Markelle Fultz’s NBA debut against the Washington Wizards on Wednesday evening will serve as an inauspicious homecoming of sorts for the D.C. native. After a preseason spent battling a mysterious shoulder issue that altered his shooting mechanics before a knee injury cost him two more exhibition games, the No. 1 overall pick will begin his rookie season on the bench for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Brett Brown on Markelle Fultz: pic.twitter.com/j23edCCVdO
— Jessica Camerato (@JCameratoNBCS) October 15, 2017
The Sixers and Celtics swapped top-three picks this past June, presumably because Boston already had top-five MVP candidate Isaiah Thomas at point guard and less depth on the wings. Philadelphia was in need of an upgrade at the position, even if Ben Simmons will serve as the team’s de facto floor general, but Fultz will reportedly begin the year as an understudy to starting guard Jerryd Bayless.
In a twist of fate, the Celtics drafted Jayson Tatum with the third overall pick, and he earned a starting spot in Boston’s lineup. The two Atlantic Division rivals will face each other on Friday night.
After averaging 23.2 points on 47 percent shooting (including 41 percent beyond the arc) during his freshman season at Washington, Fultz’s long-range shooting efficiency was supposed to space the floor for Philadelphia. However, following a preseason worthy of an American Horror Story installment, shooting appears to be the component of Fultz’s game under the most scrutiny.
In the long run, it may not mean much. Fultz spent much of the offseason recovering from mysterious shoulder pain. Tossing him into the fire against Washington’s backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal after missing so much time during the preseason with various ailments would be unwise.
In his stead, Philadelphia will start Simmons at point guard. Bayless, who missed 79 games last season after the Sixers elected go the non-surgical route in treating his minor left wrist injury, will start at shooting guard. Foreboding parallels aside, all indications are that Fultz will regain full strength.
Given Philadelphia’s lottery luck since 2013, Fultz won’t be the be the only highly touted pick on the second unit. He’ll likely be playing alongside Rookie of the Year runner-up Dario Saric as well as Jahlil Okafor, Justin Anderson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Furkan Korkmaz.
Recent No. 1 pick point guards have played to mix results in their regular-season premieres. Wall posted a near double-double in his own debut seven years ago, and Kyrie Irving scored seven points in a frustrating first start. Irving’s underwhelming start offers hope he will still live up to the hype.
The burden will be lighter on Fultz, who is surrounded by a slew of Process trustees. How he develops in the long term is what’s important. In the short term, keep an eye on how how quickly his opening-night minutes are distributed and how quickly he works his way into the starting lineup this season.
Philadelphia will have to be a little more patient to get a glimpse of how Fultz stacks up in the regular season, but after waiting a full year for Simmons and Nerlens Noel and two whole years for Saric and Joel Embiid, delaying Fultz’s debut by a few minutes shouldn’t cause too much of an uproar.