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The Fultz Files Part 1

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Trying to get to the bottom of the NBA’s biggest mystery.

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

This is part 1 of a 3 part series focusing on Markelle Fultz. It’s based on public reports, as well as several anonymous sources close to the situation who agreed to speak with me. All were reluctant to reveal their names but willing to confirm their identities to my Editor at Liberty Ballers, in order for us to maintain journalistic integrity when citing sources under SBNation fan property.

Part 1 “Obviously...Kind of the Yips”

At the beginning of the summer Drew Hanlen said of his new client, Markelle Fultz “... obviously, he had one of the most documented case of kind of the yips of basketball in recent years.”

It felt pretty credible didn’t it? He said it like it was known. Not even a cursory reference to “the whole shoulder injury” thing. He even used the word “obviously” in the full sentence. For context, you had a trainer who went on a podcast about Missouri sports, and dropped bombs that went viral because they basically undermined an entire year’s worth of the whole “His shot- Wait did the new form cause the pain- His shoulder was drained- No a cortisone shot was given- It’s in his head- No it’s his shoulder- Scapular Imbalance- He’s fine now- He’s not fine- Don’t say anything- But film him shooting- He’s relearning to shoot- OK he’s really fine- Commence Twitter burner account character attacks” PR Campaign.

Then Hanlen, always the showman, began stoking the flames of Sixer fan’s hearts:

A few weeks later, Hanlen may have struck a slightly new tone (maybe someone called to fill him in on the existing campaign) but without holding back on the hype when he said: “If he’s back to 100 percent, he’s immediately an All-Star.” But the combination of not releasing any videos of the shot coupled with the hype, and other reports have whipped a typically skeptical fan base into a bit of a frenzy.

You’ll have to forgive me if I still remember last January and all the optimistic press-releases that didn’t quite fit the jump shot that was finally unveiled. I’m skeptical. Sure, there is new(ish) leadership atop the Sixers Front Office now and a new trainer offering exciting things ahead. And the team seems happy to let the hype train keep rolling by being (characteristically) quiet on the issue. For fans, it might even be tempting to turn to Drew Hanlen as a bit of savior here and he hopefully can become one.

But what should we realistically expect? What even really happened? If this is Yips, is a basketball trainer even the most qualified person for the job or just part of a broader team?

Hanlen, (who famously helped enhance Jayson Tatum’s shot a year ago, works with All-NBA talent Joel Embiid and trained All-Star Bradley Beal) has said in the past “if you’re going to completely change a shot, it usually takes around three months.” So no scrimmages, no pick up, no Summer League. All things I agree with if he’s rewiring mechanics. That three month mark would be somewhere near training camp, just about a year to the day we learned of the broken mechanics in the first place. But there are still no public clips.

Sure, other reports have been promising too, but come on. Fultz may have something that could take more than the normal three months, right? What’s typical about this situation? Isn’t it more likely that if an average player needs 3 months, one with the Yips might need more like six? And possibly some off-the-court efforts? Have those even begun yet?

As Billboard’s Senior Editor, Andrew Untenberger recently asked for RightsToRickySanchez.com: “Does Drew Hanlen Realize What he’s Getting Himself Into?”

What Came First: the Chicken or the Yips?

So Fultz probably has “The Yips.” I think its OK to say it out loud. It won’t make things worse if we say it, right? There’s no Tinkerbell Effect here is there? It’s mysterious and not well-researched, but it does have its own page on the Mayo Clinic site and is sometimes even related to Dystonia, a movement disorder. It’s also commonly used as a phrase to simply imply performance anxiety and the weird things that it can cause, which seems more likely what Hanlen meant by “kind of the yips.”

It’s terrifying frankly, the idea of forgetting how to do what you’re best at and not being able to hide.

Equally noteworthy, Hanlen didn’t say that he’s working alongside any renowned shoulder surgeons, there’s no team doctors, or even physical therapists. One would hope that if Fultz ever actually had a severe overuse injury (like the type former Team President Bryan Colangelo used to imply he may have sustained by changing his shot) that now a team medical professional would be on hand to supervise another full summer of repetitive overhead shot work. But there’s apparently none of this.

So it’s starting to feel as if the veil of a significant shoulder injury may finally be being lifted to the public. And Fultz himself may have recently felt strong enough to reveal a bit more of the truth than had previously been out there:

A source close to the situation has suggested to me that this Instagram post may have been challenging and a “huge developmental step” for Fultz, who has been almost entirely silent on this matter throughout. It is a willingness to “admit and possibly address” these types of issues, I’m told, that could be a key component to his full-recovery.

From what I’ve learned about Yips in general there is no known recipe, but maybe some patterns of risk factors like an injury (e.g. Macky Sasser) or public humiliation (e.g. Nick Anderson) or both that contribute. Fultz has had no reported traumatic injury moment, nor a publicly scarring basketball moment and my sources have confirmed that much.

I have heard that Fultz does have teammates who still admit they don’t know and therefore wonder exactly what happened. But tellingly, a shoulder injury was not amongst any of the speculation we’ve learned about.

Of course, the team is always going to have liability issues to think about, so if they’re crossing all their T’s and dotting all their I’s, then folks like Interim GM and Head Coach Brett Brown, and his top advisors like Marc Eversley and Ned Cohen are probably monitoring the medical team’s research. That likely means learning everything there is to know about Yips (assuming they haven’t done this already).

