Markelle Fultz’s bright, blood-red LeBrons streak down the court on a fast break late in the second quarter of Wednesday’s game between the Magic and the Lakers. There is only one thing standing between him and the basket: LeBron himself. Without hesitation, Fultz buries his left shoulder into James, and what is usually an impenetrable wall for most opponents actually moves back. Fultz springs LeBron out of bounds and finishes the layup. The sequence elicits a rare “Whooooa” from the Staples Center crowd, as if they’re afraid to react with admiration since it isn’t LeBron or Anthony Davis manufacturing this highlight.
“I definitely don’t think anybody expects that from me, the physicality part,” Fultz said afterward.
In the closing seconds of the fourth quarter, after having put JaVale McGee into a blender for a layup, Fultz goes at LeBron again. This time, he freezes James with a deceptive spin move, twisting his body the opposite direction and then toward the rim for an easy layup that seals the win and leaves LeBron raising both hands in disbelief. The crowd’s noise is now closer to groans of resignation.
When Fultz shifts into gear in the open floor, he jumps into a time machine that takes him back to his days at the University of Washington. Those college highlights, the ones that propelled him to be the no. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, come to life again. That version of Fultz disappeared as soon as he got to the NBA. A mysterious shoulder injury robbed him of his shot, limited him to only 33 regular-season games in his first two seasons, and led to a trade from Philadelphia to Orlando last year. But on Wednesday night, that Fultz—the one roundly mocked and labeled a bust—felt like a distant memory. Fultz, the Magic’s starting point guard, finished the game with 21 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists—his second career triple-double and arguably the best game of his career.
“Oooh boy, ooooh boy. That boy is nice,” Aaron Gordon said postgame. “He’s only gonna get better.”
After two long years, Fultz’s career has finally begun.
Before Fultz was dealt to the Magic at last year’s trade deadline, D.J. Augustin was already in touch with Fultz through text messages, often while Fultz was at his lowest points. Augustin has the same agent as Fultz, and when Fultz couldn’t get on the court for the 76ers, Augustin sent along messages of encouragement. He told him to stop listening to what other people were saying, and to focus on getting healthy. “You’ll get the opportunity to show everybody,” Augustin told him.
Fultz’s college coach, Lorenzo Romar, kept in touch, too. He saw that Fultz was already being considered a bust, and noticed how it took a toll on his former player.
“It was obviously very, very rough for him, there’s no doubt about that,” Romar said in a phone call. “You want to shout out to the world, ‘You don’t understand, this isn’t the real me! Hold on!’ but there’s nothing he could do about it but sit there and go through it.”
Romar says he could tell that Fultz was frustrated, at first, simply because he didn’t know what was wrong with him. Receiving an official diagnosis for his shoulder injury in December 2018—thoracic outlet syndrome—changed everything, Romar said. Knowledge was power—and motivation. Romar said Fultz was committed to rehabbing and getting back to the court. But the Sixers decided to trade him to the Magic for Jonathon Simmons, a first-round pick, and a second-round pick before he had a chance to come back.
Romar believes that Fultz would have succeeded in either environment, but he also says the fresh start with Orlando has helped. Fultz didn’t play at all for the Magic last season, but they still picked up the $12.3 million option for the 2020-21 season on Fultz’s rookie deal this offseason. “It was someone that believed in him, believed in him after the injury, and put him out there and gave him an opportunity,” Romar said.
Augustin couldn’t have foreseen that Fultz’s second chance would come as his teammate, but he welcomed it. In some ways it couldn’t have worked out any better. Augustin has never experienced the pressure of being the no. 1 pick, but after being selected ninth in the 2008 draft at just 20 years old, he quickly realized how expectations could affect his career.
“They only give you a few years to prove what you’re worth and if you don’t, they’re on to the next guy,” Augustin said. He’s imparted some of his wisdom to Fultz already, while also helping him improve on the court. The 21-year-old Fultz, in turn, has tried to get 32-year-old Augustin to bond with him by playing 2K. It’s a work in progress. “I’m too old for that,” says Augustin. “They be up all night playing that.”
The Magic as a whole have embraced Fultz. In turn, Fultz is playing with a confidence that Romar recognizes from his time at Washington, and regaining the rhythm and conditioning that excites Magic head coach Steve Clifford for what the future might hold. Fultz is averaging 11.7 points and 4.6 assists and shooting a respectable 45.5 percent from the field. But the numbers matter less than the fact that Fultz is back on the court.
“More than the results, more than the actual things he’s doing on the floor, it’s his swagger. That’s what he’s got back, too,” Romar said, pointing to the two plays against LeBron as well as how Fultz is moving around the court. “You can just see it, he’s getting his playground style back, and playing as if everything that happened in the past is in the past.”
