Sports | January 24, 2020 8:07 am

The Resurrection of Markelle Fultz

After a change of scenery, 2017's top pick is one of the NBA's brightest young stars

Orlando Magic best player Markelle Fultz
The 2017 #1 draft pick just needed a change of scenery from Philly to Orlando.
Thearon W. Henderson for Getty Images / InsideHook

Markelle Fultz had a rough night in Los Angeles.

All night long, Clipper defenders swarmed the Orlando Magic guard, luring him into awkward missed layups and jumpers that thudded off the backboard. In the fourth quarter, a pass Fultz threw to initiate the offense was picked off and dunked at the other end, stretching the L.A. lead to 19; Magic coach Steve Clifford, dropping his head in frustration, called a timeout.

A day after recording his first triple-double for the Magic in a rousing victory over the top-seeded Lakers, Fultz endured in a blowout loss the kind of growing pains young players are more or less resigned to. He shot 5 of 17 and turned the ball over four times. When media entered the Magic locker room after the game, Fultz was seated facing his locker, quietly processing the defeat with a pair of teammates.

But even growing pains are a blessing for Markelle Fultz in his third NBA season. Only a few months ago he was a cautionary tale, a former first-overall pick whose talent had seemingly abandoned him and whose team had shipped him off for spare parts. He couldn’t shoot, or he wouldn’t — no one could really tell — and he missed swaths of his first two seasons with a mystifying shoulder ailment that took over a year to properly diagnose.

A change of scenery and a clean bill of health — that familiar potion — have Fultz looking like a franchise point guard again, even on the bad nights, for a Magic franchise that hasn’t had one since Penny Hardaway. His drives are beautiful fits of originality and ambition and brawn that sometimes pay off. He’s flying around on defense, for better and for worse. His threes aren’t falling yet, but he’s no longer taking them as a dare. Most importantly, after appearing only 33 times total in his two campaigns as a 76er, he’s played in every Magic game this season. It’s the basketball story of the year: Markelle Fultz is hooping.

His emergence, as stunning as his struggles once were, has sent a wave of good vibes across the league. “I’m just happy for him,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers tells InsideHook before the game. “I think a lot of people gave up on him, but he didn’t. It’s pretty cool. I love it.” Says veteran Clipper guard Lou Williams: “I’ve never met him in my life, but being a spectator, watching his story, I’m happy for him.”

The trade that sent Fultz from the Sixers to the Magic last February took the twenty-one-year old from a title contender to a team that only sneaked into the playoffs last season. But in Orlando, Fultz found a franchise willing to give him the keys to the offense. In Philadelphia, that role was always going to be held by Ben Simmons, which relegated Fultz off-ball for all but 12 percent of his time on the court, per Basketball Reference. In Orlando, he’s running point almost exclusively (82 percent); he’s currently the only healthy point guard on the roster.

He has capitalized on the opportunity, impressing his coaches and teammates in the process with his unique combination of size and slipperiness. He deploys a slew of head fakes — enhanced by a mop of dreadlocks that hang down to his eyes — and an arsenal of inventive (if occasionally illegal) dribble moves to carve his way to the bucket, and his 6’3”, 209-pound frame to finish through contact. Fultz has always been effective at the rim, but his touch from short range has improved; he’s now shooting 46 percent from 3-10 feet and 50 percent on twos overall, up from 42 percent his first two seasons.

“He has things you can’t teach,” Magic forward Terrence Ross says. “The game comes to him naturally — the way he moves, his creativity. He’s a special package, and it’s all coming together.”

As it turned out — and, we should add, as Fultz had insisted all along — it was not the yips holding back his shot, but a rare nerve issue called thoracic outlet syndrome. TOS is treatable, but Fultz required several months of rehabilitation before he could return to the court. The team hardly saw him last year after he was acquired at the trade deadline.

But even a return to health could not have guaranteed a return to form. Fultz’s arrival is a testament to the work ethic and attitude his Magic teammates and coaches rave about. “I always tell everybody, he’s a D.C. kid,” says Clifford, who used to recruit in the Beltway region. “He’s got toughness, he knows how to play, he doesn’t ask for anything, and he works every day. He’s great to have around…I think his makeup is why things are going so well.”

To Clifford, that quality is getting harder to find in Fultz’s generation. “The younger players in our league are becoming more and more challenging, because they’re younger and have less experiences,” he says. “Even ten years ago, most of the younger guys that you got in the league had performed well in college. Now you get a lot of guys who frankly, they haven’t even played well, except in AAU. And yet they want to be treated as if they have.

“He’s the opposite of that. He understands that the NBA is about performing, that you’re going to get what you earn.”

But sometimes it takes a trade for a player to realize their potential. “It’s all about the right fit with the right team,” Ross says. He can offer his own career as an example: he was a lottery pick by the Toronto Raptors in the 2012 draft, and his career took off after they traded him to the Magic in 2017.

“[When] I got to Orlando, it was a much bigger role,” Ross says. “They wanted me to start, play big minutes, help score — these were things I had to get used to and kind of work at, so that first year in Orlando, once I got the hang of it, it kind of opened up for me.”

That freedom — to mess up, to grow — is what he sees driving Fultz’s transformation in Orlando. “I think he just needed someone to believe in him and trust him, and say hey, we believe that you can do this and we want you to feel comfortable out there and do what you can do,” says Ross. “You can see what’s happening. He’s playing completely differently, he’s doing everything that everybody saw [when he was in college], and he was just hurting. Once he got past that, he’s thriving.”

Part of the revelation of Fultz’s growing pains is simply the fact of him growing at all. But that doesn’t quite explain why his story has elicited such elation. There are countless high picks who go on to have solid, even meaningful careers that just never meet their draft pedigree. Fultz is not on his way to a fulfilled life tilling soil in the basketball backwoods. This season, and the last few weeks in particular, have hinted at a greater destiny.

Even the missing jumper, long at the center of the public obsession with Fultz, may not be as far off as it looked against the Clippers. “I think in five, six weeks, he’ll take another step,” Clifford says. “He’s — he works. He’s a throwback guy.”

It may help that Orlando is a remote outpost in the basketball world, a place where Fultz can take small steps out of earshot of the cacophonous Philadelphia faithful. In central Florida, he can shoot a couple threes a game at 25 percent and no one will bat an eye, let alone dissect his release. He was overexposed in the land of the Process, but two-and-a-half years in and still just 21 years old, he appears no worse for wear.

Mo Bamba, a second-year big who lockers next to Fultz, has known him since high school. “It was tough” watching the saga of Fultz’s first two seasons play out, Bamba says. “That’s a really good friend — people making fun of his injury, people making fun of him, not believing that something was actually wrong. And for him to just him get out there and shut all the naysayers up, that’s a great feeling not just for him, but for everyone else around him.”

After a few minutes, Fultz stands and faces the scrum waiting around his locker. He rejects the second half of a back-to-back as a possible explanation for the team’s performance: “Back-and-backs are part of the NBA. Our energy wasn’t there, and it hurt us.” He takes responsibility for his mistakes: “Being the only point guard, I realize that I gotta take care of the ball better, not turn the ball over, get us into our sets.” He accepts that there will be nights like these in the NBA, and that he had already endured many worse ones.

“I wanna be one of the — a very good player, and you gotta go through adversity in order to grow,” he says. “Everything’s a learning experience, so going through [the injury], I learned a lot of things, and I got better. It made me a better man and a better basketball player.”