Long before the shooting woes, the mysterious injury, and the ugly divorce, Markelle Fultz was considered an integral part of “The Process.”
Facing his former team on Sunday for the first time, it took 42 seconds for the Sixers to get a reminder of why they made Fultz the top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Shortly after checking in with 5:08 remaining in the first quarter, Fultz pushed the ball down court, attacked the paint, caused three defenders to collapse on him, and tossed a no-look pass over his shoulder to Aaron Gordon for the dunk.
“One of the things I told the guys, just communicating with them, when I drive I feel like a lot of people collapse. So just cut in,” Fultz told reporters after the shorthanded Magic fell to the Sixers 126-94. “I think there’s going to be a lot of that, Just getting more and more comfortable playing with each other.”
While Fultz is a long way from justifying his status as a former No. 1 pick, the play was an example of what the Sixers envisioned when they traded up to select him. It was also indicative of the ways in which Fultz can impact a game even as he struggles to shoot from the outside. The attention the 6-4 point guard commands as he penetrates gives the Magic a playmaking weapon they have been sorely lacking in recent years.
Fultz, in 21 minutes before fouling out, had five assists and also reached double figures in scoring for the first time this preseason with 12 points on 5-for-11 shooting. Fultz, whose shooting issues were well-documented in Philadelphia to say the least, made just one of his four attempts from beyond the paint on Sunday. Through five preseason games, Fultz is shooting just 31.9 percent from the field but, thanks to his maneuverability and ability to attack and create, is posting per-36 minute averages of 12.5 points and 7.9 assists.
Evan after a saga in Philadelphia in which he was limited to 33 games and shipped away at 20 years old to get a fresh start elsewhere, Fultz said facing his former team was just another game for him.
“Every time I get a chance to step out on the floor is truly an honor and a blessing, coming from where I came from,” he said.
His former teammates and coaches after the game expressed full support for Fultz and came away impressed with what they saw from him. Sixers coach Brett Brown, who said he pays attention to Fultz from afar, called Fultz’s comeback a “feel-good story.”
“He’s hard to guard,” Brown told the The Philadelphia Inquirer. “He has that downhill fluid motion where you think you got him stopped and he can spin back and find cracks and find seams. He’s so long that he get his shot over bigs in the paint.”
That was just what Fultz did in the second quarter, challenging Joel Embiid in the paint and finishing...
Markelle Fultz attacks the rim, makes the tough finish over Joel Embiid! pic.twitter.com/IMtT5iN6u4— beyond the RK (@beyondtheRK) October 13, 2019
“That’s how he plays,” Embiid told Josh Robbins of The Athletic. “Everybody always talks about jump shots, jump shots. I feel like he’s got more than that. He can be (among) the top-scoring guards. He is extremely athletic and explosive. I’m happy for him.”
Added Ben Simmons: “I’m happy for him. He was killing.”
Critics will say that Fultz is showing the same ability he displayed in Philadelphia during his limited time on the court before his injury. Fultz, though, said that with each game he is regaining his rhythm and developing a better understanding of anticipating where his teammates will be on the court and when his shots will come within the flow of the offense.
Fultz understands there is room for improvement in areas that go beyond his jump shot. After the game he expressed his desire to be better at keeping his man in front of him on the defensive end and to be more organized on the offensive end. “I don’t think I’m a great at anything right now on the court,” he said.
But with each flash of potential comes promise and hope for Fultz and the Orlando Magic.
“Trying to learn these guy’s games so I can try and help them and the team as much as I can,” Fultz said. “And then knowing my game and playing within that. Just trying to balance the two of what’s going to help the team and help myself at the same time. But I think I’m just getting more and more comfortable out there.”