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What To Expect When You’re Expecting Markelle Fultz

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NBA: Preseason-Orlando Magic at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s a possible set of stats Markelle Fultz could put up this season, on a per-36 basis:

16.3 points

4.5 rebounds

6.0 assists

1.6 steals

0.2 blocks

2.8 turnovers

.298 from three on 2.7 attempts

.453 on 2-point attempts

Take a moment to look them over, and make a note of what you think. Would you categorize this as Markelle being adequate? Spectacular? Disappointing? A bust? Something else?

Seriously, think about it. Even write down your view.

OK, here’s, as Paul Harvey used to say, The Rest of the Story.

Those stats weren’t from a CARMELO forecast or the depths of my imagination. Rather, my research assistant Ben Rabinowitz and I did the following:

  • Pull the data for the age 20 season (Markelle’s current age) of all point guards and combo guards drafted since 2000
  • Filtered so only players who played at least 20 minutes a game for at least 40 games remained; these are folks who played meaningful minutes at age 20
  • Then filtered again so we kept only players who became huge stars. The stats above are the average of the age 20 stats for this set of elite players.

Here are the guys who made the cut:

John Wall

Derrick Rose

Chris Paul

Kyrie Irving

Tony Parker

Russell Westbrook

Rajon Rondo

James Harden

The best player who we left off was probably Mike Conley; if we include him instead of omitting him the numbers do not change meaningfully. The player most folks are likely to say doesn’t deserve to make the list is Derrick Rose. But Rose was the MVP in his third season, he was quite obviously on the way to a Hall of Fame career before he shredded his knee in a way so awful he has never recovered. Another that folks might question is Rajon Rondo. What can I say, the dude has had a weird career, but he’s a four-time All-Star, was the straw that stirred the drink on one title team and came awfully close to winning a second. His late career is not as impressive as would have been expected from his stellar early play, perhaps due to injury. Anyway, I made the most accurate list I could, if you prefer to make a different list, have at it, it’s easy!

Now, let’s be clear: we are not saying that if Markelle goes 16-6-4 while shooting high-20s from 3, that means he’s automatically on a Hall of Fame path as long as he stays healthy. To do that we’d have to do a study of all 20-year-olds and build a CARMELO-style model to forecast based on it. I don’t think I can do a better job than the FiveThirtyEight wizards at that sort of modelling, so I’ll just wait and see how they forecast Fultz after this season (their current forecast is that he’ll be ordinary, but I don’t think last year provided them a clean sample to work off of so I don’t put much stock in it and, my guess is, neither would they).

So what does this tell us? Well, I read most of the comments people post on this board, and my interpretation of those comments is that the common view of very smart, thoughtful fans is something like:

Per 36:

Scenario A: If Markelle has 20 points, 13 assists plus rebounds, and shoots 34% from 3, he’s on a great path

Scenario B: If Markelle has 16 points, 11 assists plus rebounds, and shoots `29% from 3, he’s on an OK-not-great path

Scenario C: If Markelle has 14 points, 10 assists plus rebounds, and shoots 25% from 3, he’s a total bust

Whereas I would say that Scenario A is not just great but actually completely unprecedented; as far as I can tell no 20-year-old PG/combo guard has ever had a season like that; only Kyrie is even in the ballpark. Scenario B, which I think folks would find just sort of OK, is actually what players who become enormous HOF-type superstars do. And Scenario C is basically the average of the age-20 seasons of John Wall, Russell Westbrook, and Rajon Rondo. And note it’s not as though Rondo, Westbrook and Wall were seen as busts after those seasons and just surprised everyone by improving massively. They did improve, of course, but all three of those guys were viewed as having super-promising seasons at age 20. And yet, as I say, if Markelle were to put up numbers that fit right in with those three, I fear fans will be hanging the kid in effigy!

Just as a reminder, here were Markelle Fultz’s per-36 for the modest amount he played last season, including the comically inept first four games before he was shut down early in the season.

14.2 points

13.6 assists + rebounds

2.3 steals + blocks

So, while of course I have no idea what Markelle will deliver this year, it’s hardly the case that the 16/10.5/1.9 the superstars managed in those same categories is out of reach!

Why the disconnect. I rank the factors:

Jayson Tatum. When LB did its Community Big Board before the 2017 draft, Tatum ranked 7th. Virtually no one around here liked the guy; another iso scorer from Duke. Fans wanted Josh Jackson. If Boston had drafted Jackson and he had played for them the way he did in Phoenix; played that way despite his advanced age (he’s approaching 22), there’d be a lot less pressure on Markelle. But either Tatum was a lot better than everyone thought, or Brad Stevens is a wizard who can make almost any decent player into a big star, or both. Tatum appears on his way to a tremendous career, and that’s causing people to hold Markelle to an impossible standard.

