Markelle Fultz is back.
Taking the court for the first time in, well … a long time, the young point guard’s return to play from serious injury was a major feel-good moment in a Magic season that has so far been relatively short on them.
The boxscore contributions alone make for positive reading. 10 points on an efficient 5-7 shooting, with 6 assists and just a single turnover fleshing out the playmaking aspects of his game. He was noticeably zippy in his 16 minutes of action, the team holding its own during his time on the court as he finished with a plus/minus of +1, tied for the second best mark on the night among Orlando’s reserves.
More importantly was how Fultz looked in arriving at these numbers. He took advantage of a meandering screen from Wendell Carter Jr. to attack the paint with his very first touch, accelerating into space and finding a slashing Franz Wagner for the finish. He got his first individual points early in the second, using that familiar staccato rhythm of his to lull his direct opponent just long enough to fire off a confident free-throw line jumper.
A couple of minutes later he had his signature highlight. After an offensive rebound squirted high and extended a Magic possession, Fultz jetted into the lane against the disconnected Indiana defense. Two defenders rotated as he gathered his dribble, but by then it was too late – he floated through the remaining space between them and finished an acrobatic layup on the other side, a play requiring the type of vision, touch and poise that should theoretically have been obscured by rust after a lay-off of his length. Instead, there was seemingly little rust to be seen.
That wasn’t the end of the positive play from Fultz either. He was consistently fluid as the lead ball handler, utilizing shimmies and spins to get to where he needed to be on the court a number of different times. His passing was crisp and on-point, routinely finding teammates with the space needed to fire away. He was also an opportunistic pest on the offensive glass, pouncing on loose balls and creating extra chances with his court awareness.
Again, it’s worth noting – he did all of this in just 16 minutes, after missing 125 games and 418 days of action. If you didn’t know this was a long-awaited return, you wouldn’t have been able to figure it out based on his performance.
So, the question now is one that feels familiar to any long-term Magic fans: what comes next?
Fultz’s return to play was equal parts exhilarating, exciting and intriguing for a multitude of reasons. However, there’s just not a lot of data at the moment to suggest how it’s all going to work long-term. For Orlando, the final 21 games are a chance to start figuring that out. Interestingly, in their the follow-up showdown against the Pacers tonight, the Magic were slight underdogs as of Wednesday morning at +1 despite a convincing victory over Indiana on Monday.
Based on the absurdly small sample size of precisely one game, the Magic already have an inkling of how Fultz’s talents can best be deployed. It’s telling that he played all 16 minutes alongside Gary Harris in the backcourt and Chuma Okeke on the wing, as well as 12 of those with Terrence Ross also in the mix. That triumvirate represents Orlando’s best approximation of rangy 3-D wings, solid outside shooting threats who can generate some space with their gravity while also offering some disruptive switchability at the other end of the floor.
Okeke and Harris are also the type of low-usage, ball-moving teammates who figure to be the best type of offensive fit alongside Fultz. Neither requires the ball in their hand to contribute, while also being willing passers when the Spalding does come their way. Franz Wagner is another who theoretically fits this mold, just with an added dash of secondary playmaking that could really spice up such lineups should they receive some extended run together in the games to come. ‘Kelle doing his thing alongside Sweet Franz, Big Chum, Harris and, say, WCJ? Now that’s an idea I want to take an extended look at.
Conspicuously absent in this discussion so far are Jalen Suggs and Cole Anthony, two of the other young, vital components on Orlando’s roster. At first blush neither appears to be a perfect complement in a backcourt alongside Fultz; both are more comfortable directing traffic and Fultz is largely a non-threat while off the ball. The entire trio are also all currently below-average long-range shooters, a fact which makes any combination of backcourt pairings an exercise in relative awkwardness.
Now, none of this is to say that Fultz alongside either Suggs or Anthony is a non-starter for the Magic moving forward. However, the team is going to have to figure out how they can align them in a way that accentuates strengths while minimizing weaknesses. They’ll also be hoping that the most optimistic of envisioned development arcs pan out for the majority of these young backcourt charges.
It actually doesn’t take too much squinting to talk oneself into a hyper-charged guard combination of Fultz alongside Suggs, with Anthony as the microwave bench scorer who is injected into proceedings once the starters tire. In a perfect world that works. As professional sports have proven time and time again, however, things rarely work out perfectly. For Orlando, the coaching staff and front office executives should be singularly focused on figuring out how to best lock these individual puzzle pieces together into an effective and ultimately sustainable whole.
Markelle Fultz’s return to play on Monday night was a wonderful resumption to a career that still promises so much. It’s now up to the Magic’s decision makers to identify both what they want to come next for the franchise and how to make that happen.
Even after just a single game it seems as though Fultz simply has to be a featured part of that equation.
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