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Watching Philadelphia 76ers lottery picks prepare for their rookie seasons has been like quivering in fear when the teenager in a slasher flick goes upstairs to investigate a loud thud. Joel Embiid and his new $148 million extension is the main character who survives with wounds that would have felled a normal man. Ben Simmons is the cocky jock who is sure he’s safe, only to get slashed in the second act.
Rookie point guard Markelle Fultz was thought to be the only protagonist innocent enough to make it through his regular-season debut unscathed. Cue the jump scare.
Interesting how dramatically different Markelle Fultz's FT stroke looks here compared to @ UW (65%). Has lowered release point considerably. pic.twitter.com/6REIFX0qtR
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) September 28, 2017
ESPN’s Mike Schmitz first brought Fultz’s altered release point to everyone’s attention in Sixers training camp. Then, during a Sixers scrimmage, Philly.com columnist David Murphy sounded the alarms after noticing Jerryd Bayless was playing prevent defense on Fultz, who was reluctant to take wide-open shots.
If Sixers fans weren’t worried before, the blood-curdling screams are about to begin.
So far in the preseason, Fultz has been an abomination offensively, shooting 29 percent from the field. Fultz hasn’t made a 3-pointer and his free-throw percentage is submarining at 40 percent. We knew Fultz needed to work on his free-throw shooting because he shot 65 percent from the line in college. However, he was a 40 percent shooter from the college 3-point line and averaged 23 points per game.
After video of Fultz’s shooting motion went viral on Monday night, the jig was up. The Sixers point guard opened up to The Ringer about his shoulder pain, stirring fear into the heart of every Sixers fan who’s endured the past four seasons.
Fultz has been dealing with soreness in his right shoulder, which caused him to miss Friday’s preseason game, but he “can’t recall” when he first felt the pain. After Monday’s game against the Celtics, he said the shoulder has been hurting “on and off.” “I talk to trainers when it bothers me, and they get right to it and start working on it,” Fultz said. “When it’s not, I’m happy. Either way, I’m happy and I just go out and play.”
After Fultz left the locker room, I asked him if the shoulder issue motivated him to revise his free-throw mechanics, to minimize the pain he feels when he raises his arm. Fultz said, “Yeah, for the most part. I’m just trying other things to make free throws. At the end of the day, that’s not an excuse for me. I’m just out there hooping.”
To make matters worse, head coach Brett Brown reinforced the concern over Fultz’s “sore” shoulder.
“I think [his shoulder] is affecting him more than he lets on. You can tell with his free throw, trying to get that ball up. It’s far out from his body. He’s been working on trying to get that thing rehabilitated,” Brown said. “And the lack of the quantity of his 3-point shooting may be a sign that it’s hurting a little more than he’s letting on.”
The deeper into “The Process” we embark, the higher the stakes become and the more the city of Philadelphia gets attached. The Sixers aren’t tanking anymore, the time left on their numerous rookie contracts is running out and their cache of lottery picks is dwindling. Maybe this is all much ado about nothing and Philly fans will be laughing about it in a few months. Or maybe this is the basketball gods displaying their displeasure for tanking.
Either way, the Colangelos, Brown and ownership are out of excuses. The playoffs might be a reasonable expectation in the depleted Eastern Conference, but even that is an issue given Fultz’s fractured jump shot, Embiid’s fragile state and Simmons being unable to hit anything outside of the paint in a league where floor spacers are mandatory. It wouldn’t be Sixers basketball without another potential injury obstacle to hurdle, and seemingly no one is safe.
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