It was a good night in Philadelphia on Monday: Markelle Fultz was back.
The no. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft hadn’t played in an NBA game since October 23, the 76ers’ fourth of the season. Fultz was then shut down because of a mysterious shoulder injury, and his situation lingered over the team’s otherwise successful season thereafter. But with less than three minutes left in the first quarter of the Sixers’ 123-104 victory over the Nuggets, Fultz shed his warm-up jacket and entered a live game as the Philly crowd greeted him with a standing ovation.
The 19-year-old played the backup point guard role usually reserved for T.J. McConnell, meaning he didn’t share the floor with fellow rookie Ben Simmons. But in just 14 minutes, Fultz provided a reminder of why the Sixers traded up in the draft to get him, finishing with 10 points (on 5-for-13 shooting), eight assists, four rebounds, and one turnover. “He showed signs of why he was the first player chosen,” coach Brett Brown told reporters after the game. “The night could not have worked out better.”
Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo said before the game that the organization wasn’t going to judge Fultz based on what happened Monday night. But it’s hard not to get excited about what transpired, and what it could mean for a 76ers team set to make the postseason for the first time in six years. Here’s a look at what we saw out there from Fultz in his big return.
The most important part of Fultz’s night came late in the third quarter, with the Sixers up 75-72. Philadelphia’s bench has blown countless leads this season, but with Fultz at the controls of the offense the reserves managed to pull away from the Nuggets, extending the lead to 15 points by the time Simmons reentered the game.
Fultz truly showed off some of the goods that made him an intoxicating prospect in this stretch. He was smooth handling the ball and changed directions fluidly when attacking the rim. Late in the third quarter, he made a smart read by pushing the ball into the paint against a disorganized defense.
Fultz struggled to finish at the rim in the four games he played to start the season, but that’s common for inexperienced players. Even on Monday night, he got stripped once while attempting a dunk and also missed an easy layup. But some of these moments also showed Fultz’s unique body control, and his ability to handle length and finish through contact. It’ll take time for Fultz, like any young point guard, to develop his feel for the size and speed of the NBA game.
Results aren’t all that matter right now, as fans of the Process know. Even on some missed layups, Fultz displayed the agility that he showed throughout his freshman season at Washington. On the possession before the basket above, Fultz crossed over to get his defender off balance, then rapidly spun into the lane to attempt a layup.
He missed, but that’s not important. No matter what happens with Fultz’s jump shot (which we’ll get to later), he still has his explosive first step and an advanced feel for when to use hesitations and dribbles to probe and penetrate defenses. Playing Fultz while Simmons is off the floor is smart, because it stretches floor spacing and gives Fultz more room to drive, in the same way the 76ers tailor lineups to do the same for Simmons.
Even though Fultz hadn’t played in an NBA game in almost five months, he’s been around the team a lot, developing chemistry with his teammates in practice. It showed on the court with a terrific passing display. Right out of the gates, he made an accurate behind-the-back pass out of the pick-and-roll to Joel Embiid, who attacked a closeout and drew a foul.
Moments later, he logged his first assist on a pass to Ersan Ilyasova, then followed up with two more dimes that led to Robert Covington 3-pointers. It shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise, since Fultz was a slick passer in college who would have averaged far more assists had his teammates not been total zeroes. Now that he’s playing with NBA talent, he’s finding his teammates and they’re actually finishing. “The pass is king,” Brown said after the game. “Everyone loves to play with players who pass the ball.”
Fultz’s most impressive playmaking stint came in the second half. He made accurate passes all over the floor, including three entries to Ilyasova and Embiid, a kickout to Dario Saric, and a cross-court pass to J.J. Redick as the shooter sprinted through a screen.
Fultz puts ideal touch and zip on his passes, depending on what the situation requires, and here he fires a bullet. Passing often looks routine because we’re so accustomed to seeing all-time greats (and rookies like Simmons and Lonzo Ball) make it look easy. But it’s not so simple; it requires timing and accuracy to deliver the ball to a shooter so that he can make a move in stride, or finish a layup without a defender breathing down his neck. The Sixers drafted Fultz not just for his scoring, or potential defensive prowess, but also for his playmaking.
“I thought he did a good job tonight at not forcing anything, set everybody [up] and we played team basketball,” Embiid said after the game. To that point, Fultz appeared to always be in position, and he cut well while freelancing off the ball. Some Sixers fans might’ve paused at the thought of replacing McConnell, a reliable game manager, with an unproven rookie. But Fultz began to answer those concerns.
It’s still unknown whether Fultz’s shoulder injury caused him to change his shooting mechanics, or whether the reverse is true. But when Fultz arrived at Sixers training camp shooting free throws like Shaquille O’Neal, it was clear that something was wrong. All season, Sixers reporters have been posting grainy cellphone footage of Fultz shooting as if they’d spotted Bigfoot, and we’ve been eating it up. How could we not? Fultz was a hyped-up no. 1 pick who went missing for a while and returned looking like he forgot how to shoot.
Fultz shot 2-for-5 on jumpers for the game, and didn’t attempt a single 3 or free throw. His first two jump shots were blocked, both times by Mason Plumlee, who was like a schoolyard bully taking advantage of the new kid.
Fultz’s mechanics were shaky, especially on the stepback; he didn’t look comfortable transitioning from his dribble into the jumper. Even though most of his top-quality traits have been retained, the equation has changed for his jumper. It still isn’t the same as it was in college—both from a visual and a production standpoint—and he will need to improve to reach his upside. If he doesn’t, he’ll be defended like he was at times on Monday night. Since Fultz wasn’t hitting shots, the Nuggets didn’t hesitate to give him space when the ball wasn’t in his hands. In the clip below from the second half, Devin Harris operates like a free safety by helping and leaving Fultz open.
Once the playoffs roll around, opponents will have time to game plan for the Sixers and could give Fultz the Tony Allen treatment. If that happens, it’ll be extremely difficult to play Fultz and Simmons at the same time. But they could continue to stagger the rookie point guards like they did on Monday, which will maximize the amount of time each has the ball in his hands and minimize the opportunities for opponents to just not defend them.
Then again, Fultz did hit two hesi pull-up jimbos during his final stint to close out the fourth quarter.
This is more like it. Fultz was converting from his dribble into his shot, and released the ball smoothly, with confidence. Had you just turned on the TV and seen Fultz for the first time since college, you might wonder where he stood in the Rookie of the Year conversation. Fultz looked good. There’s not much more you could’ve asked for.
Yes, he got his shot blocked more than he had made jumpers. Yes, he must prove he can hit 3s and free throws. As the dude who harps on how vital it is that Simmons—the guy having one of the best rookie seasons ever—should try switching shooting hands, I share your concern. But Fultz’s performance was so promising considering the circumstances.
Fultz spent months rehabbing, away from the court, reading his negative mentions, and hearing comments about his broken jumper. Yet after turning the ball over on his first touch, he followed up by playing hard on defense and making smart plays on offense. After Plumlee altered his first two jumpers, he continued playing, unbothered. After Plumlee blocked his floater in the fourth quarter, he chased down a rebound and dove for a loose ball. There was simply no letup in Fultz. “He looked confident,” Brown said after the game. “He didn’t blink. That was a bold and gutsy effort he made, given where he was and where he is.”
There will likely be more air balls and bricks to come this season, but Fultz showed on Monday that he can bounce back from adversity. Brown said before the game that when it comes to the risk-reward proposition of bringing Fultz back, he’s going to lean toward the reward side. After five nightmarish months of his rookie season, Fultz finally got a taste of just how good the reward could be.