The NBA Draft is one of the more fickle mistresses in professional sports. The unpredictability of a given player’s impact makes every selection risky, no matter how much of a sure thing it may appear to be. There are a myriad of factors that could result in a young talent never quite living up to their potential, such as injuries, pressure, never adapting to the NBA style, or just not being as good as everyone originally thought.
To this point, all of these factors seemed to have had a hand in the short career of 2017 #1 overall pick Markelle Fultz. In the months leading up to June 22, 2017, Fultz emerged as the clear favorite to become the top selection. Putting up 23 points a game at the University of Washington and being seemingly the perfect model for a modern Point Guard, he stood out in a class where the other top prospects all had major questions surrounding their game. He landed in Philadelphia after the 76ers acquired the top pick from the Boston Celtics several days before the draft, and it appeared the dynamic sharpshooter would fit like a glove alongside Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid.
However, Fultz debuted with a host of issues that significantly diminished the hype surrounding his rookie year. He played in the first 4 games of the season, but it was clear something was wrong. His shot form had changed completely, and he put up just 24 points on 9/27 shooting in the 4 contests combined.
Quickly, news came out regarding just what was the matter with the Sixers guard. He experimented with changing his shooting mechanics, and this brought on soreness in his right shoulder. The new form clearly didn’t work, and the injury caused the top pick to play limited minutes. Eventually, it was diagnosed as right shoulder soreness and scapular muscle imbalance. Fultz would not step on an NBA court again until March, where he played minimal minutes in Philly’s final 10 regular season games. He once again played sparingly in the first 3 games of the playoffs. His shot was still not the same and at one point he claimed it had been tough “just trying to relearn it,” when referring to his jumper.
Although he started several games for the 76ers at the beginning of the 2019 season, Fultz’s form was still unorthodox and dysfunctional. His FG% stood at an abysmal 39.3 through his first 11 games, and there was an ongoing dispute between coach Brett Brown and Fultz’s trainer as to whether or not he was healthy. On November 21st, reports surfaced saying that not only was Fultz’s shoulder hindering his shooting, but his right wrist is also a source of pain, and a shoulder specialist later diagnosed his original issue as neurogenic thoracic syndrome, a nerve disorder affecting the neck and shoulder. He was scheduled to miss 3-6 weeks rehabbing and return to his team, but he never suited up for the Sixers again. He was shipped to Orlando at the trade deadline, marking a “fresh start,” for the youngster and an end to his catastrophic stint with Philadelphia.
However, now in the summer of 2019, Fultz has not played since. He’s still being plagued by the same shoulder and wrist issues that keep him off the court in Philly, and the Magic reportedly have no timetable for a potential return.
The mystery surrounding Fultz’s shot is especially interesting in the era of social media and a constant stream of information. For months there was no clear answer as to what exactly was even wrong with him, what caused it, or when he could play again. Some have brought up confidence struggles as a potential sore spot, and that Fultz having “the yips,” may have caused him to change his shot. Misinformation was commonplace throughout the entire saga, however, it finally seems like the former No. 1 pick is on the road to normalcy.
There may not be an exact date for his return, but representatives within the Magic organization seem optimistic. General Manager John Hammond said commented “I can just say he’s doing well. […] He’s working extremely hard. He’s in good shape. His weight is good. […] So it’s just a matter of him continuing to get more comfortable, continuing to get himself in a position where he’s ready to step on the floor and help us.”
Star Magic forward Aaron Gordon shared a similar level of positivity, saying, “Markelle is a sleeper… if he wakes up… he’s a monster.”
Unfortunately, both statements share a similar sense of ambiguity. No one really knows when we could see Fultz play for Orlando, and if the version of him they debut will be closer to his college self or his injury-plagued 76ers self. The most encouraging takeaway from Hammond’s comments is that he and the rest of Orlando’s organization seem to be willing to wait for Fultz to be completely ready-to-go. Instead of rushing him onto the court before he’s physically ready, they’re committed to helping him revert to the player he was before he ever tinkered with his jump shot. Amway Center seems like an ideal home for the young floor general, as they’re good enough to not desperately need Fultz, but have enough of an opening at the Point Guard position that his presence would be welcomed.
Despite his jumper limiting his scoring and his shoulder keeping him off the floor, there is reason to be excited about the other facets of Fultz’s game. In 2018, he became the youngest player to ever record a triple-double. In 2019, Per 36 Minutes, he averaged 13 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 5 APG and even 1.4 SPG in the 19 games he played for the 76ers in 2019. That type of production is solid and would be a huge help to the young talent in Orlando. If he develops a functional jumpshot and gets to a physical standpoint where he can play consistent minutes, Fultz could be a very solid contributor for the Magic even if his shoulder never fully recovers.
It’s impossible to know what to expect from Markelle Fultz at this point. With no timeline for a potential Magic debut, we don’t really know if he’ll ever be able to recover from the nagging issues up and down his right arm. If he does, the rest of the NBA should be concerned. After all, he’s only 21 years old. There’s still plenty of time for him to adjust to the NBA talent level and become better than anyone ever expected him to be. Even if he doesn’t make a full physical comeback, Fultz’s nightmarish rookie and sophomore campaigns have still provided reason to be hopeful. If he’s able to bear the physical burden of consistent NBA playing time, Fultz may develop into one of basketball’s most dangerous all-around Point Guards.
No matter what happens, Fultz’s basketball career is far from over. Physical and mental struggles have held him back to this point, but it’s foolish to write off a 21-year old who was on top of the basketball world just 2 summers ago.