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The Markelle Fultz Mystery

The Sixers’ no. 1 draft pick has barely played this season, and we still don’t totally understand why

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Anyway, guess what happened when I showed up to the Sixers training facility? They’d ordered Chick-fil-A. It was there waiting for me on a table. For real. A bunch of sandwiches. I don’t know how they knew, but they knew.” —From “What’s Up, Philly,” by Markelle Fultz, The Players’ Tribune, June 2017

“The diagnosis is not, ‘They have a labral tear, they got a rotator cuff tear, they got a biceps tendinopathy.’ What they have is a failure of their shoulder to do whatever they have to do.” —Dr. Ben Kibler, November 2013

Markelle Fultz is a mystery, which is a rare and strange thing these days. A mystery is essentially a lack of information, but modern life is defined by incessant information overload. Which is why conspiracy theories are so common. They posit a world in which the vast and readily available information swirling all around us is being constantly subverted by shadowy forces to obfuscate the truth. In the second decade of the 21st century, mysteries—actual “what the fuck happened?” mysteries—are mostly relegated to inexplicable plane crashes and true-crime podcasts.

Fultz’s shoulder injury, which may or may not be real (note: In this context, “real” means stemming from physical causes, not similarly serious but more complicated issues resulting from internal conflict, stress, anxiety, or the like) has limited him to only four games this season. It is something special. An actual mystery.

A 6-foot-4 guard, Fultz was dynamic and versatile in his lone season at Washington, where he averaged 23 points, nearly six assists, and nearly six rebounds. He was, by consensus, the best prospect in the 2017 draft because he did things that were vital to the modern NBA game. Fultz was comfortable, bordering on instinctive, at using ball screens. He was dangerous in the pick-and-roll. If the defense collapsed on him, he’d puncture the coverage with his passing; if he got a favorable switch, he’d dive to the rim; and if his man died on the screen, he’d rise up. His face was a mask of confidence bordering on apathy. He would let fly a perfectly good-enough pull-up jumper from ranges out to the college 3-point line.

Fultz (and, I’m just now noticing that “Markelle Fultz” sounds like the name of a Prussian cavalry officer during the Napoleonic Wars) shot nearly 50 percent from the field in college, including 41 percent from 3. Every prospect faces questions about his game. Fultz just seemed to have fewer than the other players in his class.

Lonzo Ball’s vision is remarkable, but will his jumper translate to the next level? Will his father be a distraction? (Answers: Thus far, not really, and no, respectively.) Jayson Tatum was born to score, but can he affect the game without the ball in his hands? (Answer: [Danny Ainge cackling.]) Josh Jackson is an athletic marvel, but what about his off-the-court issues?

And so on and so forth.

Days before the draft, the Boston Celtics traded the top pick to Philadelphia for the 2017 no. 3 pick and either the Lakers’ 2018 pick (if it falls between nos. 2 and 5) or the 2019 first-round pick of Sacramento or Philly, whichever is higher. Fultz would be a Sixer. It looked, and still looks, like a perfect fit—Fultz would join a young and talented team that would be invested in his development, and the Sixers would get a player who could work the pick-and-roll and create his own shot. Then it all went weirdly sideways and no one, not the Sixers, or Fultz, or even his agent, seems to know why.

You started hearing the question of what exactly was happening with Fultz in late September, when a giant hitch, like the Loch Ness monster breaking the still surface of the water, was seen emerging from Fultz’s free throw shooting form during a team scrimmage.

In October, he told a group of reporters, including The Ringer’s own Kevin O’Connor, that he was experiencing shoulder soreness that had caused him to change his shot.

Less than a week later, at another scrimmage, a writer noticed that Fultz was passing up open looks at an Andre Robersonesque clip. It was quite concerning for a player who had risen to the top of the draft board on the strength of being an NBA-ready offensive machine. Sixers coach Brett Brown was asked if he was comfortable with the rookie’s shifting shooting mechanics.

“No, and so we’re gonna get back on track,” Brown said. “His heart is in the right place. All by himself, he pivoted out over the summer and tried to make it better and tweak it, and he’s in a place right now where we’re gonna try to remind him where his shot was and try to bring that back into probably more a tighter shot, bring his release point down a little bit, bring the ball closer to his body. We have a Team Markelle all around him to help him, and he’s gonna be just fine.”

Then the season started and Markelle was not just fine. Over the first four games, Fultz would take just 27 shots, none of which were 3s, hitting only nine. He took 126 3-pointers at Washington, making 52. Clearly something was wrong. Was he injured? And if he was injured, why was he playing?

