What makes Markelle Fultz enticing to one fanbase and infuriating to another is the simple question of where the 20-year-old point guard will be, say, five years from now.
There are many directions that Fultz’s career path can go, with the worst case being one the league’s biggest busts, the best case being one of the league’s best comeback stories, and the most realistic case being somewhere in between that wide gap.
The Orlando Magic acquired Fultz in a trade deadline deal with the Philadelphia 76ers in February. Though there is no timetable for Fultz’s return to the lineup, Magic fans are excited by the prospect of having a potential lottery ticket in their back pocket, all while the Magic make their first playoff push since 2012.
With the Magic set to play in Philadelphia on Tuesday, I recently spoke with Kevin F. Love of Liberty Ballers to find out what went wrong for Fultz in Philadelphia and what he believes the future holds for a player not long ago considered the consensus top overall draft pick.
We also asked him the question that everyone from Orlando to Philadelphia wonders the answer to: Where will Markelle Fultz be in five years?
So, what exactly went wrong with Markelle Fultz in Philadelphia? Who, in your opinion, is to blame?
Love: We don’t have the entire story surrounding the Markelle situation, so if I’m going to be factual in describing the situation, the best I can say is this: Markelle Fultz’s career trajectory was derailed, the Sixers’ timeline sped up, and there was no longer a fit between the player and the organization.
However, it has been very well-documented that there were a lot of extracurriculars involved in the Markelle Fultz saga, and I think there’s a lot of blame to go around for that. Markelle didn’t always handle the situation like an adult (which is understandable!), Markelle’s “camp” was not always... er, helpful (don’t mention that to him though!), the Sixers weren’t exactly transparent (what else is new?), Raymond Brothers never knew when to shut his mouth, the fan base fluctuated between polar opposites in their criticism and patience, and even I personally, as someone with some influence given our readership, wasn’t always entirely reasonable or fair in my evaluations.
There were a lot of things that made the situation worse, but the origin of it all doesn’t really allow for blame or guilt. Markelle had some sort of setback, and it has caused a regression in his game, which in and of itself really isn’t all that rare.
When Fultz was first drafted, what were your expectations for him and his career?
Love: I thought he was capable of being, I don’t know, three-fourths of James Harden on offense, maybe prime Brandon Roy? And a plus point-of-attack defender with the right development. That’s a really, really good player. He seemed primed to be the perfect compliment to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and so even if he became just 80-90% percent of his ceiling, it was a situation where I thought to myself, “Markelle Fultz’s presence alone raises the potential of this core demonstrably.
In the 33 games Fultz played, what kind of flashes or potential did you see in him, if any?
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.”
Why were so many Sixers fans so willing to give up on a 20-year-old who was the top pick in the draft less than a year and a half ago? When did it reach the point of no return?
Love: I think there’s probably a lot of Sixers fans on Twitter who were happy to trade Fultz away, but in my experience, there were (and still are) large factions that dreaded the idea of trading Fultz and they were disappointed the team moved on as early as they have.
For those that were ready to see Markelle go, I think most of them were just tired of the drama and lack of information that consumed the mindset of fans. It wasn’t so much about giving up on Markelle as it was parting with all the baggage that came along with everything. I’m not sure how fair it is to hold that against Fultz though. I wonder how much of the “drama” surfaces if he’s in a different city, where they don’t have Twitter sleuths helping to out General Managers. That’s not a slight to the Sixers fan base -- but it’s not something everyone is ready to handle, to constantly be scrutinized that way. Anyway, my evaluation of the “trade Markelle” crowd is that they believed it to be an entirely unrealistic outcome that Fultz became an impact player on the Sixers roster, mostly in particular, and so what was the point of dealing with the distraction?
That certainly isn’t how all fans felt though, to be clear.
If the Sixers and/or Fultz could go back and have a do-over, what do you think they would do differently?
Love: (Not sure I have a very interesting or insightful answer for this:) The Sixers don’t trade up, they don’t select Markelle, and they probably go with any one of the promising players that went later in the draft -- Jonathan Isaac, De’Aaron Fox, Donovan Mitchell, Lauri Markkanen, etc. I’m not really sure what Markelle could do differently, it’s not as if this has all been the result of a choice he made. I guess one thing would have been to have never left the court in the first place, just play through this since day 1 -- but I’m not sure that actually puts him in a better position today.
What has to happen for Fultz to become a productive and valuable NBA player?
Love: He needs to mature and he needs to think for himself, first of all. It has to be a tough adjustment for a kid -- and make no mistake, many of these guys coming into the league are kids -- to enter the NBA, especially as a first overall pick. You’ve got this golden opportunity to change your life and your family’s life forever. It sounds terrific, but it’s a lot of pressure. Maybe you start outsourcing decision-making opportunities, or not making decisions at all. I can’t say that’s what happened to Markelle, but some things he’s done totally contradict themselves, and it seems like it’s because he’s got a lot of noise in his ear.
