Markelle Fultz's jumper is 'not where it used to be,' and he might be unplayable until it is

Markelle Fultz has been back at practice in January, but his jump-shot is still a major cause for concern. (Getty)
Markelle Fultz has been back at practice in January, but his jump-shot is still a major cause for concern. (Getty)

Exactly one year ago Sunday, Markelle Fultz scored 34 points on 23 shots at the University of Washington. He shot 10 3-pointers, and made four. He shot seven free throws, and made six.

A year later, at the Philadelphia 76ers’ practice facility, he shot an air ball and a brick that scared the heck out of an entire Process-Trusting fan base:

Fultz, if you’re just getting caught up, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, in part because he projected as a dominant offensive guard who could play either on or off the ball. He played in four regular season games before the Sixers shut him down due to shoulder soreness and “scapular muscle imbalance.”

The injury sounded scarier than it reportedly was. But Fultz has not played since. He has apparently progressed. In early January, the Sixers cleared him to “begin the final stage of his return-to-play program,” which featured a “gradual re-integration into team practices.”

But in a way, the progress is the most worrying part. Because despite it, Fultz’s shot looks as broken as ever.

“How would I assess where his shot is currently at?” Sixers coach Brett Brown asked rhetorically on Sunday. “It’s not where it used to be. 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.”

Wait, but wasn’t the injury completely healed?

That’s what Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo said over a month ago. “The soreness is completely gone,” he told reporters on Dec. 7. “The muscle imbalance is completely gone.” Two days later, the team issued an official update saying the soreness was gone and the imbalance “resolved.”

And yet the hitch in Fultz’s shot is very much not completely gone. It is very much not resolved.

Fultz has been working on it during the portion of practice open to media over the past two weeks. Interestingly, on Jan. 2, a pull-up 12-footer looked more or less normal:

Three days later, his free throws looked … fine?

And, from afar, his jumper looked … decent?

But prior to the Sixers’ game against the Boston Celtics in London on Thursday, video of Fultz’s pregame workout raised eyebrows.

Three days after that, and a few feet farther away from the basket, it seemed pretty clear the hitch had returned:

To be fair, his 15-footers and free throws still look OK:

But the most worrying aspect of Sunday’s videos is the comments that accompanied them. Brown seemed to backtrack on the team’s December statement that the problems were completely resolved.

“I don’t know if we could say it’s 100 percent,” he told reporters. “The doctors could say that better than me, but it certainly is getting better … I believe there is still discomfort, but I don’t know the percentage of recovery on the shoulder.”

And then when asked whether Fultz had to get to 100 percent to see the court in a game, Brown said, “I think what he needs to be is able to shoot a basketball.”

What exactly does that mean? We won’t know until Brown and the Sixers medical staff deem Fultz’s progress sufficient. Because he can shoot. He is shooting 3-pointers in practice. He can get the ball on the rim from 23 feet.

But he doesn’t look capable of putting it through the hoop with any consistency. And he clearly doesn’t look comfortable trying. Until he can, and until he does, he clearly can’t play. His presence wouldn’t benefit the Sixers. And his likely struggles – or the confinement of his offensive game to drives and cuts – wouldn’t benefit him.

It’s too early to panic about Fultz’s long-term potential. It’s too early to label him a bust. Perhaps he simply needs to rebuild the shoulder’s strength. Perhaps there are still ups and downs in his rehab that affect the mechanics.

But if it wasn’t already time to worry, it almost certainly is by now. And Sixers fans, unfortunately, know how to do that all too well.