For seven months, the Magic took things very slowly with Markelle Fultz. That all changed when the season began.
Fultz quickly shifted from being happy just to be back on the court in the preseason to closing out games in the regular season. And now he’ll be starting games for the foreseeable future, accelerating the Markelle Fultz comeback story.
Before the Magic’s game against the Nuggets on Saturday, Fultz got the call from Steve Clifford, both literally and figuratively. Clifford called Fultz on the phone that morning to let him know he’d be replacing D.J. Augustin in the starting lineup.
“Makes me feel really good,” Fultz told reporters after making his first start with the Magic. “It’s just more motivation. It’s not the end of the world, it’s not like the best thing ever, but it definitely shows you the trust that [Clifford] has in me, the trust that he believes I can help this team out. I just want to go out there anytime I’m on the floor and compete my hardest and help the team win.”
Markelle Fultz replacing D.J. Augustin in the starting lineup this early in the season is a...— Orlando Pinstriped Post (@OPPMagicBlog) November 5, 2019
It’s a change that many Magic fans had been calling for, and one that the organization had been planning/hoping for. It’s the timing that came as something of a surprise. For all that was made of the Orlando’s continuity and familiarity, it took five games for Clifford to alter a starting lineup that guided the Magic to their first postseason appearance in seven years.
That hasty adjustment was necessitated by Orlando ranking dead last in
many all crucial offensive categories. Before looking at the stats below, a friendly reminder that there are 30 teams in the NBA...
ORLANDO MAGIC OFFENSIVE STATISTICS
Points per game: 93.5, 30th
Offensive rating: 94.6, 30th
Field goal percentage: 39.7%, 30th
Three-point percentage: 28.3%, 29th
Field goal percentage less than three feet from rim: 53.3%, 30th
Effective field goal percentage: 44.9, 30th
True shooting: 48.0, 30th
Free throw attempts per game: 17.2, 30th
The move was made to benefit both the first and second unit of a Magic team that currently is the only team in the league shooting under 40 percent from the field. The hope is that Fultz, who Clifford called the Magic’s best penetrator, will command more defensive attention while driving the lane and better generate open space for Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Evan Fournier. With Augustin heading to the bench, it gives a second unit that is struggling to get Terrence Ross open looks another outside shooter to spread the floor.
It all kinda sounds like a Catch 22.
“What it does is, it gives our lineup more balance,” Clifford told reporters. “So with both the first unit and the second unit we have a chance to play better. The other thing it does, with D.J. and Markelle, they’re not playing five minutes here, six minutes there like that, which for me is a difficult way to play. So i think it gives both of them a better chance to play well and it gives our team better balance.”
Augustin currently leads the team with 11.5 drives per game, compared to 8.7 for Fultz, and is taking a larger percentage of his field goal attempts from within three feet of the rim (37 percent for Augustin, 26.4 percent for Fultz). The defense, though, doesn’t collapse in the same manner when Augustin attacks, and Fultz has the better maneuverability and playmaking knack for finding the open man.
That ball movement, Clifford said, is pivotal to the Magic solving their offensive woes. The Magic, he said, must trust the pass to prevent the offense from stalling and hesitating, particularly on possessions where the Magic are freestyling rather than running a set play.
“When we’re running our offensive sets, and its scripted, we’e fine, when we’re playing ball, which is the biggest part of an NBA offense the way it is now, we’re struggling and its because of that,” Clifford told reporters after practice on Monday. “The ball has to move freely, and that will, by the way, when we start passing the ball to each other, sometimes you gotta pass it just to pass it, we’ll be more inside-out too because the defense will be moving more.”
To initiate that, and make up for the lack of spacing that results from defenders backing off him, Fultz will have to be aggressive when driving to the basket, which Clifford called the Magic’s top weakness last season.
“I think that once we find out where the defense is going to be and swing it, it will open up drive opportunities, open shots, catch-and-shoot threes, and stuff like that,” Fultz said. “But for me, it’s more so about being aggressive. If I’m aggressive, it makes people have to guard me and then that opens up everything for my teammates.”
Added Clifford: “He can get the ball into the paint against anybody in any scheme. So he’s very dangerous in those situations.”
Markelle runs the floor in 4.6s for the Fultz FLOATA and Jonathan Isaac blocks JMurray to close the first half pic.twitter.com/s6c9F4xbuN— beyond the RK (@beyondtheRK) November 3, 2019
For Fultz, by playing his way into the starting lineup, it means more responsibility and expectations. But it also means he’s taken another step in the right direction.
“I don’t look too far back but I’m taking baby steps, that’s the biggest thing,” Fultz said. “I want to take it a step at a time and I’m just checking stuff off my list. I’ve got to start small but my goal is high. But I gotta start with the basics. We can’t just go straight to the top of the wall. You gotta lay your bricks down and build your way up.”