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Some Thoughts on Managing Expectations for Markelle Fultz

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NBA: Preseason-Memphis Grizzlies at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Markelle Fultz shot 2-13 in his first pre-season game and the sky is falling. Did the Sixers totally blow the first overall pick? Would they have been better off selecting Lonzo Ball? What about Jayson Tatum? Or is everyone overreacting to some action that is minimally predictive for his future performance?

As always, it’s worth taking a few steps back and then re-examining.

There are, of course, extenuating circumstances behind Fultz’s performance. The most obvious two being his age (19), and the fact that this was his first NBA game ever. Still to have a player chosen first overall perform so poorly is discouraging, especially when his peers, chosen directly after him, have been so impressive so far.

Speaking of, let’s check in on them! Here are the pre-season basic per game stats and efficiency numbers for Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, and Dennis Smith Jr., the draft picks most commonly cited as having been alternatives to Fultz (Stats taken from RealGM, current as of Thursday evening).

Hold on.

In case you missed it, let’s just blow that up a little larger for you.

All of the rookies have struggled to adjust to the level of play in the NBA. Even Josh Jackson, who had a fairly efficient 14 points on average efficiency the other night, complemented it with a grisly 6 turnovers. It’s a major change to have to face legitimate rim protectors every night, athletic defenders, sophisticated schemes that take away perimeter players’ strengths, and have to shoulder expectations and heightened responsibility as a teenager.

As a means of comparison, here are some regular season debuts for notable perimeter players who were of a similar age in their rookie seasons.

  • D’Angelo Russell - 4 points, 2-7 FGA, 2 assists, 3 turnovers
  • Kyrie Irving - 6 points, 2-12 FGA, 7 assists, 1 turnover
  • John Wall - 14 points, 6-19 FGA, 9 assists, 3 turnovers
  • James Harden - 5 points, 2-2 FGA, 0 assists, 0 turnovers
  • Derrick Rose - 11 points, 3-9 FGA, 9 assists, 4 turnovers
  • Russell Westbrook - 13 points, 4-9 FGA, 4 assists, 2 turnovers

None of those are particular impressive numbers on their face. Each of these players had several extra weeks of practice and pre-season to adjust to the NBA’s rigors and talent jump, and they still struggled in their debut performances. Some of them put up some gaudy assist numbers, but they were also seeing much more of the ball than Fultz was in lineup next to Ben Simmons.

All of which is to say: Relax.

There were a couple of things I was encouraged by from Wednesday night. The first was his bounce pass on the break to a wide open Covington for 3.

That’s an advanced read and execution that few 19-year-olds have in their locker.

Also encouraging was how frequently Fultz was getting into positions at the rim. He struggled to convert them, but my concern coming into the season had been how frequently he could create them. As a freshman at Washington, playing in a high-major conference, Fultz shot 61.6% at the rim, according to Hoop-Math, an above average number, and showed off a soft touch and impressive contortion ability. He missed some looks that he has made consistently in the past, and the Law of Averages states that, as he sees more of those types of opportunities, he’ll progress to his regular shot making ability.

None of this is to say that he’ll become a surefire superstar. Bad games are bad games, and when they’re all you have in your sample, being concerned about them is perfectly reasonable. But there’s more to Fultz’s sample than this one game, and his history is encouraging. Struggling in your first NBA action is perfectly normal. Let’s give Fultz a little bit longer before freaking out.