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Are We Sure … That Markelle Fultz Can’t Be the Third Star in Philly?

The Sixers didn’t sign a star free agent and are instead hoping that the enigmatic former no. 1 pick can be their third star player alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Will Fultz realize his potential or will this be another lost season? And if it’s somewhere in between, is that enough for Philly to trust the Process?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The offseason established a host of new story lines across the NBA that require closer inspection. Throughout August, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.

Some teams were winners this offseason, and some were losers. The Philadelphia 76ers were punters. They went into the summer hunting for stars, and wound up adding Wilson Chandler and revamping their bench. The two top-tier players Philly had its eye on wound up in different locations, with LeBron James signing with the Lakers and Kawhi Leonard traded to the Raptors. But the Sixers retained their cap space to sign a max free agent next summer, when a plethora of stars will hit the market. That cap space is essentially Markelle Fultz insurance.

By now, even the most casual NBA fan knows the Fultz story. The Sixers traded the no. 3 pick and another first-rounder to Boston for the right to pick Fultz. That no. 3 pick wound up becoming Jayson Tatum, who excelled in his rookie season while Fultz went through one of the most bizarre first seasons in recent memory. Sidelined by a mysterious shoulder injury, Fultz’s shot, by all accounts, fell apart before the season began. He spent most of the year in street clothes with cryptic status updates from the team and head coach Brett Brown. Fultz finally took the floor toward the end of the regular season, when he showed flashes of no. 1-pick talent, but was eventually taken out of the rotation in the postseason.

The Sixers needed shooting and playmaking this offseason, and in a perfect world Fultz will fill both those roles. The predominant reason why Philly traded up for Fultz was the fit. If Fultz’s shot translates, he can unlock new dimensions of a Sixers team that is simmering with potential. He can serve as a pick-and-roll playmaking presence who can also function as an end-of-game scorer or as a two-way complementary piece to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

This is essentially Fultz’s tryout season. Fultz’s NBA career will go as far as his jump shot takes him. His rookie season was defined by a confusing shoulder injury and the yips, but ahead of his second campaign, the hype machine is getting loud. Various reports indicate that Fultz has made immense progress shooting the ball while working with trainer Drew Hanlen. Sixers head coach Brett Brown said Fultz will have “a hell of a year,” and Hanlen himself made an admittedly bold statement, saying that Fultz can immediately be an All-Star “if he’s back to 100 percent.”

That’s quite a qualifier. Fultz’s shoulder issue may be corrected, but the brain is part of the body. Even if Hanlen fixed Fultz’s mechanics to get him back to the level he was at coming out of the University of Washington, there’s a significant difference between hitting shots in a high school gym without any cameras and doing it under the bright lights of an NBA game. The Sixers made a mistake putting Fultz in front of cameras last season. That gave him a platform to continuously fail publicly; conducting workouts privately this summer is the right call. Until Fultz performs well over the course of a full season, it seems reasonable to temper expectations.

If Fultz does return with a competent jump shot—never mind a good one—then he should immediately aid Philadelphia’s pick-and-roll offense. The Sixers ran the fewest share of pick-and-rolls last season, per Synergy, largely due to their personnel. Simmons and T.J. McConnell aren’t threats to shoot off the dribble, and J.J. Redick isn’t a shot creator. Fultz was supposed to be both before his shot fell apart. It feels like forever ago that he was launching dribble jumper 3s as a freshman.

Without the threat of a perimeter shot, Fultz’s rookie season was plagued by scoring inefficiency. He frequently had to pick up his dribble on drives against containment since defenders could sag under screens or overplay the drive, limiting opportunities to produce inside. But even without a jumper, Fultz still displayed an advanced feel for controlling tempo blended with a special ability to see the floor and find open teammates.

Fultz can give the Sixers offensive versatility. Instead of leaning on Simmons to pound the ball and make a play or feeding Embiid on the post, Fultz can push Simmons off the ball and find him on cuts and dives for easy baskets. It was a rare occurrence for Simmons to set on-ball screens, and even more unusual when he rolled to the rim. But when he did, the results were tantalizing.

The Sixers can cast Simmons in the Blake Griffin role in a sequel to Lob City, since Simmons is an elite athlete who can flush down lobs. Simmons could also act as a transcendent playmaker like Draymond Green on the short roll and kick out passes to Embiid or Redick for 3-pointers. A more diverse, creative half-court game plan for Simmons would minimize the player’s glaring weakness as a shooter, while also adding new dimensions to the Sixers offense that makes it less predictable. But Fultz’s development is required.

Fultz, Embiid, and Simmons were each widely considered the best prospect in their class prior to their respective drafts. Fultz was the third-best prospect of the trio based on pre-draft expectations. But he is the enhancer who can elevate his star teammates to greater heights. They’ll need that push to fulfill their potential as a versatile core capable of swapping roles and scoring from different areas of the floor as a large and skilled three-headed monster.

Despite feeling the rookie blues, Fultz displayed the size, burst, and athleticism that made him a top prospect in the first place. He defended well, made highlight blocks, and was an active rebounder. He knows how to execute plays, and he’s already a quality passer. If he develops his spot-up jumper, then that’s fine: He can serve as a floor spacer for Simmons and Embiid and a secondary playmaker. Fultz could be the third homegrown star on a cheap rookie contract to give the franchise maximum upside to close out this decade.

There are fewer than two months to go until Sixers training camp. Last September, Fultz came to camp shooting free throws like he was impersonating Shaquille O’Neal. This time around, an impression of his college self would suffice.