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The Magic’s Markelle Fultz Gamble Is Starting to Look Pretty, Pretty Good

The former no. 1 pick has a long way to go before coming close to his pre-draft expectations, but he’s shown flashes in preseason of being a contributor in Orlando—and maybe even more

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After months of silence following the trade that ended his tumultuous tenure in Philadelphia and delivered him to Central Florida, two September events raised eyebrows and questions about where the curious case of Markelle Fultz might turn next. First, the Orlando Magic picked up the option in Fultz’s contract for the 2020-21 season—not the one that starts in two weeks, but the one after that. Then, they unleashed sweet, sweet preseason propaganda footage of Fultz reworking his jumper, whetting our appetites for a fresh start for the star-crossed former no. 1 draft pick.

His first two preseason games in Orlando have offered reminders that the woebegone Washington product ain’t out of the woods yet, but also hope for a happy ending. Through a pair of blowout Magic wins, Fultz has looked like he’s running free, playing with confidence, and letting his combination of size, athleticism, and instincts prepare his path back to a real role in the NBA.

First things first: the shot. Fultz addressed the elephant in the room right off the bat after checking in late in the first quarter against San Antonio, working his way into the paint against fellow Washington product Dejounte Murray (himself coming off a lengthy layoff) for a deep catch before stepping back into a fadeaway jumper that splashed through:

He’s looked most comfortable operating with that sort of footwork and from that sort of range, weaving his way into the lane before creating space and letting it fly:

Even most of his misses on jumpers have looked pretty normal. I will grant that it’s weird to consider that encouraging; then again, given how weird things have gone through Fultz’s two abbreviated pro seasons, “normal misses” seem like a moral victory worth celebrating.

Some moments, though, have been a little more clearly worthy of cake and confetti:

Watching those clips reminds you just how much promise still lies untapped in that 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame. With a 6-foot-9 wingspan and quick hands, Fultz has the potential to be a really disruptive defender at the point of attack, which would seem to make him a hand-in-glove fit on a Magic roster that’s gone all in on length at every position and that owned the NBA’s third-stingiest defense over the final three months of the 2018-19 campaign. (Worth remembering: The Sixers allowed 106.1 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Fultz on the floor last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, which would’ve been a top-three full-season mark.)

Magic coach Steve Clifford has eased the 21-year-old back into the swing of things after nearly 11 months away from live game action, bringing him off the bench against both the Spurs and Pistons. He’s also had Fultz share the court with Orlando’s other point guards, spending time alongside both starter D.J. Augustin and backup (and fellow former Sixer) Michael Carter-Williams, to alleviate playmaking pressure and keep multiple initiators on the floor. But he’s also tossed the kid the keys: Fultz operated as the primary ball handler in the long, athletic, and feisty second-unit lineups—alongside some combination of Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, Terrence Ross, Wesley Iwundu, and Al-Farouq Aminu—that ripped off a 24-2 third-quarter run to blow open Saturday’s game against the Spurs.

Fultz has probed off the dribble, touched the paint, distributed the ball, and generally kept the offense running on time. He looked—stop the presses—like an NBA point guard playing basketball, not a bundle of nerves and neuroses with the fate of his career resting on every twitch, glitch, and false move.

“That’s what I want to see: when he’s comfortable and he’s just playing ball,” Isaac said after Fultz’s debut against the Spurs, according to Josh Robbins of The Athletic.

There are, of course, caveats. While the footwork on Fultz’s attacks has looked sharp more often than not, the release can still leave something to be desired. So, too, can the results: For all the good vibes, Fultz is still 7-for-18 from the floor through two games, with no makes outside the paint. He’s attempted only three 3-point shots, missing them all—including an air ball at the end of the third quarter against San Antonio on Saturday—and has yet to take a free throw in 38 minutes of floor time. He’s also mitigated his 11 assists with eight turnovers, looking a bit more careless with the ball than Clifford would likely prefer from his reserve point guard.

A version of Markelle Fultz who averages about seven points and four or five assists in 20 minutes per game while missing 60 percent of his shots, including roughly all of them from beyond 10 feet, isn’t really New And Improved, even if he’s showing flashes on defense and driving to the basket. That’s pretty much exactly what we saw in Philadelphia, just with the volume turned down.

But turning down the volume matters, and showing the capacity to contribute to a stable pre-existing core does, too. Orlando’s got a no. 1 option in All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, a human-torch sixth man in Ross, a frontcourt teeming with talent and possibility, and a defense that can keep it in games. What the Magic need most of all is a creative spark—an off-the-bounce force that can break down defenses, force rotations, and generate easy buckets. Fultz doesn’t have to be a no. 1 pick–caliber superstar to do that; he just has to keep attacking in transition and against shaky closeouts, keep moving the ball, and keep wreaking havoc on defense. Do all that, and he could be the sort of wild card that propels the Magic from respectability toward the upper echelon in the East—even if the jumper’s still lost in translation.

That, it seems, is what the Magic have seen from him, and what they hope to keep seeing from him for the time being.

“He’s a guy that can really make plays for himself [and] for others,” Vucevic told reporters after Orlando’s first training camp practice. “[He’s got] a big body and can get to the hoop and has a size advantage over many guards. He could definitely be great for us.”

He isn’t yet. If nothing else, though, Fultz is back on the court, and actually doing stuff while he’s out there. After the two years he’s had, that’s not nothing.