Outside of that, I think he was really on track to becoming a productive player to the extent that he’s able to as a young point guard. His play in Philly this season wasn’t eye-popping, but how many 21-year-old primary ball-handlers are plusses? He loves the game, and so he just needs to be able to find that love in Orlando and the confidence to get back out there. Nothing else will come first.
Were you satisfied with the return the Sixers received from the Magic in the deal? Did Orlando overpay? Underpay?
Love: It’s such a unique case -- it was really almost impossible to know Fultz’s value prior to a trade. I will say I was surprised at how much the Sixers’ received in return, but I don’t think it was neccessarily an overpay. For a team like the Magic, who have seemingly been searching for their point guard longer than I’ll be paying off my student loans, it’s a great gamble to take. They’re getting a player with a pedigree and who has shown talent on the court already in the NBA. There’s a blatant hole in Fultz’s game, but if Orlando can solve Fultz’s shooting woes, it’s an absolute steal. I think that possibility alone makes it worth it for Orlando. I just thought the Sixers had lost so much leverage that I was surprised they received anything at all of value.
Are you surprised to see how excited most Magic fans are to have Fultz?
Love: Not at all. They should be excited. Remember, this is a player who was selected before Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox, Donovan Mitchell, and he went before those guys because Markelle was the whole package offensively and had the tools to be an effective defender with the right development. Many of the attributes that made Fultz a consensus first pick are still present today.
Now, obviously, the most important aspect of his game has vanished, and I don’t think it’s something he’ll just tap back into one day. It seems that he no longer has a reference point for what a basketball shot is supposed to feel like. But if he can rebuild his form and become a reliable shooter/scorer, the rest of the tools are in place for Markelle to reach the potential he once had. I see a few possible outcomes for Markelle, and becoming a star is one I’ve placed a low probability on. But a low probability is not zero probability, and Markelle doesn’t need to be a perennial All-Star to provide value to Orlando.
If Fultz manages to get back on the court and regain his form (literally and figuratively), what does he bring to a Magic team starved for a point guard and scorer?
Love: The short answer: A perennial all-star candidate via the stats, and the impact to be a possible All-NBA guard. If that sounds like hyperbole, go read some of the most respected scouts’ opinions on Washington Markelle Fultz. That is if we’re talking literally regaining his old form.
Are you, or any Sixers fans, rooting for a comeback story?
Love: I am absolutely rooting for Markelle, and I think a lot of Sixers fans are as well. There are definitely fans with animosity toward Fultz -- think about what the Sixers gave up to get him, and how sure fans were at the time that Markelle was the third piece to an under-25 core that could contend almost immediately. But most grounded and reasonable individuals can see that Markelle is a kid, and he can’t do something he loves, something that is more important to him than anything in life outside of his family. That’s a tough state of existence.
So many fans got angry at times, yes. We have dark moments as sports fans! We can’t help but often strip the humanity from the players in favor of the desire for a team victory. That sounds barbaric, but it’s what happens in the middle of 14-0 4th quarter run from the opponent and you’re thinking, “WELL DAMN IF ONLY WE HAD A GUARD TO GO TO WHEN SIMMONS IS BEING WALLED OUT OF THE PAINT.” But then that passes, and we remind ourselves what Markelle is going through. When you consider that, there’s just no other option than to hope for redemption.
If someone walks into a bar in Philadelphia today wearing a Markelle Fultz 76ers jersey, what exactly will happen to them?
Love: If the bar is full of passionate Sixers fans, I think that person will end up having a friendly discussion about what could have been if only Markelle could have hit the ground running. University of Washington Markelle Fultz was the perfect compliment to Ben Simmons -- something the Sixers still haven’t found after making not one but two blockbuster trades this season.
Prediction time: In five years, Markelle Fultz will be _______________.
Love: Oh man, this is tough. I think there’s maybe four outcomes, all with differing degrees of probability.
25% he’s out of the NBA.
45% he’s a bench contributor
25% he’s a valuable fringe-starter/6th man
5% he reaches his potential
There’s no science at all in those percentages, so give-or-take on those. Ultimately, what I’m trying to convey here is that there are many outcomes and I mostly don’t think anyone is much more likely than the others (I know that 40% is significantly higher than 25% but cut me a break, you get what I’m saying), with reaching his full potential being pretty unlikely.
Special thanks once again to Kevin for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to check out the great Sixers coverage that he and the staff produce over at Liberty Ballers. Follow them on Twitter at @Liberty_Ballers.