As we make our way toward training camp, we’ll be examining what would constitute a successful season for various members of the rosters. First up: Markelle Fultz.
Markelle Fultz is entering what could be the most important season of his career in just his second year in the league. After one of the weirdest situations in NBA history, Fultz is looking to find his rhythm on a team with playoff aspirations, after missing most of a playoff run where he could have played an important role. Now, as the rest of the roster is looking to make improvements in order to get back to the playoffs, Fultz is starting from step one. After an impressive run by the Sixers without their top pick, he won’t be assured anything, and will need to show the team his play has done a complete 180-degree turn in order to become a mainstay in the lineup. Because of how little he played this past season, many seem to have forgotten what he is capable of when both mentally and physically healthy.
A successful season can come in many different ways. Some players would be considered a success by giving the team good minutes off the bench. Bigger pieces need to put up All-Star-level numbers in order to have a good season. Markelle Fultz may be somewhere in between the two. Now, presumably back to full health, Fultz should be given solid minutes right out of the gate, even in a role off the bench. The Sixers’ starting lineup was one of the best in the NBA this past season, so there is no need to break up a good thing. Moving Fultz into the role of sixth man seems like the best spot to start the year, at least. With a known role, Fultz can grow in that spot, becoming the focal point of the second unit as both a ball handler and playmaker.
If Fultz shows enough throughout the season as the sixth man, the team shouldn’t be afraid to switch things up and give him minutes in the starting lineup, as needed. J.J. Redick does a lot for the starting unit, but it was painfully obvious last year the Sixers were missing Fultz’s abilities next to the starters. If Fultz does eventually end up taking over as a starter, the second unit also gets a bit of an increase, as a player like T.J. McConnell can go back into his normal role as facilitator, feeding a deadly shooter in Redick on the second unit. Gradually increasing his minutes per game as he becomes a more consistent contributor, giving Fultz 25 minutes per game shouldn’t be out of the question as a bench player. The more run he gets, the sooner it will be known whether or not he can fit the spot of starter that many envisioned him in when he was drafted.
In order to become that playmaker the Sixers desperately need, Markelle Fultz will need to answer the biggest question surrounding him, his jump shot. One of the reasons Fultz was taken first overall was because of his smooth jumper and willingness to pull the trigger from different spots. This year he will need to find that mindset once again. No one knows exactly what the jump shot looks like at this point in the offseason, but once game one rolls around, Fultz will need to be comfortable enough to attempt mid-range jumpers normally in order for defenses to respect him from the outside. Shooting 34% from 10-16 feet from the net simply isn’t going to cut it, so if Drew Hanlen has truly fixed things, then Fultz should be more than willing to pull up and force defenses to guard him tightly.
Mid-range jumpers aren’t the only shots that Fultz needs to work on, as his three-point shot is also in need of a complete overhaul. Unable to even attempt a shot from deep throughout the year, Fultz needs to at least be able to keep defenses honest by throwing some up. We didn't get to see anything from outside this past season, but his numbers in college (41% from three) show that he has the ability to shoot, he has just been lacking the confidence. If Fultz ever wants to move on from a frustrating first year, he will have to make defenders respect him and guard him all over the court, not just when he drives.
The Sixers had a Markelle Fultz-shaped hole all of last season. He was the missing piece that could have made the offense run smoothly if things went according to plan. What Fultz went through may never be fully explained to the public (Ed. note: although David Early’s Fultz Files are a good start). But what happened in the past doesn't mean Fultz can't eventually reach his full potential at some point in the future. At only 20 years old, he has both time and a solid system on his side. Not needing to be “the guy” on a team may hurt the egos of many young players around the league, but for Markelle Fultz, it should be looked at as his saving grace. Especially after the turmoil of his rookie season, if he can just become a solid contributor, then he could help take the team to the next level without having to carry them.
Seeing a former first overall pick start the season coming off the bench might be disheartening for some, but considering the low points of last year, seeing Fultz take another step in the right direction should be looked at with hope. Projecting stats is tough because of how little we know about where Fultz is, but by season’s end, the hopeful outcome is that he becomes a sort of Swiss Army knife that can do multiple things for a playoff team. Whether or not he can put his odd rookie year behind him is the big question, but if he does return to form, a successful season where he becomes a reliable option on both offense and defense could mean big things not only for him, but for the Sixers as an entire team.