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What Does Orlando Know About Markelle Fultz That We Don’t?

Orlando picked up the point guard’s option and will pay him $12.3 million for the 2020-21 season, but how close is he to getting back on the court?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Markelle Fultz is back in the news—this time, for a good reason. The Magic announced Monday that they will pick up Fultz’s contract option for the 2020-21 season, which—since he was the no. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft—is due to pay him $12.3 million. Fultz has so far played only 33 career games, having been sidelined by mysterious injuries to his shoulder. The 2020-21 season will be the final year of his rookie deal.

Videos of NBA players working out fill our timelines during the summer, but the Fultz camp has been quiet this offseason. Since the Magic traded for Fultz at the trade deadline earlier this year, he has been out of the news entirely and presumably working to get back on the court. Fultz didn’t play a single game with Orlando last season and there have been no updates about him aside from a comment from head coach Steve Clifford, who said in an interview at summer league that Fultz was “not ready” for 5-on-5 scenarios yet and there was no timetable for his return.

And yet, here we are. The Magic didn’t even wait until training camp to lock down Fultz for another season (the deadline to pick up the option is in October). ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out that Orlando was going to be over the cap regardless of whether they picked up the option or not, which is undoubtedly a vote of confidence in Fultz’s progress. It’s also a sign that Orlando is trusting its own development staff (one front-office official specifically mentioned to me that Becky Bonner, whom the Magic hired in 2017 as director of player development, is well known for her off-the-court development, which could be helpful for Fultz).

The Magic doubled down on continuity this offseason by re-signing their anchor in Nikola Vucevic, sixth man Terrence Ross, and surprise standout Khem Birch, as well as adding a player with playoff experience in Al-Farouq Aminu; it’s clear they are trying to become a true competitor. Orlando does have a core of intriguing young players in Aaron Gordon, Mo Bamba, and Jonathan Isaac, and it’ll need a leap from at least one of those three this season to go from the fringes to the center of the playoff picture. Giving Fultz this deal at this stage of their franchise is notable: They have to think that he will be able to contribute this season and the next for this deal to make sense.

Point guard depth is not exactly a strength for the Magic right now; D.J. Augustin and Michael Carter-Williams are Fultz’s companions at the position. If Fultz is able to get back to at least half the form that made him the top pick, he could crack Orlando’s rotation. Otherwise, the Magic might be paying him $12 million to sit on the bench—and he may be out of the league after that.

The Fultz saga has been combed over repeatedly, and somehow the whole thing is still unclear. But maybe the Magic know something we don’t. They’re the ones presumably watching Fultz progress right now while the rest of the basketball world sits in “wait and see” mode. This option pickup, in a relative sense, may not be a huge risk for the franchise (they already gave up a first- and second-rounder for Fultz, after all), but it’s a notable amount of money that sends a message to the rest of the league and to Fultz himself: Orlando believes in him. Fultz, meanwhile, took to Twitter after the news came out and wrote one of his first tweets since a long layoff:

One of Fultz’s latest retweets is highlight mix of his best plays at Washington. It’s been three years since his lone college season, but it feels like centuries ago.