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Markelle Fultz Is the Perfect Partner for Ben Simmons

Looming over the 2017 Sixers draft was the no. 1 pick of the 2016 NBA draft — the point forward Ben Simmons. When you think about fit with Simmons, Fultz was exactly the player the Sixers needed to target this time, and they did what they had to do to get him.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Sam Hinkie is the hero of this story. Hinkie’s fingerprints are on every asset Bryan Colangelo, current Sixers president of basketball operations, will keep, use, trade, swap, or release. No matter how much elbow grease Colangelo puts into molding the Sixers roster, Hinkie’s fingerprints will remain. In the hearts of many Sixers fans, Colangelo will never be able to match his predecessor. But not all heroes finish the job, or do it alone. As Hinkie wrote in his exit manifesto, "Your club is on solid footing now, with much hard work yet to be done." Colangelo’s job is to take what Hinkie started to the next level. And he is on his way by establishing his own legacy as the Process closer, with the decision to send the no. 3 pick and a heavily protected 2018 Lakers first (it will convey if it falls between nos. 2 and 5) to the Celtics for the no. 1 pick in this year’s draft. (If the Lakers pick does not convey, the Sixers will send the Celtics Sacramento’s 2019 first-rounder).

Acquiring the top selection — Washington point guard Markelle Fultz — is pivotal for Philadelphia on a number of levels. The Sixers will have a collection of high-upside players the league has rarely seen on the same team. Fultz, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons are the consensus top-ranked players in their respective draft classes, factoring out injury concerns. It’s conceivable that this trade solidifies the core for a potential dynasty. It could be "legendary," like Embiid tweeted on Saturday.

The promise of a greater — not just stable, not just good, not just OK — future has Sixers fans rightfully ecstatic. Fultz is almost unanimously thought to be the best player in the class. He’s no. 1 on The Ringer’s 2017 NBA Draft Guide, too. It’s easy to see the appeal:

Fultz is an all-around point guard who can score from all levels of the floor, off the dribble or off the catch. He has excellent passing vision and significant defensive upside. Fultz is raw but should be able to help his pro club right out of the gates. The Sixers ranked 27th in pick-and-roll scoring efficiency, per Synergy, and Fultz will immediately boost their numbers with his dynamic abilities as both a scorer and a playmaker:

It was frustrating watching Fultz at Washington. His head coach, Lorenzo Romar, used a regressive offensive system that clogged the lane with Fultz’s Twitter egg teammates. Still, Fultz played like he was leading a progressive rock band, conducting seamless shifts between time signatures, tempo, and timbre. Fultz is basketball’s Chris Squire, the conductor who adjusts based on what the song demands.

These are the types of highlights that excite Sixers fans, sadden Celtics fans, and dismay Nets fans. Fultz is a technicolor offensive player. He’s in the John Wall or Kyrie Irving stratosphere of point guard prospects — a potential franchise-changer.

Taking the best player available was a major tenet of Hinkie’s drafting style, whether it was Dario Saric, whom they had to wait two years for; or Joel Embiid, who had, and still has, injury concerns; or Jahlil Okafor, even though Nerlens Noel and Embiid were on the roster. We laugh about Michael Carter-Williams now, but he won Rookie of the Year and was traded for the Lakers pick that Colangelo ended up using to acquire Fultz. Hinkie didn’t always guess right in the draft, but he won virtually every trade, like the infamous Kings pick swap (which also came into play in the Fultz deal).

Because of all that wheeling and dealing, Colangelo has the luxury of selecting Fultz — not only the best player available in the draft, but also a great fit for the team drafting him. Teams don’t normally draft for fit, but fit was the problem when the Sixers were picking at no. 3. No realistically available player made sense with their roster construction. Malik Monk doesn’t offer enough ballhandling. Josh Jackson and De’Aaron Fox don’t offer enough shooting. Dennis Smith doesn’t defend. Jonathan Isaac doesn’t present enough value. Jayson Tatum is the only prospect that made sense, in my opinion, though there’s a line around the block of Sixers fans who would disagree.

