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NBA Draft 2017: Markelle Fultz gives Sixers a third chance at superstar upside

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Fultz may be the most well-rounded offensive prospect in this draft class.

NCAA Basketball: Arizona State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Bryan Colangelo may have pulled off his signature move, with reports of the Sixers’ trade for Markelle Fultz zinging around the NBA. This is a move that would undoubtedly put Colangelo’s stamp on this Sixers’ team future no matter what else may come, and it could fundamentally shift the competitive structure of the league for years to come. So what are the Sixers getting?

Fultz is one of the best lead guard prospects of the decade, melding a combination of elite physical tools and skills. As the last member of a proverbial Sixers’ Big Three, there are few players who appear to be as attractive a fit and star, both, as Fultz.

Fultz enters draft season as perhaps the most gifted pick and roll ball handler since Kyrie Irving. He sports a tight, slithery handle that allows him to get to his spots on the floor with ease, and he routinely splits double teams. With his shake and creativity, he’s an incredibly difficult driver to bottle up, especially with a two-on-one advantage.

In addition to his natural ability to read plays with or without pick, Fultz has elite body control and improvisational ability, allowing him to react to the defense and make plays around the rim in a way in which few prospects can. 18-year-olds don’t make plays like this.

The ability to react to the defense, carve them up, and then still have the body control for to finish that layup is unparalleled. It’s the type of play that stands out immediately and screams, “Potential!!!” when you see it for the first time.

Here too, he reacts to an off-balance defender, and then adjusts his shot over the outstretched arms of a big defender.

What makes him most enticing as a scorer, though, is his hugely improved shooting ability off the dribble. Coming out of high school, the biggest question about his game was his shot, as he was late developing it. In his five months in Seattle, he has answered that question emphatically, as he has been both prolific and efficient shooting from deep, both off the dribble and off the catch.

According to Hoop-Math, Fultz has been assisted on only 55.8% of his 3-point field goal attempts. Despite taking nearly half of his 3’s off the dribble, he has managed to shoot 41.3% from deep, the best mark of all high-level point guard prospects this year. Sweetening his shooting profile even more, he has converted 43.8% of his 2-point jumpers, of which only 12.5% have been assisted.

That means that on 327 jumpers, the majority of which have come off the dribble, Fultz is shooting an incredible 42.8%.

The large sample and outstanding shooting in this regard somewhat mitigates Fultz’s concerning free throw percentage, where he has only shot 65% this year. That he has been so successful on such a large number of jumpers is incredibly encouraging. The manner in which he has done so has also been impressive. He can pull-up when his defender goes under the screen, or he can freeze his defender, threatening off the dribble, and then drain a 3 in their face.

He can juke the D, see space, stop on a dime, and drain a J.

And he can do all this in the mid-range as well. He even has a nascent turnaround jumper that he can polish off from the pinch post. While the value of a “three-level scorer” has been somewhat reduced in the NBA’s age of threes and dunks, having the capacity to score at all three levels and forcing defenses to account for that threat remains important. That Fultz was a strong performer at all three levels as an 18-year-old freshman shouldering a sky-high usage is a huge deal.

The biggest knock on his scoring may be that, despite good efficiency at all three levels, Fultz’s shot distribution skewed very strongly towards two-point jumpers, dragging his overall efficiency to below average. Some of that was undoubtedly the paucity of creative playmaking assistance afforded to him on a horrendous Washington team. Frequently, when his team needed a basket, Fultz would put his head down and try to pull a rabbit out of the hat, ending with a contested two-point jumper. But some was undoubtedly poor decision-making on Fultz’s part.

In fact, measuring volume by midrange jumpers per 40 minutes, Fultz’s 9 attempts were an outlier for volume. Point guard prospects, on average, attempted only 4.9 attempts per 40, nearly half of Fultz’s volume. This suggests that his team’s make-up can only account for some portion of his proclivity for long jumpers. The hope is that as he is provided a stronger supporting cast and coached into improving his shot selection, it’s an issue that would go away. He knows how to get to his spots through change of pace, side-to-side trickery, or simply blowing by less athletic defenders, and that is the harder skill to master.

Still, it’s not a point that should be dismissed as irrelevant; it’s at least a little troublesome as an indicator for his BBIQ, and as a potential limiting factor on his scoring efficiency. Brett Brown could have his work cut out for himself in refining Fultz’s shot profile to resemble that of a top-flight initiator.

Fultz’s allure isn’t only as a scorer, of course. While he shouldered an oversized portion of the UW scoring, he also was the primary source of his teammates’ points. By assisting on 35.5 percent of his teammates’ baskets, Fultz joined D’Angelo Russell and Michael Weathers as the only freshmen since 2010 to have both usage and assist rates above 30%. Superstars need to both score and create for teammates, and Fultz has demonstrated an ability to do that at a young age.

