As Markelle Fultz leapt through traffic to beat out Thon Maker for his 10th rebound of the night, the Philadelphia 76ers’ bench, along with the rest of Wells Fargo Center, erupted in excitement around Fultz. The 20-year-old, drafted No. 1 overall to be the Sixers’ new franchise guard with just 228 minutes of NBA experience under his belt at the time, had recorded his first triple-double in only 25 minutes and 13 seconds.
13 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists. Three career-highs for Fultz, also making him the NBA’s youngest player to record a triple double in the process. It was a highlight for a perfect end to the Sixers’ season. They had just concluded a 16-game win streak, wrapping things up with a 130-95 destruction of the Milwaukee Bucks, a potential second-round matchup in the playoffs.
“It was amazing,” Ben Simmons said after the game. “I’m so happy for [Fultz], the way he’s come back and played, he’s getting more comfortable on the floor.”
Everything was positive. And everything Simmons said about Fultz was true. Despite there being no 3-pointers, he’d still shown off his talent in other areas, with a couple of hesi pull-up jimbos thrown in for good measure, too.
Then the playoffs happened. Which, as you’d expect, was always going to be a major challenge for Fultz. At 19 years old, with hardly any NBA experience, and no jump shot, that’s not exactly a recipe for playoff success. Even though the spark he provided to end the regular season, as Simmons’ backup, gave hope that he could provide a few solid minutes in round one against the Miami Heat, it was no surprise that he ultimately wasn’t up to it.
He only appeared in three games against Miami and played a total of 23 minutes. He wasn't ready, lacking the ability or confidence to shoot when necessary. With a tough defensive team able to sag off him in a playoff setting, he was never going to thrive (facing that kind of defense was hard enough for rookie phenom Ben Simmons, when up against the Boston Celtics in round two). Fultz never got off the bench against Boston as a result, and his chance of being a success in the NBA has been written off by many ever since.
But that regular season spark still happened. His athleticism and talent in so many areas of the game hasn’t just disappeared. To write off his career and chance of becoming a really good player after one season — if you even want to call 276 total minutes a "season" — is shortsighted, and would be totally ignorant of the fact that patience, player development and experience are kind of important.
Not everything can be developed in the NBA. Some players never find a great feel for the game before dropping out the league, and you can’t just go and get a 40-inch vertical if you want one. But shooting is one of the vital skills that can be developed. Unfortunately for Fultz and the Sixers, his disappearance of shooting form and confidence happened in the strangest manner you could think of. But that point is still true — shooting can be developed.
Plus, for the little it’s worth, Fultz’s jumper still could have been worse at the end of the regular season. We all know what happened in the playoffs as he wound up glued to the bench, unable to hit from distance and too hesitant to try. But after the time he missed with all kinds of mechanical, mental and shoulder issues, showing flashes of at least some touch and the ability to create space on a few jumpers is something. The first smooth, high-arching shot over the 6’11” Mike Muscala is pretty much the best you could’ve hoped for after all Fultz had been through:
That said, the real reason to feel good about Fultz’s chances to get back on track from range is that he’s found the perfect person to work with this summer: Drew Hanlen.
Elite skill trainer Hanlen has built up quite the reputation around the NBA and for good reason, polishing the games of more than his fair share of players, including the likes of Bradley Beal, Jayson Tatum and Joel Embiid.
On the Talking Schmidt Podcast, Hanlen discussed his progress with Fultz, revealing that they’re ahead of schedule with repairing Fultz’s jumper, even more so than expected for this early stage of the offseason. Interestingly, Hanlen also labelled Fultz’s issues as mental, which should, in theory, put Fultz in a better position to work through ugly habits and mechanics this summer:
“It’s the most documented case of the yips in basketball in recent years, where he completely forgot how to shoot and had multiple hitches in his shot. For me, it was ‘hey listen, how can I get this kid who was No. 1 in last year’s draft back to the point where he was before, if not better. We’ve been working hard every day, working on rewiring his body and getting a smooth stroke back into his shot...
“We’re way ahead of pace where I thought we were gonna be. I thought it was gonna take maybe 6 weeks to where we had a serviceable jump shot, and we already started to shoot with a jump in week 2...
“It’s not perfect yet, but I think by the end of the summer it will be perfect. And he’ll be back and showing why he was the No. 1 pick.”
Exactly how much Fultz’ shot improves remains to be seen. It’s obviously going to take time for him to grow comfortable and put pressure on defenses outside, hitting pull-ups and creating more than just the odd hesitant catch-and-shoot attempt when he has 10 feet of space.
However, he's on the right track to turning things around now. And there’s also far more to like about Fultz than just his potential with a jumper.
In his 10-game comeback to end the regular season, Fultz averaged 7.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists and one steal in only 17.7 minutes per game, shooting 42.9 percent from the floor (taking one 3-pointer and hitting a mere 44.4 percent of his free throws only tells us more of what we already know about his shot). As small as that sample size may be, Fultz showed off some of what made him such a tantalizing prospect at Washington.
Fultz showed some passing flare, IQ and a willingness to keep the ball moving right away, recording eight assists to just one turnover in his first game back against the Denver Nuggets. As he went on to record 4.6 assists to only 1.1 turnovers per game to close the regular season, we saw how he can help the Sixers behind Simmons.
On the first play in the clip below, he drives against DeMarre Carroll, jumps into a shot, and gets two defenders off their feet at the rim to ensure Richaun Holmes has an uncontested finish. The next two dimes demonstrate how well Fultz can drive, kick out passes with speed (and accuracy), and maintain good awareness of where his teammates are:
Then, there are beautiful half-court bounce passes like this to show how he's capable of reading the floor and pushing the tempo:
Sometimes Fultz would drive into traffic inside, pick up his dribble with nowhere to go and end up kicking the ball back out. But as he adds some range to keep his defender closer outside and generally hones his feel for the NBA, he’s clearly shown that he can make an impact as a passer.
To help the Sixers in particular, he has an off-the-dribble bounce with his explosiveness that the team can’t get from TJ McConnell, which helped Fultz get to the rim well, too. With no threat of a jumper, Fultz was still able to attack downhill, showing touch and and an array of finishes around the basket, with floaters, spin moves or dunks over unprepared opponents (he shot 65.9 percent within three feet through his 14 total regular season games):
Fultz also played some pleasantly surprising defense, using his sturdy 6’4” frame, 6’10” wingspan and explosiveness to his advantage. Besides just using his size well, Fultz also displayed some good instincts. After returning late in the season with hardly any NBA playing time to his name, he had some impressive moments where he’d anticipate passes, make sound rotations, defend well on the ball and use good timing to contest (or block) shots.
Of course, there's reason to be skeptical about Fultz's future, and it's understandable his trade value can't get any lower (besides expecting a strong comeback year in 2018-19, this is why I think it's best for Philly to do all they can to keep him this summer). Not being able or willing to shoot from distance right now is still a big concern until he proves otherwise next season. Fultz may never reach the ceiling we all anticipated as he entered the 2017 draft. It’s also hard to ever see him being as good as Jayson Tatum, a possible superstar who will always be linked to Fultz for the sake of narrative and a trade that will stay cemented in the minds of NBA fans.
But that doesn’t mean we should give up on Fultz. For all the countless draft failures there have been, there have been countless cases of players taking a few years to find their footing in the league, many of whom haven't had the talent Fultz has (sure, Victor Oladipo had been fine for a while and didn't forget how to shoot, but look how he exploded to All-NBA level out of nowhere last season).
Fultz is years away from his prime. Until he’s given a chance to even get close to it, no one should be writing him off.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.