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The Fultz in Our Stars

It’s only a few games in, but no. 1 pick Markelle Fultz is struggling from the line, not even bothering from behind the arc, and possibly carrying a shoulder injury. And it’s all making already-jumpy Sixers fans nervous.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Markelle Fultz’s season is going so poorly that when you watch him, you ask other people if they are also watching him—sort of like when something tastes off, and then you tell someone to taste it too, even though you just made a face that suggests they most certainly should not.

The Sixers did not look good in a blowout loss at Toronto over the weekend. That was especially true of Fultz. During the game, I caught myself saying “at least he can dribble really close to the basket.” That was the happiest thing I could conjure, and the saddest. Fultz went 1-for-5 from the field against the Raptors, with two assists, a rebound, and a turnover in 24 minutes on the floor. He took eight free throws and made half of them, including this … attempt:

We knew this was going to be a problem. We’ve known for a while. We were alerted to the five-alarm free throw fire during the Sixers’ preseason intrasquad scrimmage. The exhibition game was played at the Palestra, the famed college basketball gym in Philadelphia. It opened in 1927. I was worried they might shutter it after this:

After that crime against basketball, Brett Brown revealed that Fultz changed his form over the summer “all by himself.” Fultz shot 64.9 percent from the line in one season at Washington. That wasn’t great. This is worse.

The free throw conversation would be troublesome by itself, but it’s compounded by Fultz’s relationship with the 3-point line. He doesn’t have one. With the Washington Huskies, he shot 41.3 percent from behind the arc on 126 attempts. With the Sixers, he has yet to attempt a shot from 3. In fact, he has yet to attempt a shot from anywhere even remotely close to the arc. According to NBA.com, all 23 of his field goal attempts have been from inside 14 feet, and 10 of those have come from less than five feet from the basket. At this rate, it won’t be long until he’s permanently parked on the bench listening to Jahlil Okafor rave about cashew cheese.

Maybe Fultz’s shoulder is still bothering him, as some suspect. He’s tried to dispel that notion, but Brown recently said he thinks the shoulder is “affecting him more than [Fultz] lets on.” Like everyone else, Brown pointed out that you can just watch his free throw attempts and how Fultz struggles to “get that ball up” as a pretty good indicator that something is seriously wrong.

So it could be a physical issue. It could also be that Fultz is shook. Before the season began, a longtime league exec ran the following hypothetical past me. See if it sounds familiar: Jerryd Bayless starts. Fultz comes off the bench. Bayless is effective from outside to begin the year. Fultz struggles with his form. How would the Sixers and Brown—desperate to win games this year after so many years of not doing so—react? Would they stay with the hot hand in Bayless, even at the expense of developing Fultz? And would that approach chip away at Fultz’s potentially cracked confidence?

That thought experiment has become a reality for the Sixers. Bayless has hit nine of 16 3s so far. He makes sense playing next to Ben Simmons, who has looked good as the point forward—according to Elias Sports, he’s the only rookie other than Oscar Robertson to have 10-plus points, 10-plus rebounds, and five-plus assists in his first three career games. Bayless helps the Sixers space an already clogged court. It should be noted, however, that Simmons has his own issues as a shooter. He’s non-national-TV Rondo right now, only taller and younger and with potential still to burn. The Sixers have somehow monopolized the broken-jumper/first-overall-pick market, which is not a market anyone should shop at, let alone own. It all asks some hard questions of Brown, far sooner than he probably wants to answer them.

If the issue is Fultz’s health, why aren’t the Sixers simply shutting him down until he’s capable of hoisting a shot from anything that could even charitably be described as “distance”? It’s not like the Sixers have ever been shy about putting players on a shelf and letting them collect dust while they convalesce. They’ve led the league in redshirt rookies four years running.

If the issue isn’t Fultz’s health—if it’s his head and he’s barreling toward becoming the basketball Mackey Sasser at the line—that’s something else. How does Philly develop Fultz when playing him (1) might hurt the team’s overall chances to win basketball games and (2) might drain what could already be a depleted confidence supply? Tough spot for them. Tough spot for him.

If there’s any self-doubt on Fultz’s part, it’s fair to wonder whether it’s been exacerbated by the fact that the rest of the rookie point guard class—from Lonzo Ball (he should send the Suns a fruit basket and a thank-you card) to Dennis Smith Jr. to De’Aaron Fox—has gobbled up all the love while Fultz’s most notable moment has been professing his love for Chick-fil-A. Fultz was formerly the guy, but right now he’s not the guy. You couldn’t blame him if that messed with his head.

It has been only three games and Fultz is just 19. But. But how can the Sixers not be concerned? Whatever the reasons behind his slow start, it’s not the way anyone wants to start their career. Everyone knows it—including Fultz, who acknowledged his struggles at the line and called it something he’s been trying to “get through.” The night before the Raptors loss, the Sixers had their home opener against the Celtics. Fultz hit two free throws—in a row!—and the crowd reacted like he’d just dunked from half court.

Poor Brett Brown. The man loves point guards. He was a point guard. He played for Rick Pitino at Boston University. I remember Brown being down after the Sixers traded Alexey Shved, who was only a point guard out of necessity. That’s how much Brown loves point guards. And then the Sixers go and trade up to the no. 1 overall pick to get a point guard. And now this.

Possibly the worst part about this, from a pro-Sixers perspective, is the Celtics component. A league exec told me “Danny [Ainge] is probably crowing.” If he isn’t, Boston fans certainly are. Celtics Twitter spent the weekend gloating on Ainge’s behalf. Nothing cheers you up after losing Gordon Hayward to an injury quite like a little Philly-based schadenfreude and the unshakable belief that Ainge got the best player in the draft and traded back for more picks. (Celtics fans are diabolical.)

By contrast, Sixers supporters are handling all this with typical aplomb. As one half of the Sixers Kool-Aid cult leadership put it to me when I texted him about Fultz, “We will never be happy.”

It was a hard point to argue.