NEW YORK — During Wednesday’s media session prior to the 2017 NBA draft, Markelle Fultz was asked how quickly he thought the Philadelphia 76ers could start winning. He didn’t hesitate.
“Winning? As soon as I get there,” he said. “That’s the goal. My goal is to always come in and win.”
There you have it, Philly fans. After four dark seasons, a brighter future starts now.
The 76ers made it official at Barclays Center on Thursday, using the first overall pick in 2017’s draft on Fultz, a 19-year-old thunderbolt out of the University of Washington by way of Maryland prep hoops power DeMatha Catholic, to become the 76ers’ point guard of the present and future.
“This is something I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid, just playing in the NBA, and playing for this organization is going to be great,” Fultz said Thursday night. “It’s close to home.”
Fultz had long been projected by most draftniks as the likely top choice in this year’s class, but most — including Fultz himself — figured it would be the Boston Celtics making the selection. Instead, the Saturday before the draft, Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo made Celtics president Danny Ainge an offer he couldn’t refuse — 2017’s No. 3 pick, plus another protected but likely high first-rounder in either 2018 or 2019 — to move up two spots and ensure an unimpeded path to the 6-foot-4-inch, 195-pound point guard.
“We’re getting the player we want. They’re getting the player they want,” Ainge said after the deal became official. “And we’re getting an additional player that we want in next year’s draft or the year after. It’s a good deal for both teams.”
For the Sixers, the chance to supplement a talented young frontcourt core — 2017 Rookie of the Year finalists Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons, 2015 No. 3 pick Jahlil Okafor, emerging 3-and-D stalwart Robert Covington — with Fultz, a versatile backcourt playmaker whom many evaluators believe has superstar potential, was worth the risk of shipping out an extra first-round pick. (Whether that pick will head to Boston next year or in two years remains to be seen, and the protections are fairly complicated, but the Sixers won’t wind up forking over a top overall pick as a result of their desire to take this top overall pick.)
“It just shows how invested [the 76ers] are in me and the work I put in — the future they see in me,” Fultz said on Wednesday. “I’m just blessed to see that my hard work’s paying off and somebody else sees something in me.”
What do the Sixers and so many other NBA talent evaluators see when they look at Fultz? In short: the future.
They see a 19-year-old prospect with prototypical size and length to man (and eventually defend) either backcourt spot in today’s NBA. They see a smooth, steady scoring threat whose combination of patience, pace and athleticism has drawn comparisons to All-Stars like James Harden, Dwyane Wade and Brandon Roy.
They see a talented pick-and-roll playmaker who’s also capable of spacing the floor, shooting 41.3 percent from the college 3-point line in his lone year at Washington. They see a devastating talent, a bona fide star in the making who averaged 23.2 points, 5.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game and earned First-Team All-Pac 12 and Third-Team All-American honors despite toiling for an often-overmatched Huskies team that finished a disappointing 9-22 last season.
How exactly Fultz fits into a starting lineup that figures to feature a pair of ball-dominant offensive players in Embiid and Simmons remains to be seen. The newly minted No. 1 pick said he’d yet to have substantive conversations with either Colangelo or head coach Brett Brown about how he’s expected to fit into the in-progress puzzle in Philly.
“We’ve just talked about just how glad they are for me, really, not really the expectations, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to talk to them soon about everything like that,” he said. “They’re pretty much just happy for me. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and that’s pretty much what they were indicating to me, just have fun with this process no matter where I go, and I’m happy that I came here.”
It’s safe to say that his new bosses are, too.
“We have a core of young players that will be significantly stronger once the draft selection is made,” Colangelo said before the draft.
The Sixers compiled that core by losing. A lot. Philadelphia has rolled up a record of 75-253 over the past four years. As you’re probably aware, that was, to some degree, by design.
After he was hired to be the Sixers’ general manager in 2013, Sam Hinkie embarked on an audacious and unprecedented campaign of rebuilding through the NBA draft lottery. The idea (or, at least, part of the idea): to dispense with the pretense of trying to stack wins in the here-and-now in favor of preparing the 76ers to lose as many games as possible in an attempt to snag high-upside, cost-controlled young talent at the top of the draft.
The game plan was about more than just trying to hoard lottery balls, though. Hinkie also favored stockpiling second-round picks in hopes of finding the next Chandler Parsons, and liked churning through undrafted free agents, D-League players and international prospects, too, taking as many low-cost shots as he could at finding future contributors. He kept the 76ers’ team salary low, maintaining plenty of cap space to serve as a facilitator in other teams’ deals; we’ll take on some salary you don’t want to carry, so long as you pay us off in future draft considerations.
In the short term, Hinkie’s plan produced one of the worst on-court runs in league history, including stretches that tied NBA records for most losses in a row and the longest losing streak ever to start a season. Eventually, all that losing wore thin, leading to Hinkie’s departure.
After Hinkie’s ouster, though, Embiid finally took the court after two seasons lost to injury and looked like a generational superstar. After his ouster, the Sixers won the 2016 NBA draft lottery and drafted the 6-foot-10 Simmons, who flashed transformational playmaking skills at LSU and in summer league before injuring his foot last fall and missing his entire rookie season.
And now, his successor was able to turn this year’s No. 3 pick and either the Lakers’ 2018 first-round pick or the Kings’ 2019 first-rounder (thanks again, Vlade and Vivek!) into the No. 1 pick. The No. 3 pick and the 2019 Kings first-rounder came from a summer 2015 deal in which Hinkie extracted pick-swap rights this year from a Kings team eager to dump salary. The Lakers’ 2018 pick came when Hinkie traded Michael Carter-Williams and a pair of European prospects who’ve yet to see the NBA in a three-way deal that plucked the L.A. selection from a Phoenix Suns team desperate to get its hands on Brandon Knight.
Suddenly, Hinkie’s long view — the one espoused by true believers like the brilliant folks behind the Rights to Ricky Sanchez Podcast, the one that got Hinkie raised into the rafters at a Philly bar on lottery night — had come into full view. Their trust in the Process had been rewarded … by a potential superstar point guard who himself Trusts the Process.
“Coming in, I want to win Rookie of the Year,” Fultz said Wednesday. “I got a pretty high goal for myself. I want to be the MVP. I set my goals high, because I want to put in a lot of work to achieve them.”
Those are awfully lofty ambitions for a teenager who just joined a team that’s resided in the NBA’s cellar for an entire election cycle, but Fultz doesn’t seem interested in half-measures or wasting time. The winning, he says, starts as soon as he shows up. And now he’s here.
“It’s a great opportunity, and I’m very excited, really,” Fultz said Thursday. “Just the fans in Philly, how they back up their players and everything like that, and I’m just looking forward to going in there and giving it my all, and hopefully changing the program around.”
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