The start of Markelle Fultz’s NBA career has been as unorthodox as his jump shot.
Following one of the best individual seasons in Pac-12 history, the former five-star Maryland native was selected first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers during the 2017 NBA Draft.
What followed remains complicated to explain. Essentially, an ailing neck and shoulder prevented Fultz from replicating what he did at Washington in Philadelphia.
Nearly a year and a half later, Fultz was traded to the Orlando Magic; marking the beginning of a potential career resurgence. But on January 6, 2021, during a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Fultz suffered a torn ACL; effectively dashing the hopes of even his most avid supporters.
But in 18 games this past season, Fultz regained his form and put together his best stretch of basketball we have seen in some time.
With that in mind, even if it does not result in the corresponding media coverage or a Most Improved Player award, the upcoming 2022-23 NBA season could be Fultz’s breakout campaign.
Throughout his career, Fultz has showcased that health permitting, he could be in the NBA for a long time. That said, here are four areas of his game he could refine that may initiate the next step of his career.
Improving His Shot Selection
Originally, this section was titled “expanding his shooting range,” but in watching his film, I found the problem is not where Fultz is shooting from but rather when he decides to shoot.
This past season, about 37 percent of Fultz’s shots came in the mid-range area. And of the 120 guards who took at least 25 shots between 10 and 14 feet, Fultz ranked 62nd in field goal percentage (42.3 percent). But again, that pedestrian shooting percentage was a byproduct of taking difficult shots rather than exploiting the mismatches he creates on the floor.
Watch these two shot attempts against Minnesota’s Jaden McDaniels, a 6-foot-9 forward with a near seven-foot wingspan. Now watch this possession against Philadelphia’s Shake Milton, a 6-foot-5 guard with a seven-foot wingspan (yes, I know he made the shot).
All three possessions end with Fultz taking a heavily contested jumper. Simply put, when matched up against lengthy defenders who have the quickness to stay in front of him, shooting over outstretched arms typically does not yield great results.
In his game against the Cavaliers, whether it was against his primary defender Isaac Okoro, the smaller Darius Garland or the slower-footed Moses Brown, Fultz routinely found ways to get into the mid-range area and successfully get his shot off.
Next season, Fultz could thrive in lineups featuring Paolo Banchero, Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter Jr. and a rotating cast of Cole Anthony, Mo Bamba and Chuma Okeke. In these hypothetical lineups, using length to defend Fultz instead of the aforementioned players would create mismatches all throughout the court.
The issue you may notice though is that the mid-range area is generally crowded when Fultz is hunting for his shot. A lot of that came from playing with teammates like Okeke, Moritz Wagner and R.J. Hampton, three players who could occasionally stretch the floor, but not consistently enough to where their defenders refused to leave their airspace.
This is where the rest of the organization can aid in Fultz’s development. Head coach Jahmal Mosley can alter the lineups Fultz is used in, Orlando’s below-average three-point shooters can work to increase their percentages or the front office can address floor-spacing during this year’s draft and/or free agency.
The big takeaway is that in the minutes Fultz is matched up with a player sporting a long wingspan, it may be beneficial for him and his team to be more conservative offensively and operate as a facilitator; something he already does exceptionally well.
Increasing Off-Ball Movement
By no means is Fultz a “ball watcher” on offense, but given how often the ball is in his hands, his off-ball opportunities come few and far between. In fact, NBA.com’s tracking data from last season does not have any stats regarding Fultz as a cutter!
There were only three instances of Fultz attacking off the ball in the three games I watched, yet all three resulted in either a wide open shot attempt or free throws.
My personal favorite is this one. Wagner fakes the handoff to Fultz, swings the ball to Gary Harris and Fultz relocates to the opposite wing. Harris and Wagner run a simple pick-and-roll and Wagner receives the ball in the mid-post area. Philadelphia’s Georges Niang rotates over to assist Deandre Jordan in containing Wagner, completely disregarding Okeke in the opposite corner.
Fultz, analyzing the entire situation, cuts through the paint and sparks a reaction from Milton, giving Wagner enough space to complete a skip pass to Okeke for a wide open three.
It may seem insignificant, but Fultz having that level of awareness speaks to his brilliant basketball mind. As great a decision-maker he is with the ball in his hands, moving without it created easy looks just as frequently.
That said, similar to Fultz’s shot selection development, growing this area of his game is incumbent on what the Magic do this offseason; both in terms of developing in house and bringing in players who can operate as a primary ballhandler next to Fultz.