The three-point explosion. The game changes every year, and in the dozen-or-so years since players like Rondo and Rose were drafted, the three-pointer has become more important. Still, guys like Wall and Westbrook prove that it’s possible to be one hell of an NBA player while being less than stellar from three. And guys like Chris Paul prove that you can shoot in the 20s at age 20 and turn into an excellent distance shooter. You can say Paul is just one example, but here’s the thing: there are only two examples (Kyrie and Harden) of PG stars-to-be being 35%-plus three-point shooters at 20. They are also the only two on the list with more than 3.2 attempts per 36 from deep. People, it is just not normal for guys with PG skills to be successful 3-point shooters when they are only 20 years old! Even at 21 many are still poor; for example Terry Rozier shot 22% at age 21; 21 will be the year after next for Markelle! If Markelle shoots 22% the year after this coming one, Philadelphia will make “El Busto” his middle name. And yet Rozier’s three point shooting just two years past age 21 was bordering on elite.

Increased team expectations. When the Sixers drafted Markelle, fans and pundits thought we were 3-5 years away from contention. I know this is true, because the summer after that draft I spent many hours in Fanposts and comments arguing that we should sign Kyle Lowry, and fans and professionals alike argued I was crazy because by the time the team was really good, Lowry would be using a walker. But then came last year’s 52 wins, and now, understandably, everyone wants to make the Finals this year. I sure do! So of course they are asking whether Markelle can play a big role in helping us win playoff series THIS YEAR. In a sense I’d say he certainly will: the sense that he’s sure to be far better than people like TLC and Marco Belinelli that we were forced to play in key spots last year. But I know for many that isn’t enough, they want him to be an instant star, as Ben and Joel were. As you can see from the numbers on 20-year-old point guards, either the averages above or the complete data below, that is just exceptionally unlikely. If you want to win this year, urge the team to offer Dario, Chandler, our first-rounder plus the Miami pick for Jimmy Butler. It probably won’t be enough, but if we got something like that done, we’d be the best team in the East.

Ben Simmons and the problematic syllogism. Here’s the logic many fans and pundits are putting forward:

  • A) Ben Simmons is the Sixer point guard, so Markelle has to play shooting guard
  • B) But a shooting guard who shoots like Wall or Westbrook isn’t any good, shooting guards need to be great shooters
  • C) So Markelle is a bust unless he shows he’ll be a 38+% shooter down the road
  • D) That requires him to shoot mid-30s this year in order for honest fans to be optimistic

It’s easy to see the appeal of this narrative, but I think it is riddled with problems. Responding letter by letter:

  • A) First, although I like Ben Simmons at PG, he is obviously quite capable of playing other positions while Markelle mans the point. Second, even if Ben plays nothing but PG, that will leave around 12 minutes a game where a PG is needed. Third, didn’t we just go through this? A year ago at this time, many said Paul and Harden wouldn’t work out well together because both are point guards. Then their team went 156-2 with a point differential of +37 during games where both of them were fully healthy — or something like that! So, we can play 12 minutes with Ben and no Markelle, 12 with Markelle and no Ben, and 24 split between, say, Ben at PG/Markelle as the second PG and Markelle at PG and Ben in the LeBron/Giannis frontcourt primary initiator position. Or if one of those last two doesn’t work that great, play more minutes of the other one. The idea that a team has to designate a single point guard for the season was always silly, and last year it was proved silly by the Rockets. Of course it won’t work as well for us right away as it did with two superstars already in their primes, but then again, last year’s Rocket’s didn’t also have Joel Embiid!
  • B) Obviously having more good shooters on the floor is a benefit. But having more good ball handlers, and more good passers, and more good defenders is also a benefit. Let’s write down four possible playoff lineups from the current Sixer roster, giving these lineups 12 minutes each. No player gets more than 36 minutes per game in this setup.

Red Team: Joel Embiid - Dario Saric - Robert Covington - JJ Redick - Ben Simmons

White Team: Mike Muscala - Dario Saric - Robert Covington - Markelle Fultz - Ben Simmons

Blue Team: Joel Embiid - Ben Simmons - Robert Covington - JJ Redick - Markelle Fultz

Gray Team: Joel Embiid - Dario Saric - Wilson Chandler - JJ Redick - Markelle Fultz

