A little more than a year and a half ago, the Philadelphia 76ers were so desperate to get Markelle Fultz, they handed the Boston Celtics a first-round pick to swap picks and move up two spots in the NBA draft to select the University of Washington guard No. 1 overall.
Thursday they dumped him on the Orlando Magic for bench player Jonathon Simmons, a 2019 second-rounder and a 2020 late first-round pick.
That’s one of the worst returns on investment in league history, yet all things considered — such as Fultz playing just 33 games in his nearly two seasons with no sign of returning to action — it was a pretty decent deal for Philly.
Maybe, just maybe, that 2020 pick turns into someone.
Fultz in Philly will go down as one of the worst draft picks in NBA history, a promising athlete who somehow forgot how to shoot and was plagued by either injury or confidence issues or both.
He never once looked like a No. 1 overall pick, but more like an overwhelmed and lightly skilled rookie on a 10-day contract. He scored just 255 points. He made just four 3-pointers. He shot just 53.4 percent from the free-throw line.
He may or may not have thoracic outlet syndrome, which may or may not be recoverable from. There were tensions between the team and Fultz’s people, who understandably tried to protect their guy. Fans had all but given up on him. Teammates, too. Apparently general manager Elton Brand, who wasn’t on the job when Fultz was picked, did, too.
Perhaps a change of scenery changes everything for Fultz. For him, that’s the hope. Orlando offers a fresh start without the pressure of big expectations. The Magic gave away little to take a flier on him, so whatever they get is gravy. They currently are a lottery team, not an Eastern Conference contender. Fultz will have time.
Maybe the sunshine can melt away the stress. Maybe whatever once was there will be there again.
For Philadelphia, he wasn’t just a bad pick at No. 1 overall. He was also a shadow of the player the Celtics happily chose at No. 3, Jayson Tatum, the guy Danny Ainge said they were going to select at No. 1. (The Los Angeles Lakers took Lonzo Ball at No. 2.)
And we still don’t know what Boston will get out of that extra No. 1 that Philadelphia once controlled — it’s Sacramento’s spot in the upcoming draft. The Celtics can select someone there or use the pick as an asset to get an established star, you know, like Anthony Davis, who might make Philly’s future path to the NBA Finals problematic.
If back in 2017 the Sixers were focused on a point guard, well, De’Aaron Fox is bringing it in Sacramento. He went fifth. If they wanted more of a shooting guard to play off Simmons, then Donovan Mitchell fell all the way to No. 13 for the Utah Jazz.
There’s more though. When Fultz’s game became non-existent and it was clear he would not be part of a triumvirate of great young talent, it forced the Sixers to make bold moves (trading this year for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris) to surround Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons with something.
As such, there’s no more wiggle room in Philly, and both Butler and Harris could walk as free agents at season’s end. Ridding itself of the roughly $22 million owed to Fultz over the next two seasons helps in that regard.
Still, if this roll of the dice doesn’t work, and work big, then the entire half-decade “Process” of tanking is a failure.
In fairness to Fultz, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel didn’t pan out for Philly either, so it isn’t entirely his fault. If Fultz had been even an average top pick though — a good, serviceable combo guard — then the dynamics change.
Except he wasn’t. And why remains so much of a mystery.
If it’s physical, then it isn’t a traditional injury. If it’s fixable, then Philly gave up too soon. But without a clear diagnosis, how could it tell? At times Fultz forgot how to shoot a basketball and was said to struggle to get his arms to perform a basic shooting form. This might all be mental, too, and if that’s solvable, then good for Fultz.
Here’s guessing he’s got a better chance of getting everything straightened out in Florida than Philly.
The Sixers had almost nothing to gain by keeping Fultz around; he wasn’t playing and wasn’t going to play on a team trying to make a push for the NBA Finals. His presence and the constant questions about his future were a drain on a team that was moving on and pushing for big things.
So the 76ers took whatever bargain basement offer they could get: Simmons, a small forward/shooting guard who doesn’t shoot very well (22.9 percent from 3-point range this season), and two draft picks that will likely come at the point of the draft where few good players are generally found.
The guy Philly once had to get, it couldn’t get rid of fast enough.
All of that in 18 months for the mystery bust at the top of the 2017 draft.
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