The Markelle Fultz saga in Philadelphia has taken twist after turn after twist after turn, but 76ers brass may have run out of patience. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey is reporting Fultz is “no longer in the franchise’s long-term plans.” It’s been a sad and disappointing fall from grace for a young, talented player the Sixers traded up to select No. 1 overall in the 2017 NBA Draft.
After all, Fultz was an electrifying scorer and playmaker as a freshman at Washington, where he garnered national attention with averages of about 23 points, six assists, and six rebounds per game. But a mysterious shoulder condition has robbed him of his confidence in shooting the ball since he entered the pros. Fultz has been virtually ineffective outside of the paint ever since; that’s especially problematic when Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid need shooters surrounding to be most effective.
Now, after 19 games including 15 starts this season, Fultz has left the team to seek a group of independent doctors in New York to comment on his shoulder struggles. This was after Sixers brass reportedly sent him to multiple “prominent doctors,” none of whom found an issue that would prevent the guard from shooting the ball. Many believe his problem is mental. No one knows what’s actually wrong, possibly not even Fultz himself.
Nevertheless, the 76ers seem prepared to move on. It’s a tough pill to swallow: They traded Jayson Tatum, who’s thriving in Boston, as well as the better 2019 first-round pick between their own and Sacramento’s in the original Fultz trade two summers ago.
The only question now is whether there will be any takers on the market.
Is there a market for Markelle Fultz?
You have to remember Fultz was the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, which means he’s due No. 1 overall pick money. This season, he’s scheduled to make about $8.33 million. The 76ers also picked up the team option on the third year of his contract, so he’s guaranteed to make $9.745 million in the 2019-20 season. Year 4 of his rookie contract is worth about $12.3 million if picked up.
Whichever team trades for him will have to give up contracts worth that salary or more, as the Sacramento Kings are the only team with enough cap space to absorb Fultz’s contract on its own. It’s also unclear where Philly would begin trade discussions, and whether they would seek draft pick compensation or veteran talent.
The only comparable situation that comes to mind when thinking of Fultz is the Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio. He missed the majority of the 2017-18 season and left the team to seek his own independent set of doctors in New York when a quadriceps injury lingered. The Raptors traded for Leonard with no assurances he’d stay long-term or be healthy enough to return to superstar form. Leonard, though, had a Finals MVP and two consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards under his belt. Fultz has neither.
Fultz has shown some progress, though. He only attempted one three-pointer in 14 games last season, but he’s 4-of-14 from behind the arc this year. A 28.6 percent shooting clip isn’t ideal, but at least he’s taking threes here and there, right?
It’s also not as if Fultz is incompetent on the basketball court. He’s still a gifted athlete who has come within inches of multiple vicious poster dunks. He has elite speed off the first step, which allows him to get to the rim, and he’s been willing to shoot the foul line extended jump shot that has been presented to him.
There are a handful of teams that still need talent at the point guard position, and Fultz — shoulder ailment and all — is still a talent untapped. A fresh start could be what he needs to turn the chapter. Where that start could present itself is difficult, but those situations do exist.
The Suns are in dire need of a starting caliber point guard. Devin Booker is a super scorer who has assumed primary ball-handling and playmaking responsibilities. His usage rate of 31.7 is unsettling, especially for a team with the worst record in the Western Conference.
Phoenix experimented with international rookie Elie Okobo and journeyman Isaiah Canaan as the starting point guard, but when push comes to shove, they usually just turn the keys over to Booker. Fultz would be a breath of fresh air for the Suns, whether he can shoot the three ball or not.
The 76ers traded Dario Saric to the Timberwolves in the deal that brought in Jimmy Butler, so they might have some use for fellow high draft pick disappointment Dragan Bender in a deal involving Fultz. The Suns declined the team option on Bender’s contract, making him an expiring contract if things don’t work out in Philly.
This doesn’t address Philly’s need for back-court help, though. The 76ers could wait until the no-trade restriction on newly signed free agents is lifted on Dec. 15, then ask for Jamal Crawford to be included in the deal. Crawford, Bender, and a heavily protected 2019 first-round pick with looser protections in 2020 and 2021 could be a trade that benefits both teams.
If Fultz is gets healthy, the Suns get a dynamic starting point guard to pair with Devin Booker. If not, it’s a risk you take to land talent at the toughest position in the league.
D.J. Augustin has been a pro’s pro at the point guard slot for years and is averaging 10 points and five assists on 45 percent shooting from three this season. But Orlando doesn’t have its point guard of the future. Augustin’s back-ups are Jerian Grant and Isaiah Briscoe, two young guards with varied levels of promise. The Magic could use some new talent at that position, even if it’s delayed while Fultz is with his new doctors.
A deal with Orlando, though, would likely have to include a third team because the Magic don’t have any players that would benefit the 76ers at first glance. Jonathon Simmons makes sense at first sight, but upon further review, the man is shooting 19 percent from three-point range. Orlando shouldn’t trade red-hot Terrence Ross in this deal, and the remaining players on the roster are untouchable or aren’t worth dealing.
A three-team trade that sends Fultz to Orlando, Simmons to Sacramento, and Iman Shumpert to Philadelphia could benefit every team involved, especially if the Kings — who don’t have a pick in the 2019 NBA Draft — land one in the deal.
Chicago’s starting point guard position is wide open thanks to Kris Dunn’s injury, and a healthy Fultz has as good a shot as anyone on the roster to secure the job. The Bulls won’t dare trade their 2019 first-round pick — not in a class with the top-heavy talent this class has — but 2020 projects to be weak.
Is Cameron Payne and a loosely protected 2020 first-rounder enough to land Fultz in Chicago?
It’s tough to find a new home for Markelle Fultz mostly because the point guard position is the strongest in the NBA. Most teams already have their point guard of the now or of the future secured already. Fultz was supposed to be that answer for the 76ers. It’s unfortunate how his career has spiraled so quickly.
If the trade rumors prove true, the Suns, Magic, and Bulls are three teams it would make sense for the Sixers to call. There could be a lukewarm market for the embattled point guard. A lukewarm market, though, is light years better than no market at all.