Markelle Fultz: Free-throw form temporary, result of shoulder injury

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DETROIT – I spent the day wondering the best way to ask No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz about his suddenly deformed shooting stroke. I wanted to be respectful and empathetic and mostly just not blurt out, “What’s wrong with you?”

After answering a few questions about his shot, Fultz himself brought up that he’s aware of all the “rumors” about his free throws. Sounding comfortable and confident – working against a popular theory that he has the yips – Fultz explained a shoulder injury is still hindering him. As soon as his shoulder heals, he’ll return to the form he used at Washington, where he made 65% of his free throws.

“I do what I’ve got to do to get the ball on the rim,” said Fultz, who’s 6-of-12 from the line this season (50%).

Fultz was less direct about his jumper.

He can shoot 3-pointers right now, he insists. But after attempting more than five per game in college, he has taken no shots from at least 15 feet – let alone beyond the arc – in 76 NBA minutes.

Though he professed confidence in his open jumper, even his close-range jumpers are a mess. He’s 3-of-16 from outside five feet, and shooting just 33% overall.

More jarring are the shots he isn’t taking. A smooth mid-range operator and aggressive shot hunter at Washington, Fultz looks like a shell of himself. He sometimes drives, mostly to set up teammates, and he sets screens. But his biggest strengths have been neutered.

As a result, defenses can sag off him, and the 76ers’ offense has crated with him on the court. They’ve scored a woeful 80.4 points per 100 possessions when he plays. Rotations aren’t to blame, either. No matter which teammate Fultz is paired with, during the duo’s minutes together, Philadelphia has scored at what would have been a league-worst rate last season.

Yet, the 1-3 76ers continue to play Fultz at least a third of each game. They’re trying to win for the first time since The Process began, but they also have young talent like Fultz to groom.

“There’s no book that tells you how to combine win and develop,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “They are very mutually exclusive.

“Normally, the link is you’ve got to play them and you’ve got to live with some stuff.”

Fultz said he isn’t worried about developing bad habits while shooting through his shoulder injury. Neither is Brown, who has consulted with medical personnel.

“Nobody has any fears,” Brown said. “…You don’t just walk a certain way for a long period of your life and all of a sudden start to limp.”

But it’s not so easy to dispel doubt for several reasons:

  • As the No. 1 pick, Fultz receives outsized attention. Even coming off the bench to begin his career, joining the ranks of Anthony Bennett and Andrea Bargnani, immediately generated pessimism.
  • Because the Celtics traded the No. 1 pick while Fultz was the consensus choice, many Boston fans are openly rooting for Fultz to fail. Not because they hold any specific ill will toward him, but just because they want their team to be right.
  • Point guards drafted after Fultz – Lonzo Ball, De'Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr. – are off to much better starts to their careers.
  • Teammates Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who had a triple-double in his fourth game, are balling. Fultz is the weak link of Philadelphia’s young three-headed core.
  • Fultz, against the 76ers’ wishes, reworked his jumper over the offseason. That’s what makes it so hard to completely discount the possibility of a larger mental block.

So, the articles of concern are rolling in. Jokes are being cracked about his Shaq-esque free throws. More serious people are actually fretting about his long-term value.

Brown’s advice to Fultz is simple: “This is not going to define you.” The coach wants Fultz to focus on everything but his jumper – defense, running the offense, getting to his spots in the pick-and-roll.

“At the end of the day, I know what I can do,” Fultz said. “My teammates know what I can do. My coaches know what I can do.”

Maybe someday soon, he’ll get to show it.