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Markelle Fultz update

A Jump Shot’s Progress is Not Always Linear

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NBA: Denver Nuggets at Philadelphia 76ers John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

In late August, I heard that the Sixers Front Office was planning on playing Markelle Fultz significant minutes early in the season and starting him.

At one point, I’d even heard they were projecting him for a role somewhere around 30 minutes per game! I doubt anything was set in stone back in August but that that was even discussed seemed to bode well for whatever progress Fultz may have made this summer with trainer, Drew Hanlen, whose job it was to help rebuild the jump shot that went missing roughly one year ago.

With Fultz back in town and Training Camp a week away the Sixers can begin a live and extended evaluation to see how they feel about those August projections. Fans have been desperate for updates, but without access to any footage of the shot, have been relying on podcasts or tweets from Hanlen or reporters. Almost all of those have suggested there is lots of reason for excitement.

But is there?

The Bad News

Liberty Ballers has learned of reason for more measured expectations. Sources indicate to me the deep shot has certainly improved but is simply not yet close to where anyone involved wants it to be. While he was participating in 5-on-5 scrimmages back in California, he wasn’t shooting from distance in these games, aside from an occasional wide-open three pointer. Fultz has been practicing lots of NBA 3’s and the form looks significantly improved from one year ago, but not quite as fluid as it may have at the University of Washington; his release point is still a bit low and the results are not promising. I don’t expect that he is ready to be a reliable catch and shoot player. Yet.

The ...Better Than Bad News?

Drew Hanlen has said that “if you want to change your shot and use me to help you out, I need three months….” Here is that clip from BBallBreakdown. That was roughly three months ago. But when he said this he meant your average player that he works with. Fultz remember, has experienced a rare type of mental/physical issue that might simply take more time; one Hanlen has referred to as “Yips.” So some of the expectations that were set from the trainer, that things might be fixed by now, were more likely the wildly optimistic, promotional or even motivational variety, not reasonable or objective ones. Suggesting that the shot might be “perfect” by summer’s end, even if not meant literally, or implying that maybe Fultz had defeated the Monstars (a possible reference to a joke that Fultz’s powers were drained by Space Jam characters) may not have done much to keep fan expectations in check. Not to suggest that Hanlen has fallen short, or isn’t a great teacher, but just that the issue may not be as simple as form work a trainer can fix in a summer. And when fans do soon see the shot, expecting things to be “fixed” may lead to blaming Fultz instead of realizing the expectations may not have been completely fair given the unique circumstances.

But just because fans might be disappointed soon does not mean we should actually hit any panic buttons. The truth is, we should probably have had expectations for a longer “process” than we may have wanted all along, regardless of what we were told. And that’s ok.

The team is learning where his shot is now but I’m not sure that their plans have been deterred. I’ve heard that last season the decision for Fultz to not play was sometimes one made by the player’s camp; feeling that if something wasn’t right that maybe the best way to address it would be to step away from the game and practice. And at other times, like in the playoffs, the decision was a coaching one. But team execs consistently were open to him having played throughout the year. With many of the same people from that front office now with promotions, there is a similar feeling that they would like him to play. There is a sense that he is still talented enough to help, and seeing how effective he was in limited action last season, a hope he can make an impact immediately while steadily improving.

So How Might This Work?

If the Sixers are going to stick with the plan to heavily involve Fultz alongside stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, while he is not yet a consistent three point threat, it introduces a seismic shift in the dynamic of a team that won 52 games a season ago.

I don’t know this, but if I had to guess I’d say that the sharp-shooting Dario Šarić would be the most likely to take a role with the second-unit. That might allow Šarić to showcase more of the creative play-making skills he possesses, the kind he does not always get to display when asked to provide space for Ben Simmons to initiate the team’s offense.

Speaking of play-making, Fultz has always been a scoring-minded combo guard who has functioned best with the ball in his hands. It’s not realistic or helpful to ask someone who is solely focused on relearning to shoot to also learn for the first time in his young life to play exclusively off the ball. Figuring one of those challenges out is hard enough and would take time. So Head Coach Brett Brown and the Sixers are probably going to have to try something that isn’t ideal: taking the ball out of phenom Ben Simmons hands. At least a little bit.

There have been some awesome pieces like this one by our own stud Jackson Frank or this one by The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann about ways Ben Simmons can develop. An important theme in both relates to his ability to play without the ball in his hands. How can two extraordinarily talented young players who both want the ball coexist while neither has a reliable three point shot? Why even do anything to risk limiting Simmons for Fultz, who has yet to make the type of impact the 2018 Rookie of the Year has had already? The answer is simple: competition.

If the Sixers want to beat a team like the Boston Celtics who might be able to start an All-Star caliber player at every position on the floor, or the Toronto Raptors, who just acquired former NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, they’re going to need to unlock the potential in all three of Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid.

The Sixers Front Office and coaching staff did not get off to the best start regarding their relationship with Fultz. Some of the sentiment now from them is that they want to make sure he is much more comfortable than he was last year with every decision or public communication. They’ve indicated his comfort is a priority and even hinted to him at the beginning of the summer they want him to start this year. Giving him the rock a bit even though Simmons is in the lineup could be a start.

It’s my feeling that Simmons, Fultz and Embiid actually have more in common than is immediately apparent. If Embiid ever even stubs his toe or skips a practice there will be people quick to question if he’ll ever be durable enough for the NBA grind. Whenever Simmons shoots (or doesn’t shoot) a jump shot, there will be people quick to judge his form or suggest he change hands. And whenever Fultz takes a shot in public, whether it’s in practice or perhaps one day a game-tying free throw in May, people will be wondering about his form, shoulder or mindset. They’re kind of perfect for each other, because if they weren’t going through this together, they might feel more alone. Fultz having perhaps dealt with the harshest criticism, while reportedly maintaining his poise, offers an unlikely source of strength and leadership to his slightly more veteran teammates.

I hope the Sixers do start Fultz and I hope they do try and make him as comfortable as possible by putting the ball in his hands at least sometimes in a playmaking role. It might allow him to showcase the dynamic skills he now possesses, and offers his best chance to find his range. Regardless of the roots of the problem, him feeling more comfortable both on and off the court couldn’t hurt. And that means playing in the way he has always succeeded: by initiating the offense. Surrounded by the type of impact players the Sixers have, it’s likely Fultz is athletic and crafty enough to be very effective even before the shot improves significantly. As for Simmons, he’s going to have to learn to improve without the ball as a cutter and roll-man at some point anyway. In order to reach maximum potential, everyone is going to have to compromise. And it may not translate immediately to the same type of win rate they enjoyed a year ago. But that’s worth risking for full potential.

It won’t be smooth. And it won’t happen as quickly as a notoriously tough fan base may like. Even if Fultz is significantly improved from this point a year ago, and willing to take deeper shots in games (at least enough to keep a defense somewhat honest) the set shot from deep is simply not where they want it yet. But that’s OK. Markelle Fultz is still really good with the potential to be great. He was the best prospect in a stellar draft class a year ago for a reason. The Sixers were not wrong to take him with the top pick because what happened wasn’t predictable. It may take time and there may be some ups and downs. Progress is not always linear as former Sixers President Sam Hinkie reminded us.

The trial by fire can begin next week at camp. Media day is September 21st and Liberty Ballers will be there with updates.

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