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The Mishandling of Markelle Fultz

Whatever is troubling the no. 1 overall pick, the Sixers organization is going about it all wrong

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Bryan Colangelo’s press conference on Friday was a memorable one, though probably not for the reasons he’d like. The 76ers president of basketball operations began by congratulating the Eagles for winning the Super Bowl (good start, go Birds); apologized for missing the parade (a little curious, but OK); credited himself for not making a move at the trade deadline by saying, “We stayed pat with our disciplined approach to building this program” (wait, isn’t he the dude who signed Jerryd Bayless?); and then offered that he feels “really good” about how the organization is “building and developing our core players” (oh noooooo).

Not surprisingly, that last part invited countless questions about the status of Markelle Fultz, the no. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, who played four games this season before being shut down with a shoulder injury. On December 9, the Sixers announced that Fultz’s shoulder soreness was gone and the scapular muscle imbalance had been resolved. On Friday, exactly two months later, Colangelo said he wasn’t sure whether Fultz would return this season.

“There’s always a chance that he’s going to be out there soon, and there’s a chance that he’s not going to play this year,” Colangelo said.

It went on like that for a while. He didn’t so much straddle the fence as impale himself atop it. One moment, Colangelo said that Fultz is currently “doing things on the basketball court” that are a “pure and natural” part of his instincts. The next, he revealed that his point guard’s range right now is “within the paint, basically.” He said he wasn’t sure whether it was “working on the shot that led to the soreness or the soreness that led to working on the shot”—then also added that a doctor in Kentucky thought Fultz’s “irregular motion” exacerbated the injury. Most importantly, he confirmed the biggest fear for just about everyone who works or roots for the Sixers: Because of what he called a “lack of muscle control and coordination of his muscles,” Colangelo said Fultz is “relearning how to shoot the basketball.”

Toward the end of the 24-minute affair, Colangelo tried to steer the runaway train back onto the rickety tracks it had long before jumped. “Anybody else on the trade deadline?” he pleaded. To which the Philly media, bless them, immediately responded with another Fultz query.

If Colangelo was frustrated with the exchange and how things have gone on the Fultz front, he is not alone. J.J. Redick—a podcaster for The Ringer who moonlights as a Sixers shooting guard—said that Fultz is “working his ass off” and added that he “understand[s] that fans, you know, want to see [Fultz’s] progress.” But that is where Redick took his leave.

“I don’t get the coming in here every day to, like, watch him shoot pull-up jumpers,” Redick said. “It’s a little obsessive.”

He’s right. Fultz has become a kind of Sixers sasquatch, with reporters everywhere competing to capture shaky cellphone videos of him doing just about anything at all simply to prove he’s still alive. Here’s Fultz working on the absolute basics before a Nets game in Brooklyn. Here he is shooting from super close to the basket. Here he is shooting backward from super far away. Here he is shooting 3s. God help us if anyone gets footage of him ordering at the Chick-fil-A on Columbus Boulevard.

When I talked to a few members of the organization about the never-ending Fultz situation, there were mixed reactions about what went down on Friday. Like Redick, some people were irritated and didn’t quite get why the media and fans keep focusing on Fultz. Others were confused by the curious approach the front office has taken with respect to his recovery and the attendant PR packaging. But the consensus was best summarized by one staffer, who seemed beaten down by the whole saga: “Everyone here is in a really tough spot.”

There are lots of reasons for that—all of which trace back to the same source.

In Colangelo’s defense, he had to show his face on Friday. It was the day after the trade deadline. Not doing so probably would have created even more questions. But while Colangelo didn’t do the Sixers or himself any favors with his byzantine answers, the root issue here is how often we’re seeing Fultz in public.

With apologies to Redick, who is new to the Sixers and Philadelphia, there is a long recent history of the franchise putting high draft picks on a shelf and keeping them out of reach while they convalesce. The media only got periodic glimpses of Joel Embiid when the no. 3 overall pick in 2014 sat out the first two years with a foot injury that required two surgeries. Now and then, you’d catch Embiid shooting after the curtain was raised at practice, or you’d see him wandering through the arena on game days. Same for Ben Simmons when the no. 1 pick in 2016 suffered a foot injury and sat out his rookie season. The way they’ve handled Fultz has been … different.

