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What a relief: Markelle Fultz shows progress in preseason

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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.”

Paul George on twins Marcus, Markieff Morris: “They’re different, but they’re the same”

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LOS ANGELES — Paul George has given us the quote of the day.

For some quick context, last season Paul George played with Markieff Morris in Oklahoma City. This season, George’s Clippers team traded for the other Morris twin, Marcus Morris, at the deadline. When asked about them, George admitted to mixing them up — and then had a classic description of twins.

“It was weird at first, ‘cuz I would call [Marcus] ‘Keiff.’ It actually took a good week. It’s crazy. ‘What’s up Marcus? Nice to meet you.’ Then instantly after, ‘Hey Keiff!’ It’s gonna take a second…

“They’re different, but they’re the same.”

Um… yes, they are.

Both Morris twins live in Los Angeles now (and are expected to move in together). Marcus was traded to the Clippers at the deadline, while Markieff was waived and became a free agent, choosing to sign with the Lakers.

George had high praise for both of them.

“Markieff and Marcus, they are great glue guys,” George said. “They just know how to play the game. They fit right in, they bring toughness, hecka [good] locker room guys, both of them just great people. Great dudes.”

They’re the same that way. But different.

Report: Terry Stotts to remain Trail Blazers coach next season

Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts
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The Trail Blazers had big expectations after reaching the 2019 Western Conference finals and signing their top players, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, to lucrative contract extensions.

Instead, Portland (26-32) is in a dogfight with the Grizzlies, Pelicans, Spurs, Suns and Kings for the No. 8 seed.

Often, teams underperforming like that fire their coach.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

A source with knowledge of coach Terry Stotts’ situation said there’s no reason to believe he’s in any danger this summer, regardless of how this turns out.

Stotts has a few things working in his favor:

So expect Stotts back next season. But also expect him to face a little more pressure. Even if a lot of what wrong this season wasn’t his fault, losing tends to increase scrutiny on the coach.

In his eighth season with the Trail Blazers, Stotts is the NBA’s fourth-longest-tenured coach (behind only the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, Heat’s Erick Spoelstra and Mavericks’ Rick Carlisle). It just becomes increasingly more difficult for Stotts to meet the high expectations he has helped set in Portland.

For now, though, Stotts appears to remain ahead of the curve.

Stephen Curry reportedly will return to Warriors lineup Sunday vs. Wizards

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After four months off, the Warriors were looking for a soft landing spot to ease Stephen Curry back into the rotation.

How about Sunday, vs. Washington and the worst defense in the NBA this season?

That’s the plan, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Curry has said for some time he was targeting March 1 for a return, this would be that exact date (to be fair to the Wizards, they have played better defense of late). After that, Golden State plays at Denver on the third, has a Finals rematch against Toronto at the Chase Center on March 5, then the 76ers visit the Warriors on the seventh.

Curry suffered a fractured hand just four games into the season when Suns’ center Aron Baynes fell on him. Recovery required two surgeries, one to put pins in to stabilize the bone through the healing process, then a second one to remove those pins once the recovery was far enough along.

While some fans had called for Curry to sit out the season and tank, Warriors coach Steve Kerr emphatically shot that idea down. As he should.

For one thing, Kerr wants to build some familiarity and chemistry between Curry and newly acquired Andrew Wiggins this season. Having Curry back may mean the Warriors don’t finish with the worst record in the league this season (which they have right now) but with the flattened out draft lottery odds that’s not as big an issue. Besides, this is not a deep draft. This is not a situation where the Warriors will get instant help — in our podcast recently, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster described it as the top three picks in this draft would be 6-10 most seasons. The Warriors may ultimately try to trade their pick for a player who can help more next season.

Ben Simmons has nerve impingement in lower back, to be re-evaluated in two weeks

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The biggest concern with Ben Simmons back issue is not that it will have him out weeks, it’s that nobody is saying what exactly is causing it.

Simmons has a nerve impingement in his lower back that will have him getting treatment daily, and he will be re-evaluated in two weeks, something first reported  by Shams Charania of The Athletic and confirmed by NBC Sports Philadelphia. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski provided some context, but nothing that is very encouraging.

A nerve impingement — what is commonly referred to as a pinched nerve — is exactly what it sounds like: Something is pressing on the nerve, “pinching” it and causing pain.

The big question: What is impinging on the nerve? That’s what Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes asked.

This does not sound like something that is going to be resolved in two weeks and Simmons will be back to normal.

Simmons injured his back last Wednesday in practice while grabbing a rebound, according to coach Brett Brown. Simmons sat out last Thursday’s Sixers game against the Nets, tried to play on Saturday vs. the Bucks but had to come out after one quarter, and has not set foot on the court since.

Simmons averages 16.9 points, 8.3 assists, 7.9 rebounds a game, not to mention a league-best 2.2 steals a night. The All-Star is a core part of the Sixers rotation and will miss significant time they try to climb up into the top four in the East and get home court for the first round of the playoffs. Shake Milton started Monday in Simmons place.