Markelle Fultz

Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

What a relief: Markelle Fultz shows progress in preseason

6 Comments

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.”

Magic release hype video for Markelle Fultz, who will ‘participate fully’ in camp

Getty Images
7 Comments

If your team just acquired a player that had battled some combination of injuries and confidence issues, leading him to struggle mightily during his two years in the NBA — where he has played in just 33 games — would you try to keep him out of the spotlight as much as possible until he found his way, or would you release a hype video?

Here is the Orlando Magic’s Markelle Fultz hype video.

 

An Associated Press story by Tim Reynolds had this quote from team president Jeff Weltman:

“We’re going to remain patient,” Weltman said. “We’re not going to put expectations or timelines on his development. He hasn’t played basketball in a year. He’s played 33 games total in his career. So it’s going to unfold the way it unfolds.”

No expectations — but we will release a hype video or two.

Just a reminder because it’s that time of year: edited videos of guys working out and draining uncontested jumpers in a gym are less meaningful than a celebrity saying they will leave the country if Candidate X is elected president. Do not take them seriously. The reports out of practice were that Fultz had some nice jumpers, some that missed badly, he looked okay but his form still does not look smooth like it did at Washington.

What we do know about Fultz is that he will be all-in for Orlando’s training camp. Josh Robbins of the Athletic had this:

Fultz himself said this to the AP:

“Man, I always have joy every time I step in here no matter what’s going on,” Fultz said after his workout. “As I learned quickly, you can’t take it for granted. You never know when it’s going to get stripped away from you…

“I was the No. 1 pick for a reason,” Fultz said. “I knew that I work hard and what I can do on the basketball court. That’s all that matters.”

There are a lot of people around the league rooting for Fultz, including the Magic organization, which picked up his $12 million option for the 2020-21 season, too. Fultz is going to get his chance, this is a good Magic team but one devoid of guys who can create their own shot from the wing. Fultz has the skill set to bring that to the table.

He just has to ignore the hype and do it now.

 

 

 

Report: Orlando to sit No. 16 pick Chuma Okeke all season to help ACL recovery

Sean Berry/NBAE via Getty Images
1 Comment

Orlando surprised people when they took Chuma Okeke out of Auburn at No. 16 in last June’s draft. Yes, the 6’8″ forward has potential as someone who could defend multiple positions, and his shot improved, but he has a long way to go and he was coming off a torn ACL that would force him to miss most if not all of the coming season.

Orlando’s plan now is to sit Okeke for this coming season, let him rehab, then sign him to his rookie contract and bring him in next summer, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Since “redshirt” is not an actual NBA thing, what this likely means is Okeke signs a G-League contract with the Magic team in Lakeland, Fla., and spends the season recovering. Maybe he plays in a few games near the end of the season, depending upon how rehab goes. Then, next summer they sign him, have him play Summer League, and basically treat him like a rookie. That works for both sides.

It’s a good option for a Magic team that has a mix of solid veterans — Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier — and what they hope are emerging young players such as Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, and Markelle Fultz. In an East that feels wide open, especially after the top four, the Magic are eyeing a return to the playoffs and hope to do some damage there.

On that kind of team, Okeke was not going to get the kind of focus he likely needed. Now he will.

Magic exercise Markelle Fultz’s $12M team option

Cassy Athena/Getty Images
8 Comments

Magic general manager John Hammond said he had “no idea” when Markelle Fultz will play.

A couple encouraging assessments and an uneventful video later, and Orlando is guaranteeing Fultz $12,288,697 in 2020-21.

Magic:

That’s the power Fultz still holds as a former No. 1 pick. Even Anthony Bennett had his third-year option exercised. (He just never made it to the third season of his rookie-scale contract, taking a buyout instead.) It’s tough to cut bait on premier young talent.

But Fultz’s NBA career has been so miserable so far. With the rookie scale increasing under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, he’s due a significant salary.

Because the 76ers drafted Fultz, Orlando had more leeway to decline the option without embarrassment. But the Magic are clearly committed to Fultz.

They had until Oct. 31 to decide on these options, which are for the 2020-21 season. These were easy calls on Jonathan Isaac ($7,362,566) and Mohamed Bamba ($5,969,040). But it’s nearly unfathomable Orlando didn’t evaluate the mysterious Fultz in training camp, preseason and even into the regular season before deciding on his future.

Perhaps, the Magic believe the early show of faith will give Fultz much-needed confidence. If so, this is an expensive bet on a player totally unproven at this level.

At least there’s major upside to it.

Do you believe in Magic? They sure do

Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images
2 Comments

NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Magic just had their best season in seven years. Orlando was buzzing. Management poured more than $160 million into keeping the roster intact.

All for a 42-40 team that lost 4-1 in the first round.

The Magic should feel good about their breakthrough season. They ended the longest playoff drought in franchise history.

But this summer showed major long-term commitment to a group that has proven capable of just moderate winning and lacks obvious upside.

The major investments: Re-signing Nikola Vucevic (four years, $100 million) and Terrence Ross (four years, $54 million). Vucevic was an All-Star last season, and Vucevic finished fifth in Sixth Man of the Year voting. They’re good players.

But Vucevic didn’t become an All-Star until his eighth season. Most players who make their first All-Star game so late in their career don’t return. He also plays center, where there’s a surplus of capable players. That’s an expensive price for his age-29-through-31 seasons.

Likewise, Ross will turn 29 next season. He’s a streaky scorer who flourished in a bigger role last season. I’m just not convinced he’ll keep it up to justify his price tag.

At least Orlando structured the contracts well. Like Aaron Gordon‘s terms signed the year before, Vucevic’s salaries declines throughout his deal. Ross’ increases in the second year then declines. That should help the players hold more value later.

In the meantime, the Magic want to keep winning now. They’re the only Eastern Conference playoff team to return every starter.

They also re-signed key backups Khem Birch (two years, $6 million) and Michael Carter-Williams (minimum) for reasonable value. That continuity could make the difference next season. Orlando really took after Birch and Carter-Williams joined the rotation last season.

The Magic signed Al-Farouq Aminu (three years, $29,162,700) to add depth. In a vacuum, I like that move. In Orlando, Aminu is another power forward on a team overloaded with bigs.

It’s already difficult enough to find proper opportunities for Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac. Aminu only complicates matters. All three can play both forward spots. Maybe the Magic envision always having two interchangeable forwards on the floor, allowing them to maintain a style. But all three are better at power forward. There were probably better ways to allocate resources.

Signing Aminu with the mid-level exception necessitated stretching Timofey Mozgov to stay out of the luxury tax. That’s a not-small $5,573,334 cap hit each of the next three seasons.

Orlando drafted yet another power in the first round, Chuma Okeke at No. 16. But considering Okeke tore his ACL in March, the Magic could look quite different by the time he’s ready to contribute. They might get a long runway with him, as he has yet to sign his rookie-scale contract and could spend next season on a minor-league deal. Six years of team control, up from the usual five for a first-round pick, could matter significantly.

There are paths for Orlando to reach the next level – Gordon becoming a star, Isaac breaking out, Mohamed Bamba getting on track after a disappointing rookie year, Okeke getting healthy and proving correct the advanced models that rated him as a top prospect, Markelle Fultz rediscovering his form. None seem like great bets, especially because it might take a couple hits to propel this forward.

There’s a decent chance this summer’s spending works out. Winning increases the value of everyone involved. It creates flexibility not afforded to losing teams. And it’s just fun while it’s happening.

But I think it’s slightly more likely Orlando regrets locking into these players at those prices – that the Magic don’t win enough then head right back to the wrong side of mediocre while facing new long-term costs.

Offseason grade: C-