Despite not playing since October 23, Fultz has been a nearly omnipresent figure. After the media was allowed into the gymnasium at Santa Monica High School during a mid-November West Coast trip, there was Fultz in full view—feeding passes to Dario Saric, laughing on loop, and having what appeared to be a jolly time. The Sixers practically parading him in front of reporters felt odd at the time, since he hadn’t yet been cleared by the medical staff.

More than one reporter told me that when the media is ushered into practice these days, Fultz will start dunking and doing stuff, as though he’s putting on a show for the cameras. The not-so-crazy conspiracy theory is that the front office wants to show that Fultz is making progress. Except regularly exposing him to the world has more often had the opposite effect. When ESPN had its “Philadelphia All Access” day in December, the network tweeted a short video with the caption “Markelle Fultz puts in work as Philadelphia anxiously awaits his return.”

Richard Simmons was probably pretty impressed, but it did little to inspire confidence in almost anyone else. Same goes for all the videos of his shooting—in practice and before games.

How do you not ask about the first overall pick when his free throw form looks like that? It would be dereliction of duty by the media. Not to mention that it would require suppressing the natural curiosity of basketball fans everywhere who just want to know what the hell is happening to the poor kid.

And here we must pause to remember that’s what he is—a 19-year-old who must be under a tremendous amount of pressure. It can’t be easy to be the top selection in the draft and then go through something like this in a place like Philadelphia. Maybe that’s why Fultz recently gave a quick in-game interview to TNT—to relay that he’s as frustrated as everyone else. (That interview was evidently set up by Fultz’s agent and not sanctioned by the Sixers.) As a result, Colangelo wasn’t just asked about Fultz’s physical recovery. He was forced to answer questions about whether his rookie is shook.

“Um, I think that, uh, you know, mental preparedness and overcoming an injury is part of any athlete, especially an elite athlete, overcoming a debilitating injury,” Colangelo said on Friday. “It’s been proven in studies that it is a big component.”

Forget studies. All you need are eyeballs and ears. The whole thing has put everyone involved in an untenable spot. As head coach Brett Brown said almost a month ago, “I’m old and I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

It makes you wonder why Colangelo doesn’t just direct the staff to whisk Fultz off to a safe house somewhere and stash him there until everything dies down. Some people familiar with the Sixers’ thinking on that front implied that ownership and Colangelo care very much about public perception—after all, the Colangelo Family Coup was orchestrated in part to shield an organization that was taking heavy fire for the Process—and this is their (odd) way of trying to save face with Fultz. Keep him around. Tell the public he’s making progress. Hope everyone moves along because there’s only so much to see here.

A less cynical interpretation might be that the issue really is psychosomatic, and the Sixers are putting him in front of prying eyes to somehow ease him back into a lifestyle built around playing in front of thousands 82 days a year. Of course, if that’s the case, why keep pushing the injury narrative?

Whatever the truth is, the team’s strategy on handling the Fultz fallout obviously isn’t working the way it hoped. But the PR component is far less important in the grand scheme of things than what actually becomes of Fultz. There are league executives watching the drama with interest and more than a few snickers. If Fultz can’t fix his form, it will be an indelible mark against Colangelo’s stewardship of the organization. He still hasn’t heard the last about his decision to draft Andrea Bargnani first overall when he ran the Raptors. So far, this is worse. Bargnani was always going to be a project. Fultz was supposed to be such a “can’t miss” that they traded up with a rival to get him.

Colangelo said he’s not worried about Fultz figuring it out. He insisted on Friday that Fultz’s main strength remains intact. That is, “shot creation for himself. Shot creation for others.” The latter is fine. The former practically made me spit up. Shot creation for himself leads to, you know, shots, which is why the Sixers are in this mess. Consider Brown’s response in mid-January when he was asked whether Fultz needed to be 100 percent to play in a game again: “I think what he needs to be is able to shoot a basketball.” You have to love the man’s honesty, but it underscores just how stuck they all are here. Until Fultz’s shooting range isn’t restricted to what the general manager called “within the paint, basically,” everyone—Fultz, Colangelo, Brown, the Sixers, the media, the fans—is imprisoned in the same awful, endless loop.

It’s why, for the umpteenth time, a reporter puzzled over how Fultz can be cleared medically but not appear in games. That prompted Colangelo to launch into a long explanation about recovering from a scapular injury and what Fultz still needs to work on and how health and basketball ability are somehow unrelated even though the Sixers keep telling us they’re also linked.

“Don’t get confused with the terminology,” Colangelo cautioned.

Right. Got it. Don’t be confused by their words—just by their grim reality and how they got there.