On Monday, Joel Embiid and Markelle Fultz had some time to kill before their game against the Clippers, so they headed to the beach. The beach trip, parts of which Embiid committed to video via Instagram, could not have illustrated the difference between the two more starkly. The 23-year-old Embiid, whose birthplace is listed as Yaounde, Cameroon, but was in fact created in a lab to please NBA Twitter, made faces at the camera and frolicked in the waves, while the 19-year-old Fultz stood next to him in the ankle-deep water, arms at his sides, taciturn and glassy-eyed.
That night, Embiid put up 32 and 16 on the Clippers in nearly 36 minutes, trash-talking L.A.’s bigs every chance he got during and after the game. Two days later, he put up 46 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, and seven blocks in a nationally televised game against the Lakers. While Embiid was doing that, Fultz sat on the bench in street clothes, as he has in 10 of the Sixers’ first 14 games.
After spending all of the 2016-17 season as the consensus no. 1 prospect—and after the Sixers traded up to draft him first overall—Fultz could hardly have had a worse start to his rookie season, probably worse than if he’d been redshirted, like so many of the Sixers’ other recent lottery picks. Fultz showed up in training camp having reworked his free throw shooting form into a herky-jerky two-handed motion that makes Andre Drummond look like Reggie Miller. Then he stopped shooting his jumper in games, and now he’s out indefinitely, nursing a shoulder injury that might explain his faulty mechanics or might be a cover for the yips. During his absence, Fultz has started shooting left-handed in practice.
Fultz’s only salvation is that Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Robert Covington have led the Sixers to a 7-6 record out of the gate, keeping the Process on schedule and giving the no. 1 pick some time to sort his shot out. But Jayson Tatum, the player Fultz was essentially traded for, has started all 15 games for the rival Celtics, who have started 13-2.
It’s ridiculous to judge a pair of teenagers on a month’s worth of NBA games. But in the absence of any meaningful on-court data, the temptation to connect Fultz’s struggles to his demeanor is intensifying, and that temptation is incredibly dangerous.
It’s not a new temptation by any means. Partway through Fultz’s one year at the University of Washington, Seattle Times columnist Matt Calkins defended the Huskies star from charges that he lacked a killer instinct. It’s a familiar knock on no. 1 picks, from Andrew Wiggins to young LeBron James, who was frequently criticized for passing to open teammates in crunch time instead of hero-balling the last shot the way Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant did.
But it’s a charge uniquely suited to be aimed at Fultz, whose Washington team went 9-22 and got its coach fired. Fultz himself lacks the jaw-dropping physicality of someone like Embiid—at age 19 he has a barrel-chested, James Harden–like body type and a round head that, with his high-top haircut, makes him resemble Wilson the volleyball. The lead image of Calkins’s column shows Fultz delivering a no-look pass with a slack-jawed, saucer-eyed expression you’d usually find on a 14-year-old in hour nine of a road trip with his parents and three younger siblings. Calkins, hilariously, called it the “Phil Ivey face.”
It’s a face that, not to put too fine a point on it, makes him look cherubic, particularly on a body that’s more stocky than lithe and long. All told, it paints a picture of a mopey, disinterested rookie adrift on a team that’s leaving him behind. Those criticisms have only intensified under the glare of NBA lights, as Fultz has gone from consensus no. 1 prospect to no. 1 pick to not actually a bust, but someone you think about starting to have the conversation about whether he’s going to be a bust.
So let’s be honest about what we want from Fultz. What do we really mean when we say he looks sad or lacks a killer instinct? And what does it mean for his basketball career?
There are actual basketball reasons to be worried about Fultz’s demeanor and physique: Will he be afraid to take a big shot in crunch time or wilt under pressure at the foul line? Can he keep his wind for 40 minutes of end-to-end action? Is he such a grouch that his teammates will hate him so much they won’t pass to him? Those are serious questions, but we won’t know the answer until Fultz’s shoulder and/or shooting mechanics are fixed, and even then perhaps not for years afterward.
