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Markelle Fultz Has the Sixers’ Missing Element, but They Need Him to Show Up First

The young project had a disappointing start against the Celtics, but it’s become clear that Philly’s ceiling will be determined by how much production it can get out of Fultz throughout the season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Markelle Fultz might be moving on from his disastrous and mysterious rookie year. But despite all the shooting work he put in during the summer to get over whatever it was that scuttled his first year, it sure seems like he—and, by extension, the Philadelphia 76ers—might still have a problem to solve.

Last season’s no. 1 overall draft pick tipped off his sophomore campaign with his first NBA start, a designation intended to signal the 76ers’ confidence that Fultz can get back on track to becoming the franchise-changing force they’d envisioned before everything fell apart. His preseason was uneven; he finally made a 3-pointer but still appeared awfully skittish about letting it fly from beyond the free throw line. Philly’s point guard of the present and hoped-for future opened up the 2018-19 NBA season with a hushed and curious performance in a lopsided loss to the Boston Celtics that answered few questions about where he stands, and invited plenty more.

The season’s first game between the not-quite-rivals bore a striking resemblance to the last ones they played, a five-game Eastern Conference semifinal series that Boston won handily. Fultz didn’t log a second of floor time in that series, but in theory, he was exactly the player Philly could have used. The version of Fultz the Sixers thought they were getting in the draft would have served as a change-of-pace creator to wrong-foot the C’s, provide better service for Joel Embiid in the pick-and-pop and on the block, and offer a shot in the arm to an offense that averaged 6.7 fewer points per 100 possessions against Boston than it had against the Heat in Round 1.

But the remodeled Fultz, fresh off a summer full of jumpers hoisted under Drew Hanlen’s watchful eye, looked disappointingly familiar on Tuesday. He sort of haunted the periphery of the game, missing a lefty scoop layup in transition and a free throw–line pull-up in the early going, doing little else of note during a lengthy first-quarter stint alongside Ben Simmons in the backcourt, and spending more time parked in the corner than actively impacting the proceedings.

Time and again, when Fultz touched the ball on the perimeter, the Celtics hung back and dared him to show his offseason work. Time and again, Fultz either moved the ball or meandered his way into the midrange for the better-but-still-labored pull-up push shot he’s worked on honing as the foundation of his rebuilding project. Instead of providing another way to get Embiid the rock in advantageous positions, his presence alongside the similarly elbows-and-in Simmons meant Boston could clog the passing lanes and the paint, contributing to a stilted first-half offense that featured more turnovers (11) than assists (nine).

The Sixers were outscored by 12 points in the 21 minutes Fultz played before halftime; they were a plus-seven in the three minutes he sat. Then, in accordance with his publicly proclaimed plan, coach Brett Brown opened the second half with J.J. Redick in Fultz’s place, reuniting the most effective big-minutes starting lineup in the league last season. From there, Fultz just kind of disappeared. He committed a couple of turnovers and missed a layup in three minutes of perfunctory late-third-quarter spin—alongside T.J. McConnell, who is also a point guard—as the Celtics took the game in hand, then wrapped up his quiet reintroduction by staying stapled to the bench for the whole last stanza of the loss.

Brown explained his reasoning for putting Fultz in a starting-lineup timeshare during a preseason practice earlier this month by saying, “I’m trying to get him as many minutes as I can as a point guard.” But Fultz’s front-loaded minutes distribution and second-half vanishing act seemed to have the opposite effect. The most direct path to giving Fultz a lot of minutes on the ball would be to install him as the backup in charge of all non-Simmons playmaking. Instead, Brown played them together for 20 of Fultz’s 24 minutes on Tuesday, and rode Simmons for 43 overall. That doesn’t seem conducive to Fultz’s development as a primary facilitator at the point—or, for that matter, to fielding the most functional version of Philly’s offense, which will need more than two people willing to take shots from beyond arm’s reach of the basket.

While inserting Fultz in the starting five might have been intended as a vote of confidence, trotting the 20-year-old out against this specific opponent—a well-drilled Celtics team loaded with long, athletic, brutalizing defenders, all of whom know exactly how to suffocate a non-shooting ball handler, because they just won a playoff series by doing it to Simmons—was like dumping a bucket of chum into shark-infested waters. (That’s especially true given the lack of Dario Saric, who struggled with foul trouble on Tuesday, and the dual absences of Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala, the vets brought in ostensibly to take the places of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova this summer.)

Tuesday felt like just another installment of what we all watched in May—Boston building a wall in transition, letting Embiid punch himself out trying (and failing) to bully Al Horford and Aron Baynes inside, pummeling Redick in the post, and suffocating Philly’s shooters at the arc—in large part because the dynamic new element the Sixers need still isn’t there, even if the guy expected to provide it is.

One whisper-quiet game against an NBA Finals favorite isn’t a reason to abandon all hope for Fultz figuring things out. Of course Fultz got devoured in Boston on Tuesday. Let’s see how he looks against a less imposing opponent in friendlier confines—like, say, the “you don’t get paid to play defense” Chicago Bulls on Thursday night in Philly—before calling the whole thing off.

“As I said to everybody and I’ll say it again, Markelle is going to have steady, slow growth,” Brown said after the game, according to Derek Bodner of The Athletic. “Sometimes he’s gonna be just incredible, and other times he’s gonna be a part of the NBA at a very young age.”

The only way to learn what kind of part he’s going to be, though, is by giving him a role, sticking with it, and letting him try to figure it out. Fultz remains the best chance at another homegrown star for a Sixers team that arrived a year early, that struck out in its first summer of “star hunting,” and that will have to move quickly to try to find a veteran difference-maker alongside Embiid and Simmons and fit him into the salary structure before extensions and option years kick in. After the first outing of his reboot season, though, he also remains a black box; he might contain multitudes, but a year later we still don’t really know exactly what’s inside.