Looks OK to me! I mean, I’m not a huge Wilson Chandler believer; it’s my hope that by playoff time either Zhaire or Shamet will have shown himself more worthy of the minutes, but let’s assume we aren’t that lucky; Chandler burning crazy energy for 12 minutes a night should be fine. So, look, perhaps Markelle won’t be good enough this year to deserve all these playoff minutes. But suppose he’s good overall but just isn’t much of a shooter — 2.5 attempts per 36 for 27%, say; but with so many assists/rebounds/blocks that he’s still a good player. Well in that case, which of these lineups fails because the spacing is unacceptable? We know the Red Team works, that was the best group in the NBA last year. The Gray Team should also be fine; Chandler isn’t quite the shooter Cov is but he’s OK, and Markelle is an upgrade from Ben in terms of spacing. The White Team is fine as with Moose giving Joel a rest, we have Ben distributing the ball among three fine shooters and one bad-but-not-hopeless shooter (Markelle in this hypothetical). I guess the Blue Team has the biggest issue, as it has Markelle, Ben, and Joel all on the floor together while Dario gets a break. But with those five we have phenomenal defense, two terrific ball handlers, two terrific shooters in Cov and JJ, plus Joel Embiid. If people think that group is going to get blown off the floor, or at least shut down defensively, I guess I want to see what opponent’s lineup that includes a couple of backups people think is going to find it so easy to slam the door on them. And if there are certain opponents or lineups this group doesn’t work against, we can always give Markelle a little less run and give some extra minutes to Chandler or Shamet against those teams.

  • C) To a great extent this was addressed above. But let me add this: when not talking about the Sixers, I never hear anyone say stuff like this! For example, Bill Simmons talks all the time about how the Thunder need to start giving Westbrook 10-15 minutes a night off-ball, playing Schroder at PG. Simmons is far from infallible, and maybe he’s wrong about this one. But I don’t recall many people saying Dwyane Wade’s less-than-mediocre three-point shooting meant he couldn’t be an NBA shooting guard. And I don’t just mean a decade ago; even in last year’s playoffs people felt he was effective at that position. You’d like a shooting guard to be a great shooter, but in the end, players should be judged by what they do bring as well as what they don’t.
  • D) In a way this is the closest to correct, and yet I still think it’s fundamentally wrong. Look, it’s not normal for terrible 20-year-old shooters to be terrific by 24. In the usual case, improvement of something like 5% (e.g. from a 26% 3P% to 31%) is probably more to be expected. On the other hand, large improvement is not all that rare either; heck, we just saw it happen last year with Dario, who was a lot older than Markelle. More crucial, though, is the history here. Something went seriously wrong last year. It looks to me as though a shoulder injury played a major role in derailing Markelle’s shot; of course you can feel free to take a different view. In any case, though, we have strong evidence from Fultz’s pre-NBA career, including not just high school and college but several Summer League games, that he is capable of shooting the three. So I think it’s entirely plausible that he may have a lot more upside in him than a typical 20 year old who shoots however he ends up shooting this year. Obviously if he only takes 20 3s all season, that’s a huge concern. But if he takes 2-3 a game and shoots in the mid or high 20s, I think there’s a real chance that he’ll end up at the Wall/Westbrook level as a shooter (i.e. not very good) but also a real chance he’ll be a superior shooter to those two in his prime because what we see this year will be a result only part way through his recovery.

Putting it all together: it’s a bit of a bad-news, good-news thing. The bad news is, there’s almost no chance Markelle Fultz plays at a “third star” level this season, or really anything close to it. Frankly, among our sample only Kyrie Irving put up the kind of per-36 numbers in his age-20 season that people associate with “stars,” and it’s not clear from the on-off numbers that Kyrie was that huge of a contributor in terms of wins and losses to that pre-LeBron-return Cleveland team.

The good news is, players grow enormously after age 20. Markelle could be pretty ineffective this season while still playing in a way consistent with stardom or even superstardom. So, people should be slow to give up hope!

Below is the raw data for the nine comps for those who wish to play with it. As always, your comments are welcome!

Star PGs, age 20 season per-36

Name 2PA 2P% 3PA 3P% FTA FT% TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
Name 2PA 2P% 3PA 3P% FTA FT% TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
John Wall 11.8 0.425 1.6 0.296 5.4 0.766 4.4 7.9 1.7 0.5 3.6 2.4 15.6
Derrick Rose 13.6 0.491 0.9 0.222 3 0.788 3.8 6.1 0.8 0.2 2.4 1.5 16.3
Chris Paul 9.9 0.464 2.3 0.282 6 0.847 5.1 7.8 2.2 0.1 2.3 2.8 16.1
Kyrie Irving 13.9 0.474 4.9 0.391 5.1 0.855 3.8 6.2 1.6 0.4 3.4 2.6 23.3
Tony Parker 10.4 0.503 3.2 0.337 3.8 0.755 2.8 5.6 0.9 0.1 2.6 2.3 16.5
Russell Westbrook 13 0.415 1.7 0.271 5.8 0.815 5.4 5.9 1.5 0.2 3.7 2.6 16.9
Rajon Rondo 8.3 0.432 0.6 0.207 3.6 0.647 5.7 5.8 2.5 0.2 2.7 3.6 9.9
James Harden 6.8 0.424 5.1 0.375 5 0.808 5.1 2.8 1.7 0.4 2.2 4.1 15.6