Earlier on Wednesday morning, Fultz is going through a shooting routine to close out the Magic’s shootaround. As he hoists 3s and then free throws, assistant coach Bruce Kreutzer (who is credited for helping tweak Kemba Walker’s shot while in Charlotte) watches and provides feedback. Later, as Fultz goes through a similar routine pregame, Kreutzer watches from the baseline like a math professor assessing a pupil solving an equation on the board. Fultz’s form isn’t perfect—the motion still looks slightly off-kilter, beginning around Fultz’s waist and finishing above his head. It’s a long, slow journey, like a giraffe getting up from a crouched position. The whole process takes more than a full second.
Perhaps most encouragingly, no one is here, either at shootaround or pregame, for the explicit purpose of documenting Fultz’s shooting motion, as was the case in Philadelphia. Lakers VP of basketball ops Rob Pelinka may turn his head from the other end of the court to watch Fultz shoot free throws, but Fultz taking jump shots is no longer news.
“I think he’s improved a lot quicker than I envisioned,” Clifford said. “But it’s all a product of his work. He works naturally, he has a love for the game.”
The trade also lowered the bar. There was no rush to get on the court, no need to be a playoff contributor right away, and no expectation that he perform like the top pick in the draft. “They’ve just been really supportive,” Fultz said about the Magic. “And I can go to them with questions about anything.”
Orlando couldn’t erase the past, but it provided a blank canvas to begin anew. Fultz spent his summer working to get back on the court and honing the skills that had withered due to his time off. The physicality that Fultz showed when bodying LeBron is a product of the drills coaches conducted with Fultz in the offseason, when they used a pad that Fultz would crash into on his way to the rim.
“He has, to me, a combination of strength, agility, quickness, body control, that not many guys his size has,” Clifford said of the 6-foot-3, 200-pound point guard. Most importantly, Clifford pointed out, Fultz “wants the ball late.”
Magic center Mo Bamba also trained with Fultz in Orlando during the offseason. The two go back to their high school days, so the rapport came naturally and helped them develop a routine.
“Come in at 11, lift, eat, shoot, play, and just recover, pretty much every single day,” Bamba said. During this time, Bamba said Fultz kept saying he was going to have a bounce-back season and play even better than he did in college. “Knowing ‘Kelle, though, he still wants a lot more,” Bamba said.
Bamba’s presence, like Augustin’s, has helped create a nurturing environment for Fultz. Veteran center Nikola Vucevic said Fultz has been willing and eager to learn what every other player on the floor needs. With Vucevic, that means constant conversations about what to look for in pick-and-rolls, the nuances of when Vucevic pops or rolls, and where Vucevic likes to get the ball. Vucevic thought Fultz might need some time to get acclimated after not playing for so long, but he’s been surprised by the chemistry he and Fultz have built over the Magic’s first 42 games, in which the team is 20-22.
“Him coming here just gave him a fresh start and you could tell he was happy about it,” Vucevic said. “[Philly] was a tough situation. Sometimes you need a new beginning.”
After Fultz changes into street clothes and addresses the media Wednesday night, he walks out of the locker room with his game-worn Magic jersey in his hand, a memento of his career night. A team attendant hands him a transparent bag and Fultz places it inside for safekeeping. Someone else walks up and greets him: “I’m so happy for you.” Fultz relishes the fact that he’s proving those who called him a bust wrong, but he likes to focus on the appreciation.
“It’s big, it’s what I’ve dreamed of, what I work every day for, for these big moments,” Fultz said postgame. At shootaround, Fultz said LeBron was like a mentor to him, and that James had also reached out with support a couple of times. Fultz was asked after Orlando’s win if they had greeted each other after the buzzer sounded, and Fultz held back a smile; LeBron hadn’t stuck around to say hello. “I’m sure he’ll reach out.”
Waiting for him behind the double doors of the Staples Center tunnel are his family and friends, including his mom and Romar, who both envelop him in a hug. It’s picture time. The bag with the jersey gets tossed around as Fultz rotates his loved ones in and out for photos that will later find their way to Instagram. This is a memory that was supposed to happen long ago, but the delay doesn’t deter him from enjoying every second of it now.
“There’s a satisfaction coming just from being on the floor,” Fultz had said earlier that day. “It’s not really how I’m playing, it’s being able to be on the court and play healthy. I’m extremely happy and I don’t take it for granted.”
Once everyone’s taken a picture with Fultz, the bag makes its way back into his hands. As he walks toward the court to greet even more people, he holds the jersey in his shooting hand and doesn’t let it go.