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Markelle Fultz showing early signs of defensive improvement

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

"He can be an All-Defensive player”. That was the kind of promise the Philadelphia 76ers attached to Markelle Fultz's potential as a defensive menace before this season. Besides replacing JJ Redick in the starting lineup to give the inexperienced 20-year-old some much needed confidence and chemistry with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, an extra dose of athletic defense was the motivation for Brett Brown to make the change.

To start the season, though, that wasn’t on display whatsoever. It’s never fair to expect rookies to be positive defenders, especially off the ball when they need to be up to speed with the nuances of more fast-paced, talented offenses. It’s easy to get lost. That was the case for Fultz through his first handful of games. His positioning was messy. He was getting taken out by screens far too easily. Even on the ball, when you’d hope to see his physical tools be more useful, he was still getting beaten too often with slow reactions and delayed, sloppy footwork.

The defensive potential is obvious with Fultz, though. He’s explosive with shifty feet and has terrific size at 6’5” with a 6’10” wingspan. When putting everything to good use with a high motor and some of the instincts he’s shown in the past, he should have everything to succeed.

Now, we’re starting to see more signs of that upside.

The Sixers’ November 1 outing against the LA Clippers was Fultz’s breakout game defensively. He looked far better than he had up until that point, looking far more engaged and energized, with the kind of low defensive stance and improved attentiveness off ball that he needed.

Manoeuvring around screens is something Fultz has struggled mightily with, and likely will some more moving forwards. It’s also worth noting that Milos Teodosic is hardly the quickest player to hang in front of. Nevertheless, Fultz has improved around screens as of late with more plays like this. He uses his speed to nip past Mike Scott’s screen before cutting under a screen from Montrelz Harrell, showing some lateral quickness to change direction and contest Teodosic’s jumper:

Fultz did more than just bother Teodosic, though. He took on spells against far tougher assignments like Lou Williams, and fared surprisingly well.

This is easily one of Fultz’s best two-way sequence with the Sixers yet. He flies around Boban Marjanovic to pressure Williams and cuts back around the second screen to cover Williams and force him out of a jumper. As Fultz finished the play by grabbing the rebound and tearing down court for a layup, his two-way, up-tempo potential was on full display:

Fultz has continued to show defensive improvement since that night as well. This play against Detroit perfectly demonstrated what he can do with his athleticism.

Again, Fultz sticks in the play through a screen and recovers onto Jose Calderon to come up with a block and a crafty one-handed, behind-the-back recovery to kick off a fast break:

Even though Fultz has still been beaten on drives and fallen a step behind plays at times, he has the size and speed to recover on plays like this and contest. He can be disruptive just by throwing his length around:

His improved defense around screens has translated to pick-and-rolls, too. We’ve seen flashes of what he’s capable of, with plays like this perfectly showcasing his wingspan and instincts in passing lanes. Fultz fights around the screen from Myles Turner in a hurry and pounces forward to break up the pocket pass and come away with the steal.

He had a career-high three steals against Indiana on November 7, helping to up his season average to 1.1 per game (1.7 per 36 minutes).

Of course, it’s early. Fultz is barely 30 games (including the playoffs) into his career and there are going to be defensive ups and downs for a while. Maybe he’ll never make an All-Defensive team.

But, at the same time, seeing notable defensive improvement this early on in the season is encouraging for the Sixers. He’s showing, albeit briefly, a better understanding of positioning, navigating screens, and the kind of impact he can have when locked in. To start the season, he was a scrambling negative on defense. Since then, he’s put together some genuinely positive performances on that end of the floor.

The impact of a new top-10 player (depending on how you rank him) in Jimmy Butler is going to be the main conversation for a while. There are going to be changes. And whether Fultz continues starting or he comes off the bench, he’ll need to adjust. Taking more 3s, and hopefully making some, will be a start — he hasn’t attempted a single shot from beyond the arc in his last six games.

To maximize shooting and spacing, I’d suggest starting Redick and Landry Shamet while moving Fultz to the bench, giving him a chance to develop with more touches and minutes away from the stars. Alternatively, Redick and Wilson Chandler could start, providing extra experience and switching with the latter.

Regardless of what changes occur for now, though, and no matter how obvious it is that shooting and confidence are what Fultz needs to develop more than anything, his sharpened defense is still worth paying attention to.

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