I’m told they’ve at least considered attempting to “rule out neurological variations” of it. From my research, that would likely include exploring the presence of something called “Focal Dystonia.” That could entail some neurological diagnostic tests such as:

If inclined one can actually go down a scary and exhausting rabbit hole and take blood and urine samples, order an Electromyography (EMG), give a brain MRI, CT Scan, and do genetic testing. The problem is, the more of these types of tests patients go through, the more sick a healthy patient can begin to feel, and you can wind up doing more harm than good. (Think of the games a worried mind without the Yips could play days after being asked by a neurologist: “do your arms or hands sometimes fall asleep, tingle, or seem weak?”)

And the Sixers, I’m told, have long suspected the possibility of somatization, so these are very tricky waters to navigate. It would seem, then, as long as player and trainer are making progress, which I’ve heard they are, it’s not worth rocking the boat from the team’s perspective with that stuff now.

Mental Health

But then there is the far more common, yet counter intuitively, more stigmatized mental health angle here. And herein may lie a critical component to this matter, and one the NBA might be embracing generally more and more: acceptance as it relates to mental health issues for players.

Is it possible that the cortisone, and trips to Kentucky, and secrecy, and press-releases, contradiction and leaks to the media, or harsh burner tweets, not only made things more distressing, but also created an environment where the mental health side of this was put on the back burner? Is it possible that a summer of the form-shooting Fultz has been doing, while a vital component to a full recovery, is still merely a singular component in any truly holistic solution?

Sources I’ve spoken with have wondered if the problem was never addressed directly enough, and are concerned this may still be an issue. They are also doubtful that the lofty expectations being set by Hanlen are helpful, because they may create additional pressure to fix the shot in the next few weeks, when it may take more than that.

To this point I wonder: would Nick Anderson’s best piece of advice to someone trying to tackle Yips be to get a new free throw coach and shoot a million free throws? Or might it begin first by addressing the mental/emotional trauma which lead to him forgetting how to do something he had always done quite well? Is Hanlen conferring with a mental health practitioner and coordinating goals that motivate and not deter progress?

For his part, Drew Hanlen has told us he is sorry but that he cannot comment at this time. None of this is meant to suggest Hanlen doesn’t have Fultz on the very best track a basketball trainer can have a player on. It’s just raising questions about what more may need to happen for this to be the success and redemption story many including myself are hoping for. But getting there means first understanding...

What Really Happened this Year?

With many of the key windows of time in mind, I interviewed my sources for their points of view. I wanted to see if I could better understand this saga as it unfolded. Let’s look back with what (we think) we know now in mind and see if things make more sense than they did as we lived them.

April-June 2017

According to Derek Bodner of The Athletic, Fultz and longtime trainer/mentor, Keith Williams, began “significant alterations” designed to “quicken his shot” and “shorten the dip” in his mechanics. In the same piece, Williams, (who has trained the likes of Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, Steve Francis, Chamique Holdsclaw and more) acknowledged working “on what he said were a few minor alterations, including limiting the dip at the beginning of his shooting motion.”

A source I spoke to with knowledge of this time period added: “When [Fultz] left school in April, the drills were to fine tune his high release, keep it crisp….and make sure he didn’t bring it too low.”

Fultz’s shot later breaking down and these types of reports brought more than a little attention to clips like these from his June workout with the Sixers, where he did not shoot well:

Those very familiar with his shot’s evolution over time can see the ball is a bit further away from his face here than it was in high school or college. And eventually these videos would circulate and cause a stir:

But he also shot remarkably well with the Lakers, and Magic Johnson was blown away, and a source privy to the action has told me that he shot “OK” with the Celtics.

July 2017

By Summer League, whatever alterations he’d made still looked functional and effective in early July. But there were noticeable differences. The compilation by ESPN’s draft expert Mike Schmitz shows a couple positive progressions like his elbow angle, and how he was shooting on the way up, but includes new flaws like shooting further away from his face.

Seemingly a Sixers’ rookie rite-of-passage, (highlighted recently by Zhaire Smith’s foot injury this summer) Fultz got injured before the season. He sprained his ankle and was done competing for the summer.

More than one source close to the situation told me that it was in Summer League when a change in form was consistently apparent, but it didn’t seem alarming yet “because he was still making them. The ball was further away from his face though.”

But it was in the couple weeks that he rehabbed the ankle, still around Sixers staff, that the shot began to deteriorate more rapidly.

A second source indicated that:

“The shot looked different in Summer League but not bad. But when he rolled his ankle it did look pretty funky. Not like [late September] bad, but more recognizable and [Fultz] said to me around then ‘something is wrong with my shot.’

“When he felt better he went to the same camp [a developmental camp Zhaire Smith went to]. Then I think it was fine or OK, I didn’t hear anything about it being funky then but that was hours of repetitive pick and roll drills, more than anything else. When he got back though, that’s when it was gradually worse.”

August-September 2017

Fultz leaves the team to work on his shot with Williams. This time period continues to be the biggest mystery in the saga. According to a source I spoke with, Fultz’s issue was ultimately “never the shoulder” but the shot broke down very gradually over the summer, and then the shoulder was looked into as “a possible explanation.” There was a much bigger component, according to this source.

Stay tuned as Part 2 will pick up during this window of time.