Markelle Fultz is finally just a normal NBA player. The former No. 1 pick became one the most scrutinized young players of all-time with the Philadelphia 76ers after a shoulder injury sparked conspiracy theories over what was really ailing him for two straight seasons. Some questioned whether he’d ever play again, and labeled him as one of the biggest busts in basketball history. Now healthy enough to play, Fultz has become an NBA starter for the Orlando Magic, and a perfectly fine one at that.
It took just five games for Fultz to win the starting guard role over D.J. Augustin, and it’s easy to see why. Fultz remains a shaky shooter, but his speed, length, and agility allows him to glide through the lane, grab rebounds, and kick out to teammates. Through 13 games, he’s averaging 11 points, three assists and two rebounds on league average efficiency with a 55.5 percent true shooting percentage. He isn’t a superstar, but he is a worthy rotation player and solid enough to be a starter.
Fultz just played his best game against the Washington Wizards on Sunday night, scoring 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting. He even sunk 2-of-3 three-point shots. The Magic continue to have a project on their hands, but Fultz just may be worth the risk.
Fultz is finding a role that works for him
Every No. 1 pick is expected to become a franchise cornerstone like Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, or Karl-Anthony Towns. For now at least, that’s not Fultz’s trajectory, and that’s OK. Instead, Fultz is a quality scoring guard who can facilitate when needed.
Fultz is proving to be great at getting to the rim and even better at finishing once he gets there. Per basketball-reference, 32 percent of his field goal attempts have come within three-feet, and he’s making those shots at a 75 percent clip. That’s remarkable efficiency at the rim for any player, but especially for a guard.
Just look at how easily he pulls this off:
Fultz’s shot chart shows how good he is at not only getting to the rim, but finishing shots through defenders.
Fultz is also contributing as a passer. He has a 21.6 percent assist rate — not amazing, but still respectable, amounting to just under five assists per 36 minutes. He has a 2.7 steal rate on the defensive end, and stole the ball to seal Orlando’s win against Washington.
Fultz does one thing really well (finishing at the rim) and a couple things well enough. However, the familiar hole in his game still remains.
Fultz’s jump shot isn’t good, but there’s reason to believe it might improve
Fultz was sold as an elite shooter before he was drafted No. 1 overall even though that probably was never the case, even before his shoulder injury. In 25 games at the University of Washington, Fultz shot 41 percent from three-point range, which is great. And he did it on 126 attempts, which is no small sample size.
But Fultz shot really poorly from the free-throw line, making just 109 of 168 tries (65 percent.) That’s a big red flag that tells us that Fultz’s hot shooting likely wasn’t sustainable against NBA defenses, yet everyone expected Fultz to grow into a Dame Lillard-like shooter. That isn’t and likely won’t never be the case.
Fultz’s shot is changed since shoulder rehab, looking a bit shot put like and flat at times. But it works for him, and after two strenuous years, his comfort level is what’s most important. So far, Fultz is shooting way more threes than he ever did in Philly, and that’s a good sign. The bad news is he’s only made 6-of-28.
He has been better on jump shots inside the arc, though. Fultz is making 40 percent of his shots between 10 and 16 feet, and is making 44.4 percent of his shots between 16 feet and the three-point line. Per basketball-reference, he’s hitting 32.3 percent of his jump shots on the season.
It’s also notable that his free throw numbers have shot up. He’s made 23-of-28, good for 82 percent. Don’t write off his future as a shooter just yet. He’ll need more time to get adjusted to his new shot.
Treat this year like Fultz’s rookie year
As we watch Fultz grow this year, it’s important to treat this as if he was a rookie, since he never had a real chance in Philly. Whatever it was, something was bothering him, and through it all, he only played 33 games across two seasons.
Fultz is still only 21 years old. He would be a junior in college if he was still in school. He has plenty of time to develop into something more than he is right now. And what he is right now is a decent player.
If he keeps up this progress, Fultz will be far from an NBA bust.