'I was drafted No. 1 for a reason': The redemption of Markelle Fultz

NEW YORK – Markelle Fultz is flourishing again.

A year after being dealt to the Orlando Magic at the 2019 trade deadline, Fultz's career trajectory is back on the rise, and the still-developing 21-year-old point guard has shown flashes of greatness with his new team.

All the trials and tribulations Fultz went through in Philadelphia have hardened him, but the chip on his once-injured shoulder remains.

“It's been that way since I was younger,” Fultz, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, told Yahoo Sports. “I wasn't ranked coming into high school. I got cut from the varsity team. I've been fighting through adversity and battles I've had to overcome, but that's what's made this journey fun.

“I feel like it's almost my own little story that I have, and I feel like it's unwritten until my career is over, so I'm just trying to keep putting pages in my book.”

This chapter is about redemption.

After playing just 33 games combined in his first two seasons, Fultz has already appeared in 53 out of a possible 54 games for the Magic in 2019-20, while averaging career highs of 11.7 points and 4.9 assists on 46.3 percent shooting.

A 21-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist triple-double against the Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 15 at Staples Center served as a coming-out party for Fultz.

“I was drafted No. 1 for a reason,” said Fultz, echoing a phrase he's used in the past. “And my biggest thing is just staying humble and working hard and letting my game do the talking. I was fortunate enough to be the No. 1 pick and get into this league, so my goal is to be here for as long as I can.”

Fultz was a distressed asset with the 76ers, a tantalizing talent plagued by thoracic outlet syndrome, but the Magic decided to take a chance on his high-upside potential. After days of trade talks with Philadelphia leading into the deadline, the team teams finally came to terms in the final hour on Feb. 7, 2019.

Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz (20) in action during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Magic guard Markelle Fultz is averaging 11.7 points on 46.3 percent shooting. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The final package: Fultz to Orlando in exchange for Jonathan Simmons, a 2020 top-20 protected first-round pick from the Oklahoma City Thunder (which turns into 2022 and 2023 second-round picks from OKC if it isn't conveyed) and a 2019 second (which ultimately became Carsen Edwards).

The deal has paid off significantly for the Magic, who were able to provide Fultz with the change of scenery and fresh start he desperately needed. They gave him time to rehab and get healthy before unleashing a motivated playmaker with something to prove.

“I'm happy for our organization and I'm happy for our team, but most of all I'm happy for Markelle,” Orlando GM John Hammond told Yahoo Sports. “I just can't imagine what he went through the previous year and a half in Philadelphia. The pressure of being the No. 1 pick, the immediate expectations that came with that, and the struggles he went through. And in today's social media age, probably some of the things that he was reading, being said about him — at 19-20 years old — I can't imagine going through that.

“But there's the saying, 'Through adversity comes strength.' And I truly believe that's Markelle. I don't think anything that's going to happen in his career is going to be a bigger challenge than what he went through at the beginning. I've never really sat down and talked with him about that, but I can only imagine how difficult it was.”

Fultz's shot, however, remains a work in progress. It's a bit more fluid than it was previously, but it's still funky. Fultz is currently shooting 35.9 percent on jump shots and 26.8 percent on 3-pointers.

“I feel like it's getting closer and closer everyday,” Fultz said. “I don't feel like it's where I want it to be, but I'm patient and I know it's going to take time. I've been working on it every day and feeling more and more comfortable, and it's showing as I go out there without hesitating. It's only a matter of time before I get there.”

Regardless, Fultz is having fun on the floor. He says his confidence is at an all-time high. His narrative is no longer surrounded by physical and/or mental issues. No controversy. No conspiracy. No mystery. No frustration. Just basketball.

“I feel like my ceiling is as high as I want it to be,” said Fultz, adding that making an All-Star team is on a big list of goals he's set for himself. “It's going to go as far as I work. It's as simple as that.”

Added Hammond: “The guy has all the tools. I don't want to put any undue pressure on anyone, but I really think Markelle is just scratching the surface right now. He just played his [86th] career game, so he's basically kind of completed his rookie year and we're [only] halfway through his first full season. He's had moments where you say, 'There he is,' and we're hoping in the second half of the season we can see more of that and even more and more of it in the future.”

The Magic (23-31) currently find themselves in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They've been trying to survive without three of their top seven players: Jonathan Issac (out for the season), Al-Farouq Aminu (out for the season) and D.J. Augustin (knee injury).

A postseason berth would be the perfect way to cap off an admirable comeback year for Markelle Fultz.

“It would be huge,” said Fultz, who wants to get that first career playoff game under his belt. “That's our goal. That's what the NBA is all about is making the playoffs. We're right there, and that's the only thing on my mind right now.”

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