And the passing is pretty incredible, too. This might have been the most impressive play by any prospect all season.

The body control and basketball IQ needed to complete this high level play is awe-inspiring. A tight spin-dribble in traffic, followed by a wrap-around pass to an open rim runner is not a play that most college players can conceptualize, let alone execute. Even more impressive was that it developed organically based on what the defense gave him. This wasn’t a predetermined move formulated before the play. It was responsive, reading the developing play and probing the defense as it moved.

Fultz also executes more garden variety passes. In this class of impressive point guards, Lonzo Ball gets billing as a top passer, but Fultz isn’t far behind him, and is almost certainly ahead of both De’Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr in terms of both vision and passing capability.

If his shot comes good at the next level, Fultz looks to be one of the few offensive prospects who both has no glaring holes in his game and pairs his well-rounded ability with advanced skill. That would allow him to be both the focal point of an offense, as he was at Washington, and to play off-ball, when paired with Simmons, Embiid, or both.

Gaining Fultz as an initiator addition to the Big Two and Dario would also give Brett Brown the freedom to mix and match a number of lineups and rotations so that the team never lacked offensive muscle. Where most teams lack the firepower to have productive bench units, Brett could easily sub Dario and Holmes for Simmons and Embiid, and let them run wild on bench units with Fultz. Then, Simmons could replace Fultz’s initiation role in the lineup and the Sixers would never lack for team creativity.

This type of bench depth and creation staggering has been a strength of the Spurs for years. In playing a bench unit that can expand upon their starters’ lead or build one themselves, the Spurs enable a larger cushion over the entirety of the game. The luxury of having three shot creators of the quality of Fultz, Simmons, and Embiid (not to mention Saric) would have a similar effect, but possibly greater.

Fultz’s shooting ability would enable him to provide the spacing from the one that Simmons requires. Playing the two side by side, while not necessarily maximizing each individual player’s output, will not be a troublesome fit. There’s an important difference between maximizing lineups and maximizing players. Oklahoma City is instructive in this case; Durant-Westbrook lineups clearly maximized the team’s skill. Westbrook has proven definitively that it did not also maximize his own.

A Fultz-Simmons pairing would be much the same. Both would be capable of putting up more impressive stats as the solitary ball handler, but their teammates would benefit from the increased creativity the two would bring together on the court.

While Fultz is an outstanding offensive prospect, there are questions about his defense. These stem from his effort level, which has waxed and waned throughout the season. For a player with the athletic gifts that he has, he gets beaten off the dribble too frequently, and lollygags off-ball, giving up far more than he should.

I’m not particularly worried about his defense for a few reasons:

  1. Positional importance. Lead guards are on the court to initiate offense and break even defensively. That doesn’t mean their defense can be ignored, but it does mean it’s less important than players who bring less offensive value.
  2. His combined usage and assist rates at Washington were an insane 66.9%. In laymen’s terms, that means that, while he was on the floor, Fultz either took or assisted on 67% of all of his team’s shots. For comparison’s sake, Embiid’s combined rates this season were 52%, 15% below what Fultz contributed in Seattle. That kind of initiation workload tires out any player. In the Nike Hoop Summit and FIBA U-18 Tournament games last year, he was a standout defender. With a more reasonable offensive burden, he’s likely to put more work in on the other side of the ball.
  3. When he has decided to try, he’s been really good.

The third point is similar to Simmons last year. Both have strong BBIQ’s and can see the floor a beat ahead of their opponents and teammates. Both also have superior athleticism, allowing them to disrupt plays at above average rates when they dial in. Famously, in Fultz’s case, this has manifested itself in highlight reel, chasedown blocks.

His propensity to gamble for these kinds of plays can be frustrating at times, but it also demonstrates a player who clearly understands how to anticipate opponents’ behavior and how to use his superior gifts to thwart it.

This can also be seen in on-ball defense, where he will often get beat but manage to recover and disrupt the play. His size (6’4), length (6’9), and speed allow him to zip back into the defensive picture more frequently than he should.

It’s possible that optimistic projections of Fultz’s defense will oversell his potential on that end of the court. Still, even as a neutral or slightly negative defender, Fultz’s offensive potential is enough to drastically offset the caliber of defender he is expected to be.

As a fit next to Simmons and Embiid or as the final piece of injury insurance should the two prove irrevocably mangled, Markelle Fultz would be an outstanding addition to the Sixers locker room. Adding Fultz doesn’t mean The Process will be over, but the team’s need to lose is gone. With three potential superstars on their roster, the Sixers would have the clearest path to contention of any non-playoff team.