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PHILADELPHIA – Markelle Fultz isn’t right. That was obvious to anyone who saw him do anything at the University of Washington. His shooting form was suddenly bizarre. His effect on the game, non-existent. Those who knew him best knew Fultz was at his worst. Fultz acknowledged that he had a shoulder injury but wouldn’t make any excuses. Every time teammate Joel Embiid would ask how he’s doing, Fultz would respond as if he’d rather not discuss it: “I’m good. I’m good. I’m good.”
Fultz was in denial, trying to convince himself that he was OK and could fight through whatever ailed him. But his every move, every jump shot he avoided or every grimace-inducing free throw was followed by more doubt and consternation. What was up with that bizarre hitch? Why was he releasing the ball so much differently than he had in college or high school? Was it the yips? The pressure of being the No. 1 overall pick? Had to be his shoulder. Could it be his head? Every time he stepped on the floor, Fultz opened himself up to more scrutiny and speculation. The answers only led to more questions.
Then on Tuesday, Fultz’s agent made it clear: It’s the shoulder. A day later, the Philadelphia 76ers decided to pump the brakes on a situation that was spiraling out of control. They shut down Fultz for at least three games, giving the rookie whom they moved up two spots to draft last June some time to get his mind and body right.
If any organization should understand the importance of getting out ahead of a potentially problematic situation, it’s the 76ers. They’ve had trouble in the past with transparency in the way they’ve handled the health problems of previous first-round picks. They had no problem sitting Nerlens Noel, Embiid and Ben Simmons when they weren’t healthy. Whether they took the correct strategy with those players was debatable – especially when those absences aided in tanking efforts. But there was an established precedent, even if the plan was primarily executed by the previous regime. Philadelphia fans would’ve been disappointed if Fultz had started the season on the shelf, but the option general manager Bryan Colangelo chose left them disturbed.
Philadelphia turned a manageable situation into an undesirable one by its insistence on putting Fultz on the floor when he clearly shouldn’t have been playing. The 76ers didn’t do anyone any favors by exposing Fultz, and all parties involved look bad in the process. And, when it comes to The Process, Fultz’s progress is as essential to the franchise flourishing as Embiid’s and Simmons’. Fultz – and to a lesser extent, Philadelphia brass – has to hope that a bum shoulder, and the complications of playing and shooting with it, really are to blame for his disconcerting start. Fultz won’t be able to hide for long if it isn’t. The truth will eventually be revealed, either through some drastically improved play once he’s healed or a discouraging continuation of his confounding play.
Something clearly went awry between Kevin Durant praising Fultz for his “hesi pull-up jimbo” during summer league to his arrival at training camp. But Colangelo was adamant that there was “no structural damage” in Fultz’s shoulder, implying that the complications were the result of him changing his shooting stroke last summer. Fultz’s camp counters that the shot was altered because of the shoulder, creating a public back and forth that seemed unnecessary. Fultz tried to play despite the injury, believing that he could help the team, but he needed to be protected from himself. Having to address constant inquiries about his shot and struggling to dominate against second-unit players couldn’t have done much for his confidence.
The 76ers shouldn’t have needed two preseason games or six regular-season games or even a vocal agent to recognize that Fultz had a problem that wasn’t going to be solved by continuing this saga, with him coming off the bench in four- or five-minute bursts. Other No. 1 picks have been asked to play reserve roles, but joining the company of Kwame Brown, Anthony Bennett and Andrea Bargnani is not ideal. Fultz wasn’t drafted to be a project. He was a consensus to go first in a draft class that is expected to be among the best and deepest in more than decade. The 76ers certainly wouldn’t have sacrificed a coveted pick in next year’s draft to select someone whom they planned to bring along slowly.
Fultz was the rare top pick to avoid much of the national spotlight. He wasn’t some overhyped high school prospect. He chose to play for an unheralded college program instead of an established blue blood. So this is the first time he has had to endure an unyielding glare of attention. He has joined a franchise on the verge of a breakthrough after several years of blatant tanking.
The Process – as this period in darkness was dubbed and a nickname Embiid adapted – has begun processing but isn’t fully developed. Simmons, who missed all of last season with a foot injury after going first overall, appears to be better than advertised. A facilitating giant who plays fast but under control, he is a double-double machine and the early frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. Embiid was limited to just 31 games in his long-delayed debut last season but had a more impactful performance than any rookie last season. The 76ers rewarded him with a highly protected $148 million max extension because his upside is so enormous.
Fultz is not the reason that the arena is suddenly selling out; the No. 21 and No. 25 jerseys on hand to have their hearts broken by Eric Gordon’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer in Wednesday’s 105-104 loss to the Houston Rockets offered a clue for the sources of the excitement. But Fultz was an intriguing – yet expected to be a closing – piece of an otherwise ghastly rebuilding project. And even if healthy, the adjustment was going to come with some complications. More of a scoring guard than a traditional point guard, Fultz was going to have to make a significant adjustment in Philadelphia. Unlike the other guards taken after him – Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr. – Fultz wasn’t going to have the ball in his hands. Simmons is introduced as the point guard and Embiid needs to get his fair share of touches. So Fultz was going to have to learn how to be effective while playing more off the ball.
Despite its youth and inexperience, Philadelphia is seeking a playoff berth in a beleaguered Eastern Conference. The 76ers certainly have playoff talent, but they still have to learn how to win. Patience is still required until the youngsters find their way. And they will have to wait even longer for the real Fultz to arrive.
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