Before Markelle Fultz was the first pick in the 2017 NBA draft, months before, I happened to catch him in a game and was at first intrigued. Fultz’s Washington team was miserable and he was the best thing on it. I had not seen him play before that night but heard the James Harden 2.0 hype which I dismissed; elite players are rare. Nevertheless, I tuned in and in the first half he was making threes and dishing and finishing at the rim. He put on a show. Then the second half started. Double teams were thrown at him, the ball was taken out his hands, he missed a lot of shots. He turned into someone else entirely in the face of aggression and intensity. He became passive and beleaguered, dialing his intensity and heart way back. His body language bothered me.
Washington wasn’t supposed to win but Fultz was supposed to try- at the very least- to save them. To leave everything on the floor. That’s not what happened. Fultz played the rest of the game resigned. He gave in to the inevitable one guy can’t win a game by himself- Fultz’s teammates were average. More troubling was he hung his head and his shoulders slumped and he looked teary because he couldn’t deal with the sudden adversity. He couldn’t rise above it. Once he got hit in the mouth, once he was asked to make an adjustment to his game, he just couldn’t. I walked away thinking he had a lot of talent but he was fragile. He could be shook.
Now here we are twenty months later and more than his psyche is fragile as evidenced by the double pump free throw he attempted as a way to work through his shoulder and his shot. It was laughable, I suppose, but in a real way it was sad. He was a number one pick resorting to desperation. His shoulder has never been right. Or, it has and he is struggling through the mental pressure.
Add another soap opera layer: Elton Brand and company had no idea Fultz was going to get help for the shoulder and shut his game down until his agent told the media. Not a good sign for everyone being on the same page and working as a unit. The agent was unprofessional but- and this is the elephant in the room- there is more to this story.
That the Sixers are evaluating their long term Fultz plans isn’t shocking. When the Sixers heavily pursued Jimmy Butler to form a Big Three, it felt as if they were quietly but stubbornly pushing Markelle Fultz to the back of the line.
The Sixers began this year by starting Fultz in the first half, if only to help his confidence, a curious strategy because at this level if the team has to give you confidence, somewhere down the line something is broken.
In the early stages of his career, Fultz doesn’t look much like James Harden. He is a willing passer and understands the right play but everything that has to do with his shot is a mess.
His specialty, the three ball, is 28%. He has connected on 29% of his jumphsots. His best quarter as far as production is the quarter he wasn’t a starter, the third. He made 50% of his shots.
How does that jibe with Lonzo Ball who is no one’s Steph Curry? Ball is making 35% of his threes and 31% of his jumps shots. Ball struggled with injuries his rookie year like Fultz. So what is the difference? Is it as simple as in Ball’s second year, he has LeBron James as a mentor and Fultz shoulder is still gimpy? Or is this story far more complicated than we have been told?
When Fultz was being scouted the experts said this about him:
Fultz is a franchise lead guard, future All-Star and player any organization can build around. He’s best utilized on the ball with shooting around him, as he’s a tremendous pick and roll player who can score and facilitate with creativity. He’s no slouch off the ball either. He’s a versatile, plug and play lead guard with start potential who is easy to build around or fit into a current roster. (Draft Express)
The Sixers, and Elton Brand specifically, are contemplating ending the Markelle Fultz experiment. Closing the chapter means accepting their F grade in the trade that saw Danny Ainge hand over Fultz to grab Jayson Tatum. Trading Fultz is a quick way to deal with the saga that has dragged on far too long and is a distraction for everyone. At the very least, the relationship needs repair, if Philly is interested (which they probably are not since Fultz’s agent disrespected them.)
But what about the rest of the league? It’s capitalistic economics that when someone suffers there is someone else waiting to profit from it. Isn’t this an opportunity to revitalize the Fultz career? Or is Fultz damaged goods to the point where any team who would take on a broken player who probably needs a psychologist is ruining their cap.
Teams who take on financial gambles have to live with the consequences. Fultz is on the hook for one more season before a team option. He is due $18 million, this year and next. A second round pick is the cautious move considering everything a team is going to have to invest in Fultz to get him up to NBA speed. He needs to be away from the limelight and in a city like Sacramento or Utah or Atlanta. Then a stint in the G-League to get his confidence where it needs to be and that still may not be enough.
Markelle Fultz wasn’t ready for the NBA, we know that now. He wasn’t ready for everything that he had to carry being the number one pick for a team desperate to move out of their lottery past and into their playoff future, a team with history. Markelle Fultz’s body definitely wasn’t ready for the grind of a NBA season, the physicality of hits at the rim and plain cheap shots. He wasn’t ready for the criticism on social media platforms and cable sports shows and blogs and outside Starbucks to be so deafening loud. No one along the way bothered to notice Markelle Fultz is not Andrew Wiggins. There is something fragile about him.
In a perfect world, the NBA and the Sixers would wait on Markelle Fultz. But the NBA eats their young and frankly, they don’t much care about the consequences. Or fragile.