They’re also less important than their subtext, otherwise Jimmer Fredette would still be in the NBA by virtue of being a fearless gunner with impressive arm muscles. Turns out it matters more if you’re actually good at basketball. And Fultz, the consensus no. 1 prospect throughout his college career, was good from the moment he achieved national notoriety to the moment he set foot on an NBA floor.
The subtext is that Fultz lacks the mentality of an NBA star in one of two ways—one very modern, one ancient, and both only tangentially related to on-court performance.
The first is part and parcel of why the NBA is the most fun North American sports league to follow right now. Not only is the on-court product more fluid and creative than it’s been in a generation, but because there’s heightened drama surrounding the games themselves. The NBA right now has so many compelling personalities who interact in so many interesting ways that the league has turned into a round-the-clock narrative powerhouse, with quotes from shootaround leading to in-game trash talk leading to late-night social media posts. The game is compelling, and so is the conversation around the game, and so is the conversation about the conversation, and so on. It’s an immersive, dramatic matryoshka doll—like professional wrestling.
Russell Westbrook got so mad that one of his coworkers took a better job that it animated the national imagination to an absurd degree. Every bakery trip got dissected and every Thunder-Warriors game became appointment viewing even as Westbrook’s Thunder lost all four times they played Kevin Durant’s Warriors last year by an average of almost 20 points. Meanwhile, who wins the title this year is less interesting than where LeBron decides to play next summer. The biggest stars in the game, most notably LeBron, have transcended the sport and become important political figures, rebuking Michael Jordan’s “Republicans buy sneakers, too” legacy.
It’s not enough to just be good at basketball anymore. Living as an NBA player of any note now means you can’t ever break kayfabe, which is tough for Fultz when, through no fault of his own, he just has one of those faces. Fultz suffers even more because of natural comparisons to Embiid and Lonzo Ball, who went one pick behind him in the draft. Embiid and Ball could not more fully understand and embrace their dual roles as basketball players and cultural totems—Embiid through sheer force of natural charisma, Ball through a lifetime of tireless work by his father. Maybe celebrity doesn’t come as easily to Fultz as basketball does.
The second way in which Fultz’s personality gets scrutinized predates social media and the 24-hour news cycle: It’s informed by the origins of sports themselves. Athletes, particularly male athletes, are supposed to be idealized versions of ordinary people: bigger, stronger, faster, more skilled, more prideful, more attractive, more confident. Just as sports are a substitute for war, athletes are a substitute for warriors, and even thousands of years after the ancient Greek Olympics, there’s still an extent to which we expect male athletes to have a little bit of Achilles in them.
That’s why Jordan’s single-minded tenacity is such an integral part of the legend surrounding him. He wanted not only to win but to demoralize, to dominate opponents and teammates alike. Because that fits with the masculine athletic ideal, we remember him as one of the greatest athletes of his time, and not as a petty bully whose life off the court was considerably less glorious. It’s why we use words like “killer instinct” to mean “confidence” or “willingness to finish through contact,” or why the cringe-worthy “alpha” keeps sneaking into basketball vernacular, as if these men performing the incredibly intricate and balletic act of playing high-level basketball were nothing more than a pack of dogs.
The nascent narrative around Fultz is one of a 19-year-old being critiqued not for his job performance, but for the way he looks while performing his job. Surely, we’ve advanced enough as a culture to not police people who aren’t happy enough, or talkative enough, or aggressive enough.
Fultz has revealed one existential threat to his game as a rookie: For some reason, he can’t shoot anymore. Whether he fixes that is a question of such immense importance we won’t remember how much he smiled along the way. Fultz’s resting mopey face isn’t alienating his teammates—at least not so much that they’re not inviting him on beach outings—and we don’t know if he’s scared of crunch time because he hasn’t played in crunch time yet. Besides, it feels impolite to call someone a coward or question his mental and emotional toughness because he has a sad face. Imagine someone saying you couldn’t do your job just because you didn’t smile enough.
So by all means, freak out about the shot, because that’s a huge issue. As for the rest, let the man live.