Colangelo had to find a player who matched with 2016’s no. 1 pick Ben Simmons, a point guard with a forward’s body who shoots with the wrong hand. Simmons is a generational talent with a collection of super powers — strength, speed, and telepathic passing. But shooting is his kryptonite. Simmons shot 18-of-63 (28.6 percent) on jump shots at LSU and with the Sixers at summer league, and he’s often reluctant to let it fly. NBA defenses will sag off him, double-dog daring him to shoot, clogging the lane. Down the line, Simmons could turn into a perfectly competent shooter. But the outlook now is bleak. Simmons has a major problem in a league where shooting and spacing are paramount to success.

For this year’s draft, the Sixers needed a player who could offset Simmons’s weakness by providing another source of playmaking while also offering spot-up shooting ability and versatile defense. Fultz does all of that in ways no player available at the third slot could; that’s why losing one of their two valuable future firsts is worth it.

Fultz and Simmons will need to learn to share. Simmons will frequently be the lead ball handler. Just hear out Sixers head coach Brett Brown. "When I say ‘point guard,’ I mean ‘point guard,’" Brown said in April on The Vertical Podcast With Woj when asked about Simmons’s role. "You know, who takes the ball out of bounds, who receives the ball when the ball goes in the basket, who brings it up the floor after a free throw. … He’s got a quality that he wants the ball and he loves to pass. And so we’re gonna persevere, and see where this plays out."

With Simmons as the primary playmaker, Malik Monk becomes an enticing option for the Sixers, but he can’t make plays or defend like Fultz can. Monk would’ve been relegated to a spot-up shooting role on Philadelphia, which is fine, but the Sixers subscribe to the Ancient Greek philosophy of Get You a Man Who Can Do Both. Fultz can make plays with the ball and without the ball.

He isn’t a great off-ball shooter by any means. Per Synergy, he shot just 38.3 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, with most of his attempts toeing the college line. He needs to extend his range and speed up his release. But he’s at least projectable to effectively space the floor and be a threat to hit shots. Fultz’s versatile scoring ability also enables Brown to get creative: Simmons can be used as a screener as Embiid spaces the floor with Fultz at the controls.

Simmons is an extremely capable rim runner with excellent body control, court awareness, and feel for space. He’s explosive, too, and can throw down lobs when he has space to take off. A pick-and-roll duo with Simmons screening for Fultz could be devastating. Or they could reverse roles. We just witnessed an NBA Finals in which both teams set screens for larger scorers using guards. The Sixers probably talked with Fultz about this versatile play during their meeting on Saturday. Fultz isn’t the most engaging interview, offering typically generic responses. But at his Saturday media availability, he mentioned the possibility of "setting the screen for him [Simmons] or him giving it back, it doesn’t matter." Either way, a defense might need to squeeze into the paint to help, leaving Philly’s 7-footer open for a 3, or this:

Embiid is Philadelphia’s enforcer in the paint, and now he’ll have a potential lockdown defender playing in front of him. At 6-foot-4 with a long wingspan, Fultz has the size to contain bigger opponents. There will be a significant amount of crossmatches with Simmons running more point, leading to situations where Fultz might end up defending Simmons’s man. The Sixers could have the personnel to play a defensive style that emphasizes switching, an important ingredient for success.

I have concerns about the fit on defense in terms of personality. Simmons has never been one to expound consistent effort on that end of the floor. At LSU, he played with low effort and rarely stayed in his stance on the perimeter. Fultz has tremendous upside and he’s shown flashes with weakside blocks. But he’s also had issues in terms of mind-set, awareness, and positioning. It’ll be crucial for the coaching staff to install a defense-first mentality, and Embiid may have to take on the alpha role to keep the rest of the team following his lead. The potential is there for the Sixers to have a versatile defense, but the guys will need to bring it consistently.

The Sixers fan reaction to the trade has been jubilant. Colangelo might’ve gotten off to a bumpy start in his relationship with the Process Trusters, but he’s made three sound picks in Simmons, Furkan Korkmaz, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot; didn’t make any rash decisions in free agency; and at least got something for Nerlens Noel. Colangelo is not a perfect general manager. He’s even admitted that at one point, he felt he wasn’t the guy for the job. The ghost of Hinkie will always hover over the Sixers regime. But Colangelo has, so far, made mostly the right choices. Colangelo wasn’t the starter, but he can be the finisher.