If Fultz earns a starting backcourt position alongside Cole Anthony, that may alleviate some of his on-ball duties and allow him to operate as a cutter more regularly. But if the coaching staff decides to keep Fultz as a sixth man, the development of Hampton as a secondary ballhandler and decision-maker (he’s shown promise!) could be crucial.
Either way, it is reassuring that off-ball movement is already an instinctual part of Fultz’s game. Moving forward, both Fultz and the team must find ways to increase his amount of cuts which will ultimately lead to a more fruitful offense.
Pushing In Transition
This past season, Fultz was one of the more efficient early offense players in the league. Not only did he score 1.11 points per possession in transition, he shot 56 percent from the field when the shot clock was between 24-18 seconds.
Off both misses and turnovers, Fultz is adept at pushing the ball up the floor, scrambling the defense and putting pressure on the rim. Watch Fultz bulldoze through the 240-pound Lauri Markkanen for this layup.
Furthermore, of the 137 players who totaled at least two transition possessions per game, Fultz ranked 34th in score frequency, which is defined as, “the percentage of plays where a player or team scores at least one point.”
Score frequency is a great indicator of Fultz’s fastbreak prowess because not all his transition opportunities end in him taking a shot. He thrives at finding teammates in stride or spotting up for open looks.
Gary Harris was a beneficiary of a lot of Fultz’s transition possessions in the Magic’s game against the Sixers, like on this play.
What makes Fultz so valuable in transition is his ability to rapidly process how to attack backpaddling defenders. And even if they stay with him initially, Fultz has a bevy of countermoves that assist him in penetrating the lane and forcing defenders to help off teammates.
Fultz also threw a handful of accurate outlet passes in these games. If coach Mosley wants to play with more tempo next season, having players leak out on misses or even having Fultz inbound the ball off makes while players streak down the floor could produce easy baskets.
The most pressuring issue with Fultz’s transition game is once again his lack of opportunity. Of the 137 players referenced above, Fultz ranked 119th in possessions per game, a far cry from where he needs to be.
Getting out in transition should be a point of emphasis for the Magic next season, as they have the personnel to control the pace of almost every game.
Polishing Off-Ball Screen Navigation & Defensive Communication
Defensively, Fultz is better than what he gets credit for. But depending on the lineups Orlando uses next season, more onus could be placed on him to work harder on that end of the floor.
Two aspects of his defense Fultz could improve is his off-ball screen navigation and overall communication.
The players Fultz typically defends do not utilize a lot of on-ball screens. But when he is tasked with guarding those types of players, he does a good job fighting through screens and recovering to his assignment.
These two plays against Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris and Minnesota’s D’Angelo Russell showcase his ability to connect, get skinny and power through picks. But again, off-ball screens is where it gets a little hazy.
Watch this play from Orlando’s game against Cleveland. Fultz is defending the Cavaliers’ Caris Levert, but seems preoccupied with Garland advancing the ball up the floor and is caught off guard when Markkanen sets a screen.
Cleveland’s spacing was not great on that play, part of the reason why it resulted in a turnover. But Fultz cannot always rely on his backline to blow up plays such as this one. Being more conscious of where his man is and any impending screens would remedy this issue.
And in terms of his defensive communication, being more connected with his teammates would not only take his defense to another level, but the entire team’s as well. That said, this is likely a consequence of only playing 26 games the past two seasons.
Look at how much Fultz is overhelping to halt a potential layup from Brown. And once the ball is swung to the top of the arc, Fultz is forced to hold a second longer because the pass is still available from Garland. Yet on the other side of the floor, Okoro, who shot 37 percent on catch and shoot threes this past season, is wide open in the corner.
That is an absurd amount of ground to cover for any player. And in this case, communicating a switch with Okeke probably would have saved a basket.
I am definitely nitpicking here because of the three games, there were only five instances where Fultz lost his assignment defensively. But when you are playing against the best basketball players in the world, sometimes perfection is necessary!
As mentioned before, Fultz is a better defender than advertised. His court awareness clearly translates to that side of the floor and when necessary, he can use his quick feet and large frame to defend multiple positions. But some finetuning could take his defense to another level.
Fultz already has a great foundation and even if he does not improve all these aspects of his game, he will still be a valuable player for the Magic moving forward.
But in what has been one of the most turbulent starts to an NBA career, the 2022-23 season could provide the former No. 1 overall pick an opportunity to showcase why he was so highly regarded coming out of Washington.
Getting through the season healthy would be an accomplishment in it of itself. But Fultz has a chance to reach great heights this coming season, and more importantly, the capabilities to do so.