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Markelle Fultz’s Candle Burned Out Long Before His Trade to Orlando

The Sixers finally moved on from Fultz, but the dream of the former no. 1 overall pick completing the Process died a long time ago

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Sixers have cut bait on Markelle Fultz. When he was drafted with the no. 1 pick in 2017, the former University of Washington guard was considered the final piece of a young Philly core, along with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, that would follow in the footsteps of Oklahoma City’s Westbrook-Durant-Harden triumvirate and lead the Sixers out of the Process years toward title contention. He cost Philly a future first-round pick and delivered Jayson Tatum to their division rival in Boston, but in that moment it all felt worth it. Fultz was a dynamic playmaker and scorer, considered the consensus no. 1 pick. Give me two beers and three YouTube mixtapes and I’d start shouting about how he was a Damian Lillard–CJ McCollum hybrid. You put him with Simmons, the 2016 no. 1 pick, and Embiid, who, when healthy, was clearly the best player in the 2014 class, and it was a homegrown golden generation of players that Philly could throw all their unhinged emotional energy behind.

Now, after nearly two years, only 33 games played, countless cringe-worthy practice videos and free throw routines, a storm of rumors and gossip items surrounding his physical and emotional health, mystery procedures, some false dawns and many dark nights, Fultz has been traded to Orlando for, reportedly, Jonathon Simmons, the Thunder’s 2020 first-round pick, and a second-round pick from Cleveland.

Perhaps this is a win-win—Orlando finally gets a guard to go along with its collection of Ents, and Fultz gets to reboot his NBA career away from the media scrutiny in Philly. Meanwhile, the Sixers restock their draft cupboard after the asset-emptying deal for Tobias Harris, and add another switchable wing in Simmons. But it’s still bittersweet, and not just because Simmons’s putrid 3-point shooting makes him more of a wretch-4. Many Sixers fans felt a connection to Fultz, despite, possibly even because of, his hardships. Yes, he was an aloof teen who crushed Chick-fil-A when he should’ve been in the musecage snorting whey protein powder. We expect a lot of the kids who come into the league now; Fultz broke under that pressure before his first season ever began. Maybe we’ll never know what happened to his shot, his shoulder, or his head in between that Utah summer league game against Boston and when he arrived in Sixers camp in the fall of ’17. He seemed to be caught in a tug-of-war between parties that were pulling him in different directions. And now he’s been pulled out of town.

One thing that Sixers fans have learned over and over again since draft night 2013, when Sam Hinkie traded Jrue Holiday to the Pelicans, is to be emotionally flexible. Ever since then, there’s been a near-constant churn of players coming into and out of the team. In the wake of all those transactions, the franchise has gone from punch line to conference heavyweight, but Philly fans, who no one has ever mistaken for certified public accountants in their calmest moments, had to power down the local folk hero industrial complex. Don’t get too attached to guys like the Homie or Rock. In fact, maybe just buy the jersey without anyone’s name on the back. You never know who is really staying or going.

This week has been a microcosm of the Process era. The rumor mill sucked up seemingly every player on the current roster, save Embiid. There were suggestions that Ben Simmons could be traded to New Orleans for Anthony Davis, that Jimmy Butler—who only just arrived in November—could be rerouted out of town. In the Eastern Conference arms race, there are no sacred cows. On Tuesday night, the team dealt half its bench and a bunch of picks to the Clippers for Harris, Boban Marjanovic, and Mike Scott. Gone was Wilson Chandler and his flimsy quads, Landry Shamet and his nonexistent collection of facial expressions, and Mike Muscala and his canceled dad.

We knew what those guys were—poor man’s Ariza, poorer man’s Klay, poorest man’s Mirotic, respectively. Fultz didn’t even play enough to lower expectations. Nor did he particularly show flashes of greatness that encouraged hope. He didn’t talk much. He was a blank canvas, and people put whatever they wanted on him. Saps like me thought of him as a bad news bear who would one day live up to his promise. I found this moment from October inspiring:

Others could look at this same play and say, Why are you cheering a no. 1 pick hitting an outside shot in October like he just daggered the Warriors in Game 7? For them, Thursday’s deal is about nine months too late, with Fultz’s value only further eroded since his disastrous run as the Sixers starting point guard at the beginning of the season. Sixers GM Elton Brand isn’t a miracle worker, he’s a janitor, cleaning up his predecessor Bryan Colangelo’s mess. There is no such thing as fair value for a no. 1 pick with a broken shot. You just rip the Band-Aid off and move forward.

It will still leave a scar, though. The people involved will wonder whether they could have done things differently. They will wonder how they got things so wrong. They will wonder what this team would look like with Tatum, or De’Aaron Fox, or Donovan Mitchell, or Lauri Markkanen. They will wonder what Danny Ainge knew that made him willing to swap picks in the first place. They will wonder who messed up his shot, who screwed up his shoulder, and who played with his head. But I will say this: Nobody in Philly will wish him anything but the best. It’s just a shame he couldn’t be that for the team that drafted him.