DETROIT – Markelle Fultz left Washington as the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft. By the time he worked out for the 76ers, warning signs of a major problem had emerged.
Fultz spent the next 535 days – which were full of ugly shooting, finger pointing, surgery, deeply analyzed workout videos, biting reactions, blunt evaluations, yips talk, rumors, contradictory health assessments, distrust and even family drama – until Philadelphia announced last December he had been diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
“Just being injured and not knowing what it is was probably one of the most stressful things,” Fultz said. “Then, finding out what my injury was probably the biggest relief I ever had.”
The alleviation of tension is palpable.
Fultz beamed in the locker room after the Magic’s preseason win over the Pistons last night, joking with teammates and flashing big smiles. He talked about his passion for playmaking and relished this dunk:
The Magic’s two preseason games have been a coming-out party for Fultz, who hadn’t played an NBA game since November. Though his TOS diagnosis soothed him, outsiders still didn’t know what to make of it. There was initially word Fultz would return in 3-6 weeks. Fultz’s agent said the guard would return that season. Instead, Fultz missed the rest of the season, about four months. The 76ers traded him to Orlando during that absence. Another long offseason invited more questions.
But Fultz is back on the court showing signs of life. He had another big dunk against the Spurs, and his confidence appears to be growing as he goes. Even just against Detroit, Fultz played with more verve as the game progressed:
The bigger-picture outlook is in the eye of the beholder.
Fultz no longer looks overwhelmed on the court. He’s 0-for-3 on 3-pointers, but at least he’s taking them. That’s encouraging progress.
Sans a reliable outside shot, Fultz has taken to probing inside the arc. He dislodges and twists by defenders. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Fultz gets to his spots. He looks for short, sometimes turnaround, jumpers just outside the paint or sometimes tries to get all the way to the rim. He also keeps his head up, taking advantage of the passing angles his size and bumping create.
“He can throw every pass,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said, “which not that many guys can.”
Fultz has 11 assists in 38 minutes this preseason despite often playing with another point guard (Michael Carter-Williams or D.J. Augustin).
It’s an enjoyable style for someone who grew up watching a lot of And1 and misses the physicality of old-school basketball.
It’s not a style that lends itself to stardom.
Fultz was the top pick in large part because of his outside shooting. That’s a major missing piece of his game. Defenses will adjust in the regular season, let alone the postseason. Already, Fultz has eight turnovers in his 38 preseason minutes while dealing with tight spacing. Beyond those highlight slams, Fultz is also just 5-for-13 inside the arc. That won’t cut it.
This preseason, Fultz has yet to attempt a free throw – a prior bugaboo. That’ll be yet another test.
Fultz said he must manage his TOS the rest of his career – through strengthening, rehab, rest and massages. It’s too early to say what limitations he’ll face long-term. Maybe the Fultz we see now will resemble the player he’ll be the rest of his career. Maybe this is just the start until he rediscovers a full toolkit of skills.
He’ll get plenty of time to work on his game. The Magic exercised his $12,288,697 team option for 2020-21 more than a month before necessary, a move that looks justified two games into the preseason.
It’s far too soon to know how this story concludes, but after so many painful episodes, a happy ending is at least back on the table.
“I never doubted myself,” Fultz said. “I know the talent I had. I knew I had an injury. So, for me, all the outside noise of people talking, it never got to me, because I knew what I could do.”