Markelle Fultz made a 3. On any other night, with any other player, it would have been just a number on a box score. It wouldn’t even make the postgame highlight reel. But when Fultz pulled up off the dribble, with confidence (!), in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s Sixers-Bulls game and sank the shot from the right corner, it became a moment.
It’s fitting that before Fultz made the memorable shot, he had to go through another moment that made us all wince. In the first quarter, Fultz received a pass from Robert Covington on the left corner of the court. Fultz had acres of space in front of him, and yet he balked, dribbled in, and passed the ball off to Dario Saric, who missed the ensuing jumper. Again, in any other situation, the moment would have been received with a shrug, maybe an eye roll, but nothing more. Instead, it felt like the continuation of all the issues that have plagued Fultz’s story through his first season and the first two games of this season: He can’t shoot, he doesn’t look like someone who even wants to shoot, and he doesn’t have enough game to make up for it. The Philly crowd chanted and cheered every time Fultz got the ball, erupting when he finally made a pull-up 2-point jump shot. The no. 1 draft pick was being treated like a walk-on.
Fultz looked thrown off after that moment—spooked—and it showed in other facets of his game. His next four shots were either missed or blocked, which seemed to have a knock-on effect on his rebounding and defense. He receded from the spotlight as the Sixers, led by an easy triple-double from Ben Simmons, went on to pull away from the Bulls. Joel Embiid exploded for 30 points to go along with Covington’s 20. It was a statement in itself: Philly is one of the most talented teams in the league, Fultz or no Fultz.
Then, the fourth quarter happened and Fultz started to catch up with his teammates. The big lead allowed him to let loose and play freely. It showed, not only in the made 3 but in his 15 total attempts and his five makes. (He took only seven in the opener against the Celtics.)
But let’s talk about that 3: It was notable, not just because it went in, but because it came off the dribble and not in a catch-and-shoot situation. Fultz looked more comfortable shooting that way, which was a go-to during his one season at Washington. As the game went on, he even cracked a smile.
What can we learn from one shot? Even one that turned a normal Thursday night game into a scene out of Rudy? If anything, it may be that Fultz would be better utilized as a ball handler on the second unit, where he can probe and pull up like he did in that shot. Before the game, head coach Brett Brown said he couldn’t commit to Fultz as a starter and that he would be willing to “pull out of it” if he felt it was needed. That time may come sooner rather than later.
As our own Dan Devine wrote Wednesday, Fultz is the team’s missing piece, the question that needs answering before the Sixers can even be associated with the term “title contender.” Starting him may boost his confidence, but playing him with the second unit might be the easier way to do that. It’s also notable that Fultz’s first two games have been national broadcasts. He’s clearly one of the intriguing story lines of this NBA season, but after a summer of very publicly working on his shot, starting off with two consecutive big stages that naturally augment every possession certainly didn’t help. He looked a lot more comfortable playing at home than he did in Boston, but Philly fans gasping every time he touched the ball comes with its own set of consequences. What he probably needs most right now is a normal night, with normal makes, normal misses, normal cheers, and normal boos. No one needs to be ignored more than him.