A 120-114 win over the Orlando Magic never mattered. The night was about Fultz. “My confidence coming into the game was fine,” he added. “If I had a shot, I was going to take it, and that’s what I did today.”
The difference between the Sixers’ preseason opener and Monday night was huge. Against Melbourne United, Fultz was clearly reluctant to shoot early on. He passed up a few jumpers and showed a strong gut instinct to attack the rim or pass first. As the game went on, he showed a little more comfort, attempting a few mid-range jumpers and burying an elbow pull-up that everyone wanted to see.
But that was nothing compared to Monday. The night started well after he calmly stepped into a jumper over DJ Augustin in the first 90 seconds. The shot was compact, not too slow, and, first and foremost, taken without hesitation:
Then, at long last, we saw it — Markelle Fultz’s first 3-pointer since getting drafted, taken without hesitation:
It was a dream start to the game. In the first seven minutes, Fultz had attempted two 3s (the first attempt, a miss, was exactly the same setup as the shot above) and hit a soft mid-range pull-up.
Despite finishing the game with a fairly underwhelming stat line (12 points on 5-of-12 shooting, six rebounds, one assist, one block and two turnovers), Fultz should have the team and its fans feeling encouraged after jump shots accounted for 10 of his 12 field goal attempts.
As good as the buckets are, though, the handful of makes shouldn’t be the focus — aggressively looking for his shot is the real positive.
Fultz looked far more confident setting himself up for jumpers out of pick-and-rolls/pops, coming off screens and stepping into space to shoot, rather than driving and flinging something up in traffic as a last resort:
Here, Fultz lets DJ Augustin go under Embiid before sharply dribbling back to his right to find a little more room for the jumper. Maybe in the coming weeks and months this shot will become a triple at the initial point his man goes under the screen:
Even though concerns of lacking shooting are understandable when considering how much Fultz will share the floor with Ben Simmons (or if he’ll start in the regular season), the Sixers clearly have personnel that can help Fultz’s shot. There’s no doubt a remarkable playmaker like Simmons can find him the second he’s open. Running to the corners in transition, as Fultz did a few times on Monday, is one way to spread out the offense and get open looks — it’s easy for Simmons to draw in defenders on fast breaks and kick the ball out.
Then, there’s helpful screen setters. Simmons doing more of this is one way he could improve next season, while guys like Amir Johnson and fellow star Joel Embiid will be able to give Fultz some separation as well. This play served as an example, as a staggered screen with Simmons and Embiid wiped out Augustin to give Fultz some breathing room to step into the pull-up (obviously regular season defense and defenders going under screens is something we’ll have to see Fultz adjust to in time):
“The number of shots that people were hearing was not an overstatement”, Drew Hanlen said when discussing Fultz’s summer training, per Philly.com’s Bob Ford. “In fact, it was actually more than that. He took somewhere around 160,000 shots from June on. He worked harder than anybody I’ve ever had.”
“He was putting in four and five hours a day and, honestly, work is what got him back. He’s in a great place right now and he’s going to continue to get better and I think he’s going to add a dynamic to the Sixers that’s going to really make them exciting.”
Of course, all of these plays are Fultz’s first steps towards rediscovering his shot and the game that allowed him to thrive at Washington. As euphoric as everyone in Philly may be right now, it’s important to not get too carried away just yet.
The biggest weapon he’ll need to put pressure on defenses and punish opponents out of the pick-and-roll is a pull-up 3, something we’re yet to see in game. His form, understandably, isn’t perfect either — his shot isn’t super quick, it still varies at times, and he needs to keep his release point high, although that generally seemed to be the case against Orlando. There’s still a long way to go in terms of finding consistency and comfort from all around the floor (especially off the dribble from distance), and actually having success against regular NBA defenses.
That said, his form is clearly better. It’s not an awkward, two-part motion with a such a slow, clunky hitch/push as he raises his arm. He’s come a long way in one summer. And on top of that, he was undeniably confident in his second outing. Looking for shots, pulling up in pick-and-rolls and running to the corners to take a couple of 3s is the most important takeaway. After dealing with mental hurdles, as Hanlen has explained, showing some newfound aggressiveness with his jumper is a step in the right direction. It makes him look completely different to the player we saw at the end of last season.
“The thing I’m most pleased with is there’s zero hesitation,” Brett Brown said after the game, per Ford. “It’s been that way for a month. He may not have made them all, but he didn’t back away from any of them. It’s a statement. It’s a real statement.”
Hopefully for the Sixers, Fultz can use this game as another jolt of confidence, serving everyone a reminder of what he was capable of in college and what he can still become.