21 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in a victory over the LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers. You’d think this might come with the territory for the number one draft pick in 2017. After all, fellow 2017 draftees Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebyo, Donovan Mitchell, De’Aaron Fox and others have all found their role and relative stardom for their modest experience in this league.
But Markelle Fultz’s introduction to the NBA has been anything but routine. Far from the carefully planned and managed opening seasons of most lottery picks, Markelle Fultz has had to endure the most severe kind of boot camp. This was not the expected path for a player who even coming out of high school looked like he could do it all.
Fultz played just 14 games in his rookie campaign, and 19 in the following season. Even beyond the lack of court time, Fultz had to listen to endless media and fan debate over the seemingly mysterious reasons behind a decline in his ability to shoot from distance. Some speculated that his shooting coach had altered his mechanics, which had resulted in the hitch that had noticeably appeared in his jump shot. The lack of game time fueled further curiosity, with every video of Fultz shooting jumpers going viral.
Eventually, an injury was confirmed, listed as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. This is a condition that indicates the nerves that run between the neck and shoulder on one side are compressed, resulting in movement impingement, pain, muscle weakness and atrophy. A serious condition for a sport that relies on touch and developing muscle memory through rehearsed repetition of specific movements.
The Philadelphia 76ers that traded up in the draft to select him evidently decided to cut their losses with Fultz. After all, one of their leading players also has a mysterious ailment that prevents him shooting from distance. He was traded for Jonathan Simmons and two draft picks in February of 2019. NBA fans would be forgiven for assuming that might be the last they ever hear of a player with one of the most unusual stories to start their career.
But things started to change for Fultz in Florida. Rather than focusing on his shooting, Orlando Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford noticed what else he brought to the game: “In many ways, I just think he’s a good all-around player because he has a feel for the game. He’s a terrific passer and his ability to get into the paint and have a feel for where everybody is is very unique.”
In another interview, Clifford said: “The thing that I most like about him – and you don’t see this with all young players – is that you work on something and they play five-on-five and he takes what you’ve worked on and he implements it into the team.’’
Clifford raved prior to Fultz making his Magic debut in San Antonio: “Obviously, he’s a terrific individual player, he has skill and he knows how to play, he has IQ and he knows how to play both ends of the floor. But the thing that I’m seeing is not surprising. His IQ translates into good team play, and a lot of that is because of his attitude and the way that he works.’’
In the title for this piece, I’m obviously referring to the allegory of either taking optimistic or pessimistic perspectives on potentially the same subject. Is the glass half full or half empty? This same perspective can be applied to the analysis of players. The 76ers due to the star power they already possessed and with the pressure to contend were forced to focus on Fultz’s shortcomings.
Without such high expectations, the Magic have actually been afforded the time to look at the positives Fultz brings to the court. His three-point shot still isn’t consistent, but that doesn’t define his game. His footwork, athleticism, ability to draw defenders, find his teammates and finish at the rim himself are all exceptional.
Fast forward back to this victory over the Lakers. Speaking of Fultz’s performance, LeBron said: “I’m happy as hell for him.”
James then revealed he has followed Fultz since he was in high school. He added: “He’s been given an opportunity to go out and play the game how he grew up playing. Everything else takes care of itself.”
Fultz is yet another cautionary tale of how important opportunity, circumstance and even luck are in young players finding their place in the NBA. Given the tough start to his career, it seemed like Fultz would need something out of the ordinary to turn things around. It’s perhaps unsurprising therefore that he’s potentially found a home in the Magic Kingdom of Orlando.
In a league that values feel-good stories, would it surprise anyone if Markelle Fultz was able to keep up a good run if he appeared among the candidates to win the Most Improved Player Award?