It’s 2019, in Dallas, and the fingerprints of the journey that the Philadelphia 76ers have been on are inescapable. It’s a November game between two teams that face each other twice a year and have little connection to each other. And yet, here is Markelle Fultz warming up, working on his jump shot and three. 

It seems a distant memory since Fultz was occupying the minds and hopes of the Philadelphia fan base. His struggles with health, mental or physical, were a constant distraction for a Sixers team that was seeing its window for contention open, perhaps sooner than anyone expected. As Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons began to consistently dominate, the planned third member of an organic Big 3 was struggling. 

Fultz is now starting for an Orlando team that has seemed just a point guard away from being a solid playoff team. And after a slow 2-5 start to their season, he has moved into the starting lineup. When asked about what it means to be starting, Fultz said, “It’s not the end of the world, it’s not like the best thing ever, but it definitely shows you the trust.” 

Trust is the operative word. The Magic took a leap of faith in trading for Fultz last winter. They knew that in a market that is difficult to attract talent via free agency and with a roster loaded with talented bigs, Fultz was worth the risk. It didn’t cost them much, as Philadelphia needed to move on and focus on a playoff run.

Philly Turns the Page

The conventional wisdom was that Philadelphia was too much of a pressure cooker for Fultz. The Jimmy Butler trade amplified the pressure in a city that had patiently endured an unprecedented rebuild. The delayed gratification of Philadelphia had, at points, reached cult level devotion by parts of the fan base. Fultz was the theoretical perfect fit.

But once the team traded Robert Covington and Dario Saric for Butler, the writing on the wall was clear. The team had pushed its chips into the middle of the table and declared a readiness to win now. At the trade deadline Elton Brand parted with Fultz, still just 20 at the time, and Landry Shamet, a very promising rookie. There was no more waiting.

But for Fultz, a change of scenery did not translate into a sudden pressure release valve. There was no sigh of relief and return to the form he displayed in Washington. The team had fatigued of the swirling questions and was ready to focus on their immediate future.

Fultz Begins a New Chapter

“If I’m aggressive, it makes people have to guard me, and then that opens up everything for my teammates.”

So Fultz moved on from one team where he was that perfect theoretical fit to another team which needs exactly what he could provide. Steve Clifford said, “It gives our lineup more balance,” when talking about moving Fultz to the starting lineup. But that balance comes only if Markelle is able to return to form as an offensive threat at three levels.

As reported by the Orlando Pinstripe Post, “I think that once we find out where the defense is going to be and swing it, it will open up drive opportunities, open shots, catch-and-shoot threes, and stuff like that,” Fultz said. “But for me, it’s more so about being aggressive. If I’m aggressive, it makes people have to guard me, and then that opens up everything for my teammates.”

Added Clifford, “He can get the ball into the paint against anybody in any scheme. So he’s very dangerous in those situations.”

But to do that, he has to be able to get into a rhythm and let it fly from any spot on the floor without a second guess.

Early Returns

So far this season, the results have been mixed. He is scoring 10.1 points per game in 23 minutes per contest. His per-36 and advanced numbers, however, are encouraging. He is averaging over 15 points per 36 minutes and has a True Shooting of 53% which is far above his 45% TS a year ago. 

His assist rate is 26%, a significant improvement from last season as well. He is also shooting nearly 78% from the line.

HOWEVER: I have made it this long before mentioning the three point percentage, which would be criminal to leave out. Fultz is shooting just 22% from three, but is attempting 5.5 per 100 possessions. While the results are not there, the debilitating unwillingness to attempt the shots appears to be gone. At least for the moment, that is.

The thing with Fultz is he has a childlike awkwardness to his game. He plays almost spastically and in varying speeds. He is not slow, but can play slow. He is not especially fast but has some closing speed. It all makes for a soup of unpredictability. That unpredictability made for a recipe that Philadelphia could no longer stomach. In Orlando, however, they are hoping that if they can just let him simmer long enough, the ingredients will finally come together to make a perfect point guard dish.