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Addressing the Sixers’ priority struggle

Between regular season success and Markelle Fultz’s development, Philadelphia’s focus should center around the former No. 1 pick.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers’ early-season 2-3 start and the early returns of Markelle Fultz’s transformed jumper are not what Sixers fans anticipated after a playoff berth. Blake Griffin and Giannis Antetokounmpo carved up Philadelphia’s defense to the tune of 50 and 38 points, respectively, over the past two games, while the Sixers ceded 116.8 PPG (the league’s 10th-worst figure).

Failing to meet expectations spurs blame. Ranging from Dario Saric’s flat offensive start (37.3 FG%, 26.5 3PT%) to Brett Brown’s game plans, the Sixers have seemed like they’ve hit an early speed bump. Second-year guard Markelle Fultz also hasn’t delivered through just five games, instead of looking like a rejuvenated offensive threat, he’s still acclimating himself into Philadelphia’s five-man units.

Fultz earned the starting nod through Philadelphia’s first five games, but has inconsistently logged second-half minutes. During Philadelphia’s matchup with the Detroit Pistons, Tuesday, T.J. McConnell received the lion’s share of the time at point guard with Ben Simmons out due to injury. While McConnell had provided impact in important moments prior to this season, Fultz should’ve engineered Philadelphia’s offense with Simmons on the bench.

McConnell finished 5-for-8 shooting with 10 points and his rhythm played into Brown favoring him late, but Fultz’s productive offensive first half could have been a response in his favor. Process favorite Ish Smith offensively tore apart McConnell with his agility and helped Detroit win the fourth quarter, 33-26, en route to an overtime victory.

Fast forward to Wednesday night and Fultz couldn’t duplicate his efficient performance, going 1-for-5 after making his first attempt. (He did swish a pull-up three during the fourth quarter that punctuated an otherwise tepid offensive night.) Fultz had trouble finishing on drives and PhillyVoice’s Kyle Neubeck evidenced Fultz’s reluctancy when creating his own offense.

Philadelphia traded up for Fultz in the 2017 NBA Draft, in part, due to his ability to fill up the scoring column and operate as a three-level scorer. The 20-year-old guard is in the 59th percentile (58 percent) among point guards in finishing at the rim, 14th percentile (29 percent) on mid-range shots but his 60 percent (3-of-5) three-point clip comes with a timid approach. (All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass.)

Fultz regularly show indecisiveness during games. This aspect complicates how Brown’s offense both operates and performs. Between Fultz essentially restarting his offensive game, Ben Simmons’ spacing limitations, and Robert Covington’s limited offensive skill set, Brown has dialed up plenty of looks for Joel Embiid and JJ Redick.

Herein lies the article’s premise and conundrum. Fultz isn’t going to immediately transform into a high-volume scorer capable of making looks from range, and penetrating the defense to create high-quality looks plus potential and-1 opportunities. That’s what Philadelphia needs from their second-year guard, but it’s a long-term vision and one that’ll sacrifice near-term efficiency.

Per Cleaning the Glass, Philadelphia’s effective field-goal percentage drops 2.9 percent when Fultz plays. Fultz, like any young talent, needs to have the optimal surrounding pieces for his offensive game to flourish. Brett Brown cannot be divvying up backup PG minutes to Fultz and McConnell if he’s invested in offensively developing Fultz.

Fultz needs a dozen pick-and-roll opportunities where he’s pulling up or slashing in hopes of scoring at the rim or hitting the roller. We’ve seen him utilize dribble hand-offs to score. If he can link with Embiid and Simmons, while Brown crafts pick-and-roll looks for Fultz, that offensive core will add another element to their offensive approach.

Failing to cut is one gripe fans relate with Fultz’s offense thus far. Having him hesitate and step back along the perimeter, or have a design where he’s in rhythm for a jumper, can be an option for integrating Fultz into Brown’s offensive scheme. I’m a proponent of maximizing Fultz’s offensive potential while sacrificing immediate production.

It’s a trade-off which emulates the maxim “Trust the Process”. Given Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard acquisition, plus the growth of their young duo OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, along with Boston fielding a deeper unit than last season, Philadelphia will face obstacles before a potential Finals matchup with Golden State. (I mean, come on, who else?).

The Sixers will stay afloat this year with their star point guard and center duo. While Wilson Chandler struggled as a secondary scoring option, he excelled when tasked with being Denver’s primary scorer last year, and will likely receive that role in the second unit. Zhaire Smith is a project whose value lies within his versatility when he returns from injury.

Philadelphia is currently in limbo trying to maximize its offensive output and Redick now sits as Philadelphia’s third offensive option. Is that really how a pivotal season should play out? The goal should be grooming another offensively-gifted talent. Maybe their third star isn’t on the horizon. He could be just waiting for his time to shine donning the No. 20 jersey.

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