Markelle Fultz has become an easy target. The no. 1 pick shoots like Shaq. He has air-balled free throws. He hasn’t attempted any 3s. He has missed 13 of 16 shots taken outside of the restricted area. There’s no denying that the Sixers’ rookie point guard has been an eyesore. But the barbs all feel misdirected. The Philadelphia 76ers organization should take the brunt of the blow, not a teenager.
Fultz received a cortisone shot in his right shoulder on October 5 to relieve pain and inflammation, according to ESPN. Fultz told me on October 9 that the injury motivated him to change his shooting mechanics.
If the injury is serious enough to cause Fultz to change his freaking shooting form and get a cortisone shot, why is he even playing? We don’t have an answer because there’s still so much that we don’t know, such as how Fultz sustained the injury, what the injury even is, or when he’ll be fully recovered. Time and time again, the Sixers have mismanaged the injuries of their players—or, at best, bungled the public relations around them.
For instance, injury timelines have been all over the place. Michael Carter-Williams underwent surgery on his labrum in May 2014, and by the start of the 2014-15 season in October the team still hadn’t set a timeline for his return. Ben Simmons had foot surgery in 2016, but the team refused to set a timeline at all. The Sixers said in March 2016 that Jahlil Okafor’s knee injury was supposed to be a six-week recovery, but he was still experiencing discomfort nearly one year later.
Philadelphia has even (allegedly) misdiagnosed injuries. Kwame Brown claimed the Sixers misdiagnosed the injury that ended his career, saying he had a mild hamstring injury when it was actually an “avulsion fracture.”
There’s no better example of their mishandling than Joel Embiid, who suffered a left knee contusion on January 20 last season. GM Bryan Colangelo “guessed” it was a bone bruise on January 22. Then, on January 27, Embiid “had to convince” the Sixers medical staff to let him play against the Rockets. It was Embiid’s final game of the season. Weeks later, on February 11, Colangelo admitted the MRI that took place after the initial injury on January 20 revealed not only a bone bruise, but a “very minor meniscal tear.” It wasn’t until March that the Sixers announced Embiid would undergo meniscus surgery.
In other words, the Sixers allowed Embiid to play with a bone bruise and a meniscal tear, with full knowledge of the injuries. Now Fultz has played in six games this October (including two preseason games) with a shoulder injury that is severely limiting his play, which has led to increased scrutiny from fans and media.
Colangelo said in April that the team had worked on its transparency and would continue to. Um, sure. Colangelo has been silent regarding this fiasco going back to September 27, during a training camp scrimmage when we first saw Fultz shooting free throws like Charles Barkley swings a golf club. We’ve heard from only Brett Brown, who, as head coach, is tasked with facing the media on a daily basis. In late September, Brown said Fultz “made some personal adjustments” with his trainer, and the team would look to “recalibrate and get it back.” Then on October 10, Brown admitted Fultz’s shoulder “is affecting him more than he lets on.”
I’ve heard different theories this month that Fultz’s issues are more mental than physical. Even if Fultz isn’t at risk of damaging his shoulder any further, why not allow him the time to heal completely? How is it that the Sixers exercised so much patience with Simmons last season and don’t allow Embiid to play in back-to-backs, yet they play Fultz even though he’s hurting? Given the pressures of today’s league, and the heavy expectations placed on a no. 1 pick, you’d think they’d be more cautious about throwing him into the fire, which has worked to only magnify any concerns.
The Sixers need to pour every resource possible into putting Fultz into the best position to succeed. Take away his Chick-fil-A. Make sure his shoulder is healthy. Fix his shooting form rather than expose and embarrass him in front of the masses. The team invested a lot in Fultz by trading up with the no. 3 pick and a protected Lakers first-rounder in 2018, which would turn into a top-one-protected Kings first in 2019 if it doesn’t convey, so why aren’t they operating like he’s a prized possession?
Sometimes, a top-ranked player doesn’t pan out. Take Anthony Bennett, who went no. 1 overall in 2013. A league source told me earlier this year that Bennett has one of the worst work ethics they’ve ever encountered. Ex-Cavaliers general manager David Griffin recently owned up to the mistake of drafting Bennett, taking the blame out of the hands of then-GM Chris Grant. “I’m the one who got sold the bill of goods and I bought it hook, line, and sinker,” said Griffin, then the VP of basketball ops. “You fuck up sometimes.”
But the environment in which a player is fostered also matters. An NBA executive told me he thinks most of the “busts” in league history are actually the fault of the team or the situation, not the player. Either the team fails to provide the necessary resources for the player to succeed, or the situation itself just leads to an unfortunate result.
Fultz could be a lemon, but he’s no Bennett. All indications are that Fultz is a good kid, a hard worker, and he wants to be successful. We’re only four games into his NBA career. I’m not panicking. Neither should you. He was the consensus no. 1 prospect for good reason. But those factors don’t guarantee he’ll achieve his full potential. So far, the Philadelphia 76ers have failed Markelle Fultz.