Trust the progress? Markelle Fultz still weeks away from return to 76ers

Ball Don't Lie
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/phi/" data-ylk="slk:Philadelphia 76ers">Philadelphia 76ers</a> rookie <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/players/136166/" data-ylk="slk:Markelle Fultz">Markelle Fultz</a> probably won’t be back on the court until mid-December.
Philadelphia 76ers rookie Markelle Fultz probably won’t be back on the court until mid-December.

OK, so on the Markelle Fultz front, the Philadelphia 76ers have good news and bad news. Which one do you want first?

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Good news first? I think I heard someone in the back say “good news.” You got it. The good news, the Sixers announced Sunday, is that the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft “is progressing” in his return from the right shoulder soreness and “scapular muscle imbalance” that led the team to shut him down three weeks ago.

“The soreness is dissipating and the muscle balance is improving, and Fultz will continue with physiotherapy and begin progressing toward full basketball activities,” the team announced.

Soreness dissipating! Muscle balance improving! Excellent!

But then, there is the bad news: that, despite the dissipation and improving balance, it doesn’t sound like Fultz is especially close to getting back on the floor for game action.

“Fultz will be re-evaluated in approximately two to three weeks,” the 76ers’ statement continued. “His return to gameplay will be determined by how the shoulder responds to progressive basketball training and practices in the interim.”

Fultz hasn’t suited up since Oct. 23, when he scored two points on 1-for-4 shooting with three assists, three turnovers, two rebounds and a steal in 16 minutes of work in Philly’s 97-86 win over the Detroit Pistons. The performance — tentative, labored and pained for a fourth straight game — exacerbated concerns that something was seriously wrong with the former Washington standout.

The concerns began to crop up before the start of the season, when footage from Sixers training camp and preseason games showed Fultz sporting a drastically different, and significantly less successful, shooting motion than the one he’d featured while knocking down 41 percent of his 3-point tries and 65 percent of his free throws in his lone year on campus. They persisted as Fultz began his career by making only nine of his first 27 field-goal attempts — with none coming from farther than 14 feet away — and six of his first 12 free throws.

The rumblings quickly grew loud enough that neither Fultz’s camp nor the Sixers could ignore them anymore. Fultz’s agent issuing a pair of confusing and seemingly contradictory statements about what exactly was going on with his client’s right shoulder. First, Raymond Brothers said that the 19-year-old had “fluid drained out of the back of his shoulder” before the start of the regular season and “literally cannot raise up his arms to shoot the basketball.” Several hours after that, he reversed course, saying Fultz “had a cortisone shot on Oct. 5, which means fluid was put into his shoulder — not taken out.”

A day later, the Sixers — who have had more than their fair share of issues with injuries to their top draft picks, and with a method of communicating information about those injuries that doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in what’s going on behind the scenes — shut Fultz down. In so doing, they committed to giving 2017’s top choice — a pick the Sixers got from the Boston Celtics in exchange for 2017’s No. 1 selection (used on Jayson Tatum, who looks great) and another first-round pick in either 2018 (if the Los Angeles Lakers’ choice falls between Nos. 2 and 5) or 2019 (belonging to either Philly or the Sacramento Kings, whichever lands higher) — as much time as he needed to get his shoulder and his head right after a trying start to his NBA career.

“This is not normal,” one Eastern Conference general manager told Bleacher Report’s Ken Berger of the Fultz saga. “It’s perplexing.”

(And then, as a cherry on top, Fultz started shooting left-handed in a workout after being shut down.)

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What role Fultz will play when he returns to a Sixers team that’s looked devastating at times behind the one-two punch of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons remains to be seen. For now, though, knowing the answer to that question is far less important than Fultz simply getting back into position to be healthy enough for Brett Brown to start finding any answer.

In a vacuum, “the No. 1 pick in the draft probably won’t get back on the court until mid-December at the earliest” might not seem like especially heartening news. But in the ultra-specific and incredibly odd context of a highly touted prospect prized for his range and scoring touch having his stroke completely disintegrate between Summer League and preseason, only for everyone involved to insist that things were fine until cold hard reality forced them to say otherwise, “an injury is slowly and steadily getting better” seems like cause for celebration.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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