowd can’t be understated.
Right now, he’s just focused on developing his personal game and looking ahead to his other certain basketball appointments this summer. He’ll be barely finished his A levels when he has to go to Oradea, Romania with the U18s for the European Championships.
There’s also the small matter of the European Small Countries Championships in Ireland before both of those although Fulton doesn’t expect to get the call for that.
“I don’t know about that. If I got called for the tryouts, it would be a great experience but I doubt I’ll get one,” he said.
With his certain commitments in the summer, he has a clear goal in mind after several poor performances from Irish nationals sides save for a bronze in the U18C division in 2018.
“We should definitely be aiming for top 8 with U18. We’ve always gone out looking for that but it hasn’t quite happened. If we get everyone to commit, they are a few lads in the States and England, then we can definitely get to a quarter final,” he said.
“I want to get stronger and quicker by the summer. I get into the gym whenever I can, it’s tough with A levels and training. I’ve seen my defence improve from last year. I’m just trying to get better every day. There are always things you can improve on.”
An earlier version of this article said Fulton would be playing U20 internationally this summer. At present he is not on that panel. Apologies for the confusion.