Let me lead with this upfront: This is not a Markelle Fultz hate article. After a year of looking silly writing mean things about the Magic, I’m not returning from my offseason hiatus just to get back into that habit.
If anything, I’m more optimistic than when the Orlando Magic made the trade back in February. At the time, I wrote that fans weren’t properly considering Fultz’s downside, that the Magic gave up two picks and an expiring contract for what could amount to nothing. Based on what we’ve seen, at a bare minimum, Fultz will see time on the court, avoiding the absolute worst-case scenario I warned against.
Does that guarantee the trade is a win for the Magic? Not quite, but things are trending in the right direction. Between picking up his fourth-year option early, the coordinated PR effort surrounding the start of camp, and coach Steve Clifford confirming that Fultz will play in the first preseason game, the team is signalling very hard that Fultz is part of their future.
So again, this article has little to do with the likelihood that Fultz returns to his pre-draft form, or whether I think he’s a scrub, All-Star, or something in-between. Instead, I’d like to focus on the fan reaction to his development.
Early in the process, most fans were careful to temper expectations and preach patience. “Fultz could be huge for this team, but there’s no need to rush him back, he can take as long as he needs to get healthy,” and so on.
Predictably, that calm, cool attitude slowly heated up with every tiny bit of Fultz news, no matter how trivial. Things reached a boiling point, however, when fans saw Fultz doing, y’know, actual basketball things. I thought Kevin Clark really captured the reaction perfectly in his summary at The Ringer, a sort of half-ironic “I’m being over-hype on purpose, but I’m secretly actually that hyped” attitude.
To the credit of the franchise, it seems like they anticipated this reaction. Fultz, his teammates, coaches, and the front office were ready for him to be the story, despite plenty of other interesting narratives surrounding the team coming off their first playoff berth in approximately a thousand years.
Still, I can’t help but feel like we could do a little bit better, be a little smarter. The reaction is way over-the-top compared to what’s actually happening. Yes, Fultz is participating in basketball activities, but a lot of people can participate in basketball activities. Yeah, most of those people weren’t #1 picks in the NBA draft, but most of those people also didn’t lose the first two years of their NBA careers due to unprecedented, mysterious injury problems rendering them incapable of even shooting a basketball correctly.
Therefore, I propose a test, a helpful way to measure how hyped you should be about new Markelle Fultz developments. If you’re wondering how excited you should be, I recommend applying the Wesley Iwundu Test, or the Wes Test for short.
The test is simple: when Fultz does something, ask yourself “Can Wesley Iwundu do this thing?” If Wes can do it, no reason to overreact. If he can’t do it...get hyped!
Lest this be misconstrued as Iwundu slander, let me explain why I chose him. Iwundu wasn’t a player I believed in when I watched him in person at his first summer league, but he’s built himself into a legit rotation player. It’s unclear how much time he’ll see with Al-Farouq Aminu joining the team, but in my mind he’s the end of the Magic’s core rotation, someone who should see minutes every night, and the guy who should absorb the most minutes if any of the forwards ahead of him go down.
Iwundu is a “jack of all trades, master of none” kind of player. He shoots just well enough that you have to guard him, but doesn’t have much of a pull-up game. He can handle the ball on easier drives, and can finish off cuts to the rim. His real calling card is on defense, where he’s among the best on the team at navigating screens. He’s not elite at anything, but he probably won’t hurt you either.
One more time for emphasis: Iwundu’s great. A lot of skeptics of the Aminu signing focused on Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac already being on the team, but Iwundu might be the real reason that Aminu is overkill. Comparing someone to Wes Iwundu is not a roundabout way of saying Iwundu is bad.
That sort of generalist player is a good comparison point for Markelle. Fultz is exciting because he has special talents, but we’re spending a lot of time getting excited about not-very-special accomplishments. Let’s run through a few examples of the Wes Test in action:
Fultz hitting jumpers in an open gym - Good news, considering his history, but does not pass the Wes Test. I would share positive words on Twitter, but I’m not rushing to order his new Statement jersey.
Fultz playing in any NBA game - This does not pass the Wes Test. Just making it onto the court is a long way from being relevant.
Fultz starting* in an NBA game - Passes the Wes Test! Iwundu has started about a dozen games in each of his first two seasons, but on the current roster it’s unlikely he cracks the starting lineup without a catastrophic series of injuries. If Fultz starts (*based on merit, not all his alternatives getting hurt), I say that counts as a unique accomplishment.
Fultz scoring 17 points or dishing 5 assists - Both would pass the Wes Test! Iwundu’s career highs are 16 and 4, respectively, so if Fultz clears those benchmarks it’s a really good sign he’s on the right track.
Fultz handling the ball at the top of the key before driving through two defenders and hitting a nifty pass for an easy bucket - Pass! The drive-and-kick game isn’t really in Iwundu’s arsenal, and Fultz being an offensive initiator would add a dimension the Magic have generally lacked, especially off the bench.
To be clear, passing the Wesley Iwundu Test isn’t a sure sign that FULTZ IS BACK BABY or whatever. Elfrid Payton started a whole bunch of games and is the Magic’s all-time triple-doubles leader, but he didn’t exactly stick.
Rather, the Wes Test is a very reasonable and achievable short-to-medium term standard to judge Fultz by. If Fultz is gonna be an important contributor to the team, he should easily clear the Wes Test, probably within a few months, and certainly by the end of the season. The opposite is true, too: If Fultz never (or rarely) passes the test, then he’s not going to be part of the franchise’s future.
Personally, I’m not too worried. There’s a good chance Fultz will do something worthwhile to help the team win games, even if it’s just in small ways. While we wait for Fultz to clear some of these goals, we have plenty of other reasons to get excited for next season.