Markelle Fultz will say it’s just another game.
The struggling Orlando Magic will say the same.
But in reality, for both Fultz and the Magic, their game against the Philadelphia 76ers holds more significance than a mid-November match-up typically would.
Heading into the season, it already had the making of a “circle the date” type of game. It would be Fultz’s first official opportunity to play against the team that traded up to make him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and then discarded him just 20 months later. Following Fultz’s mysterious ailment and loss of shooting form, it was a necessary divorce for the Sixers and a low-risk, high-reward marriage for the Magic. A true “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” cliche.
Following the trade deadline deal in February of 2018 than sent Jonathon Simmons and a draft pick to the Sixers, the Magic brought Fultz along slowly, without a timetable or the slightest of expectation. The comeback story accelerated shortly before Media Day when the Magic announced that Fultz would be a full participant in training camp. He was on the court for preseason, which included a match-up against these very Sixers, who afterwards offered nothing but rave reviews and word of encouragement for Fultz. Five games into the regular season, Fultz, whose career was in doubt just months earlier, was named the starting point guard for the Orlando Magic.
That brings us to Wednesday night’s game at Amway Center. It’s not a revenge game. The animosity simply isn’t there for Fultz, who seems genuine when he says he is looking forward not backward, and for the Sixers organization and fanbase, a majority of whom seem genuine when they say they wish Fultz all the best. But for any player, and any person in general, it’s only natural to have added motivation to show that you’ve moved on from a broken relationship and bettered yourself. A desire to show them what they could have had.
Some Sixers fans say they had this version of Fultz - who is averaging 9.7 points and 3.1 assists while shooting 47.1 percent from the field and just 18.2 percent from three while playing 23.5 minutes per game - in the 33 gams he played for Philadelphia. That Fultz is showing the same ability, tendencies and limitations.
A Q&A with Liberty Ballers about Fultz from last season shows that what we’re seeing now of Fultz is similar to what Sixers fans saw then...
In the 33 games Fultz played, what kind of flashes or potential did you see in him, if any?
Kevin P. Love: There’s two things that really stood out to me when watching Markelle: he can get to the rim whenever he wants and he is long.
Fultz left a lot to be desired when it came to finishing at the rim, but his dribble penetration can get him there whenever he wants. He’s very awkward looking in motion, but he uses this characteristic to his advantage. His next move is unpredictable, and he busts out his favorite spin move at exactly the right time. I think it is likely his finishing gets better if he gets on the court and becomes more comfortable with NBA contact, and if that happens, he’ll be able to break defenses down.
His length is a little perplexing. I don’t think you can really appreciate it until he gets into a defensive stance against a fellow NBA guard. His arms are just so damn long, and we already know about his athleticism. If a coach can help Markelle become a more engaged and knowledgable defender, he’s got the physical tools to be an impact player on that end.”
The difference is in Philadelphia, Fultz was expected to be the final piece on a championship team that would contend for the next decade. In Orlando, he has margin for error and a less demanding developmental timetable. Fultz is already emerging as the face of the franchise in the eyes of a Magic fanbase that focuses on what he can do (attack the basket at will and create for others) rather than what he can’t (shoot from the outside). And at 21 years old, and having not played competitive basketball for the better part of two years, Fultz is in no way a finished product.
When Fultz steps onto the court on Wednesday, expect him to be more aggressive than usual, just as he seemed to be against the Sixers in October, when he took 11 shots, the most he attempted in the preseason. In his first official game against his former teammates, Fultz will face a Sixers team that started 5-0 before dropping three of their last four. Ben Simmons, while recovering from a joint sprain in his shoulder, has missed the previous two games and is questionable for the Sixers’ game on Tuesday against the Cavaliers.
The 3-7 Magic, coming off a disappointing loss to the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, must right the ship over the remainder of their five-game homestand. Struggling with their offensive rhythm, ball movement and lineup rotations, the Magic rank second to last in offensive rating (99.8) and field goal percentage (41.9) and last in three-point percentage (28.2) and effective field goal percentage (46.8). They’ll have to solve their offensive woes against one of the league’s elite in the Sixers, who like the Magic, are a top-ten defensive team.
For the Magic, who are yet to defeat a projected playoff team, it’s an opportunity to get an encouraging win against a quality opponent. In a storybook ending, it would be Markelle Fultz who helps them get it.
Who: Orlando Magic (3-7) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (6-3)
When: Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Where: Amway Center - Orlando, Florida (Tickets)
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