Markelle Fultz’s arc this season is quite remarkable. He’s gone from being surrounded in mysterious injury news, jump shot videos and a joke in the eyes of many NBA fans to returning out of nowhere before the playoffs.
Perhaps the more surprising element of this turn of events, though, is the fact that he’s been, well… good. Really good for a rookie who’s missed five months, battling with the kind of shoulder ailments and psychological issues that rookies shouldn’t have to deal with.
But he’s back now. That’s all that matters. And as the playoffs near with just a few games left, it’s how Fultz can help lift up the bench that’s important.
Brett Brown has briefly thrown out Ben Simmons and Fultz together since the latter’s return, but given Simmons’ lack of shooting and Fultz’s work-in-progress form, it makes sense to play them separately to limit those off-ball weaknesses. And in the 14-16 minutes or so that Simmons takes to the bench, Fultz has already shown how comfortable he is attacking, providing an athletic, creative flare that isn’t as potent with the bench when T.J. McConnell is running the offense.
One of the best weapons that Fultz has to offer, even before the serious threat of a jump shot is present, is his ability to get to the rim. His quick first step, speed and smart use of crossovers and spins make him hard to contain, while his touch and confidence to attempt stuff like this (in his first game no less) can help create points when Simmons and Joel Embiid aren’t around to anchor the offense:
Against the Nets, Fultz had a flurry of smooth finishes inside, with a strong coast-to-coast explosion and a fake followed by a smooth pivot and left-handed finish showing off his combination of speed and finesse:
With McConnell at point, opponents just don’t have to worry about these kind of attacks. A lack of creation off the dribble and scoring punch in general has been a problem for the second unit all season. Fultz being able to collapse defenses inside and create that concern to draw in defenders and free up shooters is a great asset to have. Having smart player/ball movement and shooting around him in Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova helps a lot, too. They’ve both been great for Philly.
It’s also been encouraging to see Fultz hit a few jump shots off the dribble. While he’s far from having the kind of 3-point range that will make him a dangerous scorer all over the floor (he’s only taken, and missed, one triple so far), his form doesn’t look bad, all things considered. Some of his pull-ups have been surprisingly smooth. The first make in the clip below over a high contest from the 6’11” Mike Muscala is a beauty:
Fultz’s passing hasn’t grown rusty in his absence either. He showed terrific playmaking capability in college, and has rushed his way towards 26 assists and just four turnovers in his first six games. He’s actively looked to move the ball, feed shooters, make quick decisions, and use his driving to create better looks for teammates.
This dump-off pass when Fultz was isolated at the end of the first quarter against the Brooklyn Nets was a perfect example. Fultz could have easily thrown up a contested shot while DeMarre Carroll was draped all over him, but instead Fultz showed the ball on a pump at the basket to get Carroll and Dante Cunningham off their feet, allowing him to hit Richaun Holmes for an uncontested dunk:
Here, you can see Fultz create a little separation from his defender to create a better look across the court and recognize Luke Kennard helping onto Ilyasova on the left block. As soon as Fultz sees that Kennard has over helped when Andre Drummond was already securing the basket anyway, Fultz instantly fires the cross-court pass to a now open Belinelli for 3:
Having another playmaker who can drive and kick, keep the offense moving at pace and be more of a scoring threat is just what the bench needed to round things out after adding Belinelli and Ilyasova.
Of course, it’s important to recognize that Fultz has only played a handful of games and hasn’t exactly been making these plays against tough teams; his three 10-point games so far have come against bottom-eight defenses. He’ll have a harder time against the likes of Boston and Toronto in the playoffs (although, in a possible first round matchup against Indiana, Fultz should enjoy the Pacers’ limited rim protection when Myles Turner isn’t around — they rank 25th in opponent field goal percentage within five feet). Not to mention, he’ll have the heightened issue of teams sagging off and daring him to shoot from 3, tightening up driving lanes in the process.
That being said, it’s nothing but impressive what Fultz has done regardless of opposition after so much missed time under such strange circumstances. The creation off the dribble and playmaking spark he provides to elevate the bench is still a real weapon, which he should only fine tune in time as he gets more minutes under his belt. Seeing him get more time with Embiid is a fun thought, too.
The simple truth is that in a couple of weeks Fultz has gone from an unknown to a difference maker. And for a Sixers squad that is not only a playoff team but a dangerous 4 (or maybe 3) seed, having Fultz in the mix as a positive piece off the bench makes the upcoming postseason run that much more interesting.
With the right matchups on the way there, making the Eastern Conference Finals is a real possibility.