You’d be forgiven if you missed it — certainly, there was plenty of other stuff going on with the Philadelphia 76ers over the past few weeks — but Sixers guard Markelle Fultz is spending his early summer working out in Los Angeles with Drew Hanlen, a respected skills coach who’ll be tasked with helping rebuild the haunted, disappearing and busted shot of 2017’s No. 1 overall pick.
Hanlen, who played point guard at Belmont University before going into business for himself, made his bones at the NBA level by working with fellow St. Louis products Bradley Beal and David Lee, and has become a rising trainer-to-the-stars in recent years by training a slew of up-and-coming NBA players. The roster of players he’s helped develop includes high-lottery picks like Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Kelly Oubre Jr., among others; he added three more draftees this year (No. 6 overall pick Mo Bamba, second-round selections Justin Jackson and DeAnthony Melton) and has already been working with potential 2019 top pick R.J. Barrett, one of the most highly prized prospects set to join the college ranks this year when he suits up for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.
This summer, Hanlen’s made time in his schedule to work with Fultz, who entered the league tipped as a talented pick-and-roll playmaker capable of spacing the floor, shooting 41.3 percent from the college 3-point line in his lone year at Washington … only to completely fall apart from beyond arm’s reach of the basket seemingly as soon as he put on a Sixers jersey.
Markelle Fultz’s shot/shoulder saga was one of the stories of the NBA season
The saga of Fultz’s shot became one of the more bizarre stories of the NBA season, with conflicting reports from his team and his agent about the nature of the issue, and how things deterioriated to the point that a player who used to be able to pull up from 25 feet without a second thought all of a sudden had a horrifying shooting motion and wouldn’t even think of attempting a shot outside the lane.
Throughout the worrisome process, the principals involved maintained that the issue was physical — that Fultz had suffered a shoulder injury in the course of his workouts between the draft and Las Vegas Summer League, that the soreness led him to alter his shooting motion, that he needed to be benched to rest the shoulder, and that he needed to be shut down indefinitely to heal the “scapular muscle imbalance” that was ruining his form. But then, all of a sudden, the soreness was “completely gone” … and still Fultz didn’t come back. He wouldn’t return to the court until March 26, with only a 10 games left in the season. While Fultz did show flashes of dynamism in his season-ending cameo, he still didn’t show much in the way of range or willingness to fire from deep.
Was the issue in Markelle Fultz’s shoulder, or in his head?
That ongoing reluctance might lead you to wonder — as many did throughout this whole ordeal — whether the problem had less to do with Fultz’s body and more to do with his mind. Well, Hanlen dispensed with that question during a recent interview on the “Talking Schmidt Podcast,” offering a frank assessment of where things stood with Fultz when host Daniel Schmidt asked how he got hooked up with last year’s top selection:
With Markelle, obviously he had one of the most, you know, documented cases of kind of the yips in basketball in recent years, where he completely forgot how to shoot, and had multiple hitches in his shot. So for me, it was, hey, listen, how can I get this kid who was No. 1 in last year’s draft back rolling and get him to the point where he was before, if not better?
Since Fultz began showcasing his busted free-throw stroke a little under a year ago, plenty of people have speculated that the “yips,” and not any imbalance or soreness or other sort of pain in Fultz’s right shoulder, was the driving force behind the implosion of his shot. As far as I know, though, nobody who’s closely worked with Fultz has just come out and publicly pinpointed the problem as a mental block … until now.
Hanlen’s diagnosis dovetails with a report earlier this week from Philly.com’s Keith Pompey, who noted that Sixers coach and interim head of basketball operations Brett Brown had visited Fultz in L.A. during his work with Hanlen to correct the shooting woes … which, as Pompey wrote, “were actually mental, according to several sources.”
How Drew Hanlen and the 76ers are rebuilding Markelle Fultz’s shot
Healing an aching body part is one thing; healing a mental wound, though, is another, more complicated matter. Hanlen insisted in his podcast interview, though, that he and Fultz have been making strides on that score, by taking things back to the start and building from the ground up:
We’ve been working hard every day, working just on rewiring his body and getting kind of a smooth stroke back into his shot. We’re way ahead of pace, where I thought we were going to be. I thought it was going to take me at least six weeks before we had, you know, kind of a serviceable jump shot, and we’ve already started to shoot with a jump in Week 2.
It’s not perfect yet, but I think that by the end of the summer, it will be perfect, and he’ll be back rolling and he’ll show people why he was the No. 1 pick. Even though I do give him trouble on a daily basis, and remind him that I still believe that Jayson Tatum was the best player in that draft.
Fair enough. After all, Hanlen was Tatum’s guru first.
Hanlen wouldn’t divulge specifics about what Fultz was looking for when he said he wanted to link up and work during what promises to be a very important summer for a player in need of a new lease on life after a mostly lost rookie season. Hanlen did tell Schmidt, though, that their relationship started because of Hanlen’s work in expanding Embiid’s offensive game, and that he approached Fultz with a sales pitch that wasn’t necessarily altruistic in nature:
Basically what I told him is, me being me, I said, “You’re going to make me really famous, and you’re going to make me a lot of money, when I fix your shot and can sell your program.” I said, “And the good news is, I can’t go down, because it can’t get worse. So give me a chance. Let me help you get back to where you are.”
And he kind of laughed and chuckled, and I said, “Let’s do this, for two reasons. One, I want to get you back rolling, I want to get you back loving basketball and kind of finding success, and two, I want to arrogantly be able to tell everybody, yeah, that’s me right there, I fixed it.”
So we took kind of a funny approach to get rolling, but we’ve been working hard every single day. We spend a couple of hours in the gym and so far, the program is going well and he’s finding some success with a new shooting motion.
Getting Fultz’s jumper online could be a massive boost for Philly
Whether due to Hanlen’s influence, his own hard work, the lifting of the mental and emotional stresses that come with being the top pick in the draft, or some combination of those factors, Fultz needs to rediscover the rhythm and touch that enabled him to be such a decisive and potent shooter and off-the-dribble shot creator. The threat of that pull-up bomb, whether from behind a screen beyond the 3-point arc or after a hesitation dribble from midrange, will open up the rest of his game in a way we just never saw during his first season in Philadelphia.
Showing a consistent willingness to take those jumpers, and a reliable ability to make them, will force defenders to play up on Fultz rather than just sag back all the way into the paint. That’ll give him more opportunities to use his burst and quickness to drive to the rim and collapse defenses, where he can then look to finish in traffic, kick out to an open shooter, or invite contact and get himself to the foul line, without fear of perpetually pulling the string on every free throw. It’ll ease pressure on him and put even more on opposing defenses which is no small thing when you’re sharing the court with offensive scheme-breakers like Embiid and Ben Simmons.
The first step to fixing a problem is accurately diagnosing it. After a full season of whispers about what actually caused Fultz’s woes, it’s looking like all parties concerned might have finally done that. If that releases the tension, reduces the burden, and allows Fultz the freedom to rebuild what’s been broken, it could put the 76ers one step closer to contending for the Eastern Conference crown, and set Fultz back on the path to stardom many saw laid out in front of him when he shook Adam Silver’s hand this time last year.
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