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On Markelle Fultz, Nelson Agholor and Redemption in Philadelphia

Examining the Hero’s Journey of two polarizing Philadelphia athletes.

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers-Media Day Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

On June 22nd, 2017, University of Washington star Markelle Fultz was chosen first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers, following a polarizing trade to move up from 3 to 1, orchestrated by then-general manager and longtime normal-collar-wearer, one Bryan Colangelo. Fultz was seen as the perfect third banana to slot next to budding stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The price was steep, but the player was perfect. A 3-level scorer at Washington with a deft feel for operating the offense out of the pick and roll, Fultz was the textbook archetype for the kind of young player the Sixers and fans had dreamed of conjoining with their existing pieces right away.

On April 30th, 2015, USC Wide Receiver Nelson Agholor was selected with the 20th pick in the first round by the Philadelphia Eagles and up-tempo innovator head coach Chip Kelly. Standing 6 foot, 200 pounds, the Nigeria-born Agholor had all the tools to become a reliable outside receiver for a team that badly needed one. If he wasn’t a star, he would at least be reliable and effective. He’d be solid. He’d be Jeremy Maclin.

We were all so young.

We know what came to follow. For Markelle, after a sprained ankle in summer league, he showed up to training camp with an alleged shoulder injury that caused him to shoot like this once the season began. It was confounding. The Sixers fanbase and media at large commenced a fervent search for answers. Before long, the disappearance of the consensus #1 overall pick’s jumpshot became a national headline. In October, Fultz’s agent Raymond Brothers went to Woj to detail a procedure the guard underwent, wherein some fluid was either taken from or injected to his ailing shoulder which was the real cause for the issue. Days later, the Sixers shelved Fultz with a shoulder injury in an effort to curtail the story. Months later, as the mystery persisted, well-sourced reports surfaced that Fultz’s longtime family friend and trainer Keith Williams had independently instructed his pupil to change his shot. Over time it became obvious that it in fact was not the shoulder, the fluid, or Miss Scarlet with the Candlestick in the conservatory. For one reason or another, the guard’s shot had abandoned him, and the 19-year-old was now tasked with finding it somehow, someway, in the public eye. And as time wore on, something remarkable happened: the age-old, rub-some-dirt-on-it, Santa Claus-booing traditional Philadelphia fanbase turned heel, and instead took up for the newest Sixer. Much like Sixers vet JJ Redick did to the media, Sixer fans online went to bat for their new kid brother. By and large, one by one, they deflected arrows from evil Celtic fans who were celebrating the psychological blockage of a kid trying to make it, in hopes that someday he would hit the court to fulfill the promise we all saw that June night.

For Nelson Agholor, his rookie year was altogether a disappointment, to put it mildly. In 13 games he caught only 23 passes for 283 yards and a touchdown from quarterback Sam Bradford. The receiver proved to not be as polished as his reputation suggested coming out of school. Even the most optimistic of fans could only go so far as to think: eh, he’s young. He’s a project. Next year he’ll be good. (Narrator: he was not.) The 2016 season, the receiver’s sophomore campaign, proved to be rock bottom for Agholor. He was haunted by dropped passes, and went on to tally his second straight season with only a 52% catch percentage, per Pro Football Reference. Following a crushing defeat to the Dallas Cowboys wherein Agholor dropped a key third down pass, he lashed out explicitly at reporters for probing the issue. His pro struggles finally culminated in December against The Seattle Seahawks. Agholor dropped a pass and commited a back breaking miscue by failing to line up properly on a play that would’ve resulted in an Eagles touchdown versus a vaunted defense, in the Seahawks’ stadium. Following the game, Agholor was contrite and self-reflective in a way seldom shown by athletes under the microscope. He even went so far as to tell reporters after the game: “I need to find a way to let go of my mental battle.” Agholor was benched the following week, as the team stumbled their way through a seminal 5 game losing streak, as the wide receiver and his teammates watched their postseason hopes peter out as the winter came.

Fast forward to now. The year is 2018. Nelson Agholor is a Super Bowl Champion and Markelle Fultz hit a three pointer in an NBA preseason game.

For Agholor, the Birds’ addition of Alshon Jeffery in the 2017 offseason proved essential for his growth. He moved inside to the slot and was one of the most productive and versatile at his position throughout the ‘17 season, totaling nearly 800 yards and 8 touchdowns. He was consistent, he was explosive. He did the DeSean. Despite Sunday’s now-unusual off game vs. the Titans, Agholor has become one of the most reliable weapons on a championship contender. It appears that Agholor has conquered the aforementioned ‘mental battles’ that plagued him during his sophomore season. For Nelson Agholor, the result of his hard physical and, to be sure, mental work in the offseason following 2016 was Philadelphia sports immortality, as an integral member of the team that finally won it all.

For Markelle, the picture is a bit muddier, in that we don’t have the championship bow with which to wrap up his saga (yet). To date, what results we have of his diligent offseason work are his Players Tribune piece that broke his summer-long silence, and that rhythm corner three in the first quarter of a Sixers-Magic preseason game on October 1st. Other than Markelle, himself, the man we have to thank for his resurrection is shot doctor and renown phone-holder Drew Hanlen. Hanlen, over the summer, intimated in no uncertain terms that Fultz’s issues from his embattled rookie year were purely mental. Herein lies the key difference between the journeys of Markelle Fultz and Nelson Agholor. While Agholor was quick to volunteer that what ailed him was a mental blockage, Fultz has not and presumably will not. He has consistently claimed that he was merely injured, but now he’s back. I don’t blame him. If I was 19 with the weight of a franchise on my scapulars, I’d be just as wary of owning up to psychological issues. What really matters, here and now, is that it seems that for both Markelle Fultz and Nelson Agholor, they’ve found the peace they needed to continue with their careers. We should be proud of them, and acknowledge how lucky we are to have them in Philadelphia.

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