On October 23, after Fultz went 1-for-4 from the field in 16 minutes against the Detroit Pistons, Raymond Brothers, Fultz’s agent, told ESPN that his client “had a shoulder injury and fluid drained out of the back of his shoulder. He literally cannot raise up his arms to shoot the basketball. He decided to try and fight through the pain to help the team. He has a great attitude. We are committed to finding a solution to get Markelle back to 100 percent.”

Then Brothers changed his story. “He had a cortisone shot on Oct. 5, which means fluid was put into his shoulder—not taken out,” he told ESPN. “My intention earlier was to let people know that he’s been experiencing discomfort.”

Brothers’s active client list: Jerian Grant, Brandon Bass (playing in China), Tony Allen, D.J. Augustin, Danuel House, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Zach Randolph. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call Markelle Fultz, the first pick in the draft, Brothers’s marquee client. And Brothers wasn’t sure whether Fultz had an invasive procedure to take material out of his shoulder or just had a shot. That does not track.

General manager Bryan Colangelo held a press conference to address what was quickly growing into A Story. Fultz, Colangelo said, would be out at least three games due to “right shoulder soreness.” Bryan, who is not a medical doctor, then suggested that Fultz’s revamping of his shooting form was to blame for the nebulous shoulder malady.

Responding to Brett Brown’s charge that Fultz did, indeed, and all on his own, attempt to change his shooting mechanics, Keith Williams, Fultz’s trainer, said:

In other words: The team and the coaching staff were at odds with the player and his trainer about the reason for the change in the player’s shooting motion, and the player’s agent was confused about the nature of the medical procedure the player underwent to treat the soreness that either stems from the change in shooting motion or is the reason for it. OK.

The obvious questions were: How serious is the issue? When did it start? If it’s serious enough to pull him, why was he even playing? Philly has a long history of either (most charitable version) relaying confusing and inaccurate messages about injured players or (least charitable version) handling said injuries poorly.

Fultz hasn’t played since.

In November, Fultz was sent to rehab at the Shoulder Center of Kentucky, where surgeon Ben Kibler diagnosed him with a scapular muscle imbalance. It’s the first time, according to my half-assed internet research, that a player has lost games due to such an issue.

The Sixers, meanwhile, have released various statements about his injury/soreness situation, all of which stress that Fultz has “no structural damage,” an assertion that Kibler, in his diagnosis, agreed with.

So, what happened? As with any good mystery, there are several plausible theories.

Theory 1: He Got Hurt on a BMX

Markelle Fultz is an admitted BMX aficionado.

”I’d do wheelies, flips, all that,” he told SI before the draft. “We used to have a ramp right there in the neighborhood. We used to ride the downhill and try to jump over the mailbox. We’d do crazy stuff. Man, I was a daredevil.”

What if Markelle, over the summer, between the draft and summer league, decided to get his Matt Hoffman on, and screwed up his shoulder in the process? Muscle imbalance can be an issue for cyclists (yes, it’s a different discipline and the problem mostly seems to manifest in the legs, but still).

It makes sense that Fultz wouldn’t want to admit hurting his shoulder in such a fashion.

Theory 2: It’s in His Head

Fultz is 19 and under tremendous pressure. As my colleague and noted Sixers fan Chris Ryan has said numerous times a day to me and everyone in the office since this affair began, “The mind is part of the body.”

Theory 3: Impostor Syndrome/He Was Never a Good Shooter

This is the one I subscribe to. It’s similar to no. 2, but with important differences. Markelle’s college shooting figures of 47.6 percent overall and 41.3 percent from 3 overshadow an important fact: He shot only 64.9 percent from the free throw line. Free throw shooting—because the player is unguarded and shooting from a stationary position at the same spot on the floor every time—generally correlates well with a player’s actual shooting ability, and is a slightly better predictor of NBA 3-point shooting than college 3-point numbers.

What if Fultz was actually never a good shooter? His college career spans just 25 games; Washington didn’t make the NCAA tournament. What if Fultz just got hot from the floor over a small sample size, masking what is, in actuality, a bad shot?

Again, Fultz is just 19. Speaking as a person who gets paid to do a job I never dreamed of having, I’m still constantly waiting for Chris Ryan to tap me on the shoulder and go, “OK, we figured out that you’re actually not good. You’re fired.” Under this theory, Fultz felt that he was fooling people with his shooting percentages from the floor. Not wanting to get found out as a bad shooter who simply got lucky, he set to work on his shot over the summer without telling anyone, thus wrecking his mechanics and causing the muscle imbalance and shoulder soreness, bringing us to where we are today, theoretically close to Fultz’s return to the court.

Sounds crazy, right? Well, that’s because this is a mystery and no one is telling us what’s going on.