Philadelphia 76ers guard Markelle Fultz will make a stunning return to the court on Monday after missing almost the entirety of his rookie season with a mysterious shoulder injury.
Sixers coach Brett Brown, out of nowhere, announced prior to Monday’s game against the Denver Nuggets that Fultz would be active and come off the bench as Ben Simmons’ backup.
Brown says the minutes for Fultz will almost exclusively be Ben’s backup minutes to start, which he won’t put an exact number on. Estimate in the 15 minute range
— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) March 26, 2018
Fultz’s shoulder – and his shooting mechanics and confidence – have improved in recent weeks, and Brown had said Fultz’s return date was, at least in part, Fultz’s decision. Brown confirmed Monday that Fultz had decided he was ready.
— Marc Narducci (@sjnard) March 26, 2018
Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo also spoke to media before Monday’s game, and said the team would use the 10-game sample between now and the end of the regular season to determine whether Fultz can be a key contributor during the playoffs.
The No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft played four games at the beginning of his first NBA season before being shut down with what the team initially called “scapular muscle imbalance and soreness in his right shoulder.”
His indefinite absence turned into a long, drawn-out saga replete with drama and concern. Colangelo confirmed on Monday that the cause of the injury remains unknown. The Sixers cleared Fultz to “begin the final stage of his return-to-play program” in early January. Meanwhile, however, his jump shot appeared to be broken.
“It’s not where it used to be,” Brown said back in January. “It’s not where it used to be. His free throw I think is, but some of the longer shots and the rise-ups are not, and that’s just part of him getting through this progressive adjustment, trying to figure out the injury going forward.”
Videos of his shot confirmed Brown’s words. Fultz’s pregame and pre-practice shooting workouts, when caught on camera, would send Sixers fans into a collective panic.
Many assumed, therefore, that Fultz would not return until the 2018-19 season – especially as the Sixers rolled toward the playoffs with an improved bench, and without a glaring need for their top pick.
But, as Brown said Monday, Fultz is “different than anything we have.” He’ll give the Sixers a new dimension that nobody else on the roster can, especially off the bench.
“I’ve been giving him the ball [in practice], he’s getting up and down the floor, he’s elite in the open court,” Brown said Monday.
There will, of course, be tempered expectations, especially with just 10 games to go before the playoffs. Brown said he expects Fultz to need some time to get up to speed defensively. “Chasing those guards around in NBA movement and speed and sets, that’s going to be a foreign experience for him,” the fourth-year head coach said.
Fultz’s performance, and particularly his jump shots, in his first few games back will be scrutinized as much anything else in the NBA. The saga, therefore, isn’t quite over.
But it will be huge relief for all involved – including, more than anybody, Fultz himself – to see the rookie back in a competitive basketball game. Joel Embiid celebrated the news on Twitter with a fantastically apt GIF:
The Sixers and Nuggets tip off at 7 p.m. ET on NBATV.
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