With 7:35 left in the second quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers’ game against the Miami Heat on Monday, Sixers guard Markelle Fultz stepped to the free throw line. He lifted the ball in front of his face, then held it briefly in place over his head and flicked his right wrist; the shot missed badly, clanging off the heel of the rim and into the waiting hands of Heat center Hassan Whiteside.
Later in the quarter, after getting fouled on a drive by Justise Winslow, Fultz again lifted up the ball, paused at the top of his motion, and flicked. This time, it splashed through the net, never even grazing the rim. Fultz’s second attempt, though … well, that one didn’t go so well.
This is worse than we have ever seen Fultz's free throw form look. pic.twitter.com/FhCYpNpd5b— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) November 13, 2018
Fultz didn’t just pause on that attempt. He straight-up double-clutched it, leaving us to wonder—some 13 months after a preseason change in shooting form sounded alarms about the no. 1 pick in the 2017 draft—whether we were right back where this whole sordid saga began.
Not long after footage of Fultz’s reappearing hitch started to go viral, word began to circulate that he and Drew Hanlen—the skills trainer with whom Fultz worked this summer to rebuild the shattered shot that scuttled his rookie season, and who recently raised eyebrows with a quickly deleted suggestion that Fultz is still dealing with an injury—“are no longer working together or on speaking terms,” and haven’t been for three weeks. (Hanlen will reportedly continue to work with Joel Embiid, which seems like good business.) Fultz played 11 quiet minutes after his fateful trip to the line, scoring two points on four shots with three assists and a rebound. Head coach Brett Brown replaced Fultz with rookie guard Landry Shamet to start the second half.
The Sixers handled the Heat 124-114, behind 35 points and 18 rebounds from Embiid. They outscored Miami by 17 points in the 23 minutes that Fultz spent on the bench, got outscored by seven points in his 25 minutes, and looked like a stronger, more dangerous team with him off the floor.
After the game, Fultz was adamant that his, um, unconventional free-throw attempt had nothing to do with a return to the bad old days. According to the guard, it was just a garden-variety accident.
“The ball slipped out of my hand, so I had to do what I had to do,” Fultz said, according to Rich Hofmann of The Athletic. “I had to do what I had to do, but I’m not really worried about it. I have to work on my game. The ball just happened to slip, that’s what happened.”
The problem with that explanation, though, is that we’ve seen hints of the hitch in Fultz’s last few games. You could see him starting to pause against Charlotte on Friday and Memphis on Saturday. Another issue: the dip in his free throw stroke—63.6 percent through his first eight games, 54.5 percent in his last seven—has come attached to other familiar shooting struggles. Fultz has not attempted a 3-point shot in his last seven appearances, and has shot just 7-for-26 (26.9 percent) outside the restricted area during that stretch.
Fultz stressed after the game how unconcerned he is about the miss, and how unconcerned he is about how concerned any of us might be about it.
“I’m not really worried about it,” he told Keith Pompey of Philly.com. “I work on my game. Everybody knows how hard I work. So it happens. The thing is, I don’t really care about what people say or what people are going to say. I don’t really give a [freak], for real. I work on my game, and that’s how it’s going to go.”
The question, though, is how Fultz’s brick-by-brick rebuilding project can coexist with the win-now push for postseason success heralded by the Sixers’ Saturday blockbuster.
Coming off an exhilarating (and somewhat surprising) 52-win season and conference semifinals run, the 76ers had stumbled off the line this season. After barely edging the Hornets Friday, they were 8-5, closer to the middle of the pack in the Eastern playoff hierarchy than to chasing down the soaring Bucks and Raptors, with a bottom-third offense and a negative point differential. Sixers brass took stock and decided it was time for a home-run swing. So, now Jimmy Butler is in Philadelphia, imported at the high price of two key rotation players and beloved Process icons. He’s coming to provide reliable 3-level scoring next to Embiid, secondary playmaking next to Ben Simmons, a viable catch-and-shoot and pick-and-roll ballhandling option, and a source of shot creation when games tighten up in the clutch.
Which is to say, Butler’s coming to give the Sixers what they traded up in the 2017 draft to get from Fultz. It’s a move Philly felt it had to make because Fultz—for all the legitimate strides he’s made in his game as an off-the-dribble attacker and backcourt defender—for whatever reason can’t give that to them. And he seems to be getting further away from fulfilling his early promise.
Butler’s arrival is widely expected to bump Fultz from the starting lineup—the trio of Fultz, Simmons, and Embiid is now a net positive in 111 shared minutes, albeit while scoring less efficiently than the worst offense in the NBA—and into a bench role as Philly’s backup point guard. There’s a world in which that move simplifies things for Fultz, allowing him unfettered access to playmaking responsibility during his time on the court in ways that minimize the offense-strangling dangers of having him operate off the ball. Fultz’s individual production has improved significantly when he’s been separated from Simmons, and the Sixers have outscored opponents by a solid 3.1 points per 100 possessions when Fultz is running the show without the Australian.
But Fultz’s captaincy of the second unit won’t happen in a vacuum; it’ll come in the context of a shuffled-up rotation in which Brown will look to stagger Embiid, Simmons, and Butler. All three will soak up the lion’s share of possessions when they’re in the game, siphoning the playmaking opportunities Fultz needs to grow and rediscover some vestige of what he looked like in college. So, if Fultz won’t be a primary ball handler, and if he can’t help provide the space Philly’s stars will need to operate, then what role will he serve?
The Butler deal announced in no uncertain terms that the Sixers aren’t playing the long game anymore. They’re trying to become great immediately, and if Fultz can’t show that he can keep up, it’s hard not to feel like he’s going to get left behind. The Sixers reportedly intend to sign Butler to a lucrative long-term contract, which would make him part of a big three alongside the maxed-out Embiid and the soon-to-be-extension-eligible Simmons. That all sounds like awfully bad news for Fultz’s chances of remaining part of Philly’s core.
Making matters worse: The more things deteriorate for Fultz on the court, the less likely it is that the Sixers will be able to net a meaningful return for him in another trade. If his recently renewed aversion to non-restricted-area shooting and hints of the hitch continue to rear their head, he could find himself viewed in the same uncomfortable light that Jahlil Okafor did—as a player muscled out of the picture, unable to help on the court, unable to be traded for anything approaching the value Philly once placed on him, in basketball limbo waiting for another chance.
Everything about this seems awkward and ill-fitting, especially considering that Fultz has taken his struggles relatively well. He has continued to work, push, attack, and defend with the fervor of a man trying to reclaim something precious; in terms of scoring margin, the Sixers have not been worse with Fultz on the floor this season. But they also haven’t been better, and haven’t been nearly as good as they hoped they’d be when they traded up for him in the summer of 2017, or when he and his teammates exalted in the late-season reclamation that saw him become the youngest player in NBA history to post a triple-double.
That celebration feels so far away now, and so does the future it seemed it might portend. The Sixers are moving forward, and they’re doing it faster than anticipated. Nights like Monday can make you wonder whether Fultz will get to stay aboard for the ride, or whether the ball isn’t the only thing that’s slipping away.