The 76ers need to find the real Markelle Fultz before it's too late

Markelle Fultz elevates, then thinks about what he’s doing. (AP)
Markelle Fultz elevates, then thinks about what he’s doing. (AP)

Four games is not a significant sample. Four games is not a significant sample. Four games is not a significant sample. Four games is not a sig-

Something’s wrong with Markelle Fultz.

I’m not advocating panic, or even necessarily suggesting you adjust your pre-draft or preseason expectations for what he can be. But the player who’s been wearing No. 20 for the Philadelphia 76ers through their first four games is not the same guy they drafted No. 1 overall in June — and until he is made whole, Philadelphia remains similarly incomplete, impossible to evaluate or project.

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This is not a case of a player being unprepared for the speed and size of the NBA, or struggling to adjust to a new role after being “the man” for so long. Fultz, a dangerous and frequent marksman across high school, college and international showcases, has thus far been unwilling to even entertain the idea of actually shooting the ball. He’s attempted only 27 field goals in 76 pro minutes, all coming within 14 feet of the rim:

Markelle Fultz’s shot chart through his first four NBA games. (Cleaning the Glass)
Markelle Fultz’s shot chart through his first four NBA games. (Cleaning the Glass)

A 19-year-old point guard’s shot chart is not supposed to look like that. Hell, in 2017, a center’s shot chart isn’t supposed to look like that.

For the sake of comparison, here are the 750 most recent field goal attempts by Orlando Magic center Bismack Biyombo, a very large man who cannot hold the ball more than six feet from the basket without losing all motor control:

A shot chart covering Bismack Biyombo’s last 750 shot attempts. (Cleaning the Glass)
A shot chart covering Bismack Biyombo’s last 750 shot attempts. (Cleaning the Glass)

Biyombo posted an offensive box plus-minus (an estimate of how many more points per 100 possessions a player contributed than a league-average replacement would have) of -4.2 last season, according to; by that reckoning, no one in the NBA who played at least 1,700 minutes proved as much of a drain on his team’s offense. Yet even he flashes more range, and extends the defense further along the baseline and toward the top of the key, than a 6-foot-4 point guard who took five triples a game at Washington last season, hitting them at a healthy 41.3 percent clip.

It’s looking overwhelmingly likely that Fultz physically can’t shoot from any distance right now. He has famously altered his free throw form from this …

… to this:

… while he and Sixers coach Brett Brown send mixed signals about the extent of his preseason shoulder injury. I’m no doctor, but it seems like if Fultz can’t flex his shoulder enough to create a shooting pocket, or to raise his release point and follow-through above his head, then there’s something wrong.

If there’s some sort of lingering injury that’s hindering Fultz’s range of motion — one that renders him unable to hurt defenses, and could spur the development of bad habits and tendencies so early in his career — then it serves neither player nor team to send him out there. Fix the structural damage, rest him, and get him back to the player who can take and make pull-up threes with reckless abandon:

The other explanation: maybe it’s the yips, a psychological steamshovel entrenching Fultz deeper and deeper into a broken stroke. As CBS Sports’ Matt Moore noted, his form wasn’t great before. It’s plausible that he was working on his shot anyway, kept trying to make adjustments for comfort as he hurt his shoulder, and now is too far inside his own head to just go back to what worked before.

“It’s something I’ve been working on to get through this,” Fultz told reporters after the Sixers’ home opener last Friday.

Whether it’s a physical or a mental barricade, Fultz won’t be able to help Philadelphia until he’s fixed what ails him, because the issues affect so much more than his free-throw percentage.

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When defenders know Fultz isn’t going to shoot, his driving, finishing and even passing become severely compromised. What NBA defender is going to fight over a screen, or switch into an unfavorable matchup, or guard him aggressively out to the arc if there’s no risk of giving up three points? Young guards need to earn their gravity, and even a great screener like Amir Johnson isn’t going to be able to create driving lanes if Fultz won’t make defenses worry about the space he opens.

Even when he’s able to maneuver himself into shooting position, Fultz is unable to generate clean looks against all of the defenders packed into the paint. He’s a smooth, fluid athlete, yet he’s hit less than half of his attempts at the rim (6-for-13), missing four layups in a tight loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday. Over 76 minutes across four games, he’s had six shots blocked, connected only twice from outside of the paint, and finished on just one of eight floaters. That’s not good enough, and things won’t get any easier until he can show he’s willing to take, and capable of making, shots from beyond the shadow of the basket.

The Sixers did notch their first win of the season on Monday in Detroit, with both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons looking like they belong in their starring roles. Fultz — who should be the third head of this youthful hydra — again looked lost, finishing 1-for-4 from the field with three turnovers, including two brutal traveling violations early in the fourth as the Pistons were closing the gap. His only made bucket came on a three-foot layup. A wide-open 12-foot baseline jumper stands alone as the most audacious attempt of his night. He missed it.

Fultz gets another crack on Wednesday evening, at home against a Houston Rockets team that’s allowing opponents to shoot 41.7 percent from downtown through four games. And even within the early-season struggles, he’s shown flashes of playmaking that inspire hope he’ll be able to contribute.

“As I said to Markelle, this is not going to define you,” Brown said before the win in Detroit. “This first season is not going to define you. We are going to focus on all the other things that will define you.”

I’m still optimistic. But the clock is ticking.

Shot charts via Ben Falk’s terrific site Cleaning The Glass.

Ben Goldberg-Morse learned to love basketball growing up alongside the Iverson era in Philly, and has written for The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal and Follow him on Twitter @BGoldbergMorse.

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