The 76ers’ rhetoric pertaining to Markelle Fultz has changed.
In July, coach Brett Brown told reporters he was optimistic that the first overall pick of the 2017 NBA draft would “have a hell of year” this season.
Sunday, Brown preached that fans should be patient with Fultz.
At the start of the exhibition slate, the Sixers were committed to starting Fultz in the backcourt with point guard Ben Simmons. However, Brown later revealed that JJ Redick could start in his place at the beginning of second halves. That’s move would arguably relegate Fultz to being a token starter.
With this season’s lofty expectations, the team has to be wondering privately if or when it should replace Fultz entirely as a starting shooting guard. Less than 16 months ago, the Sixers traded the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 first-round pick to the Boston Celtics to move up two spots and draft Fultz. But it’s obvious at this stage that the sharpshooting Redick not only is a better fit in a backcourt pairing with Simmons, but he also gives the team a better chance to win.
The Sixers are determined to reach the Eastern Conference Finals this season. The longer it takes for Fultz to regain the shooting touch that made him the consensus No. 1 pick, the longer it will take for “The Process” to peak.
Fultz averaged 13 points on 11-for-23 shooting (47.8 percent), 3.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2 steals, 1.5 blocks and 2.5 turnovers in his first two preseason games, against Melbourne United (Sept. 28) and Orlando (Oct. 1). He made 1 of 4 three-pointers against the Magic after not attempting a three in the preseason opener. While Fultz’s form still needs improvement, the Sixers were elated that he attempted three-pointers.
Yet he struggled in the NBA China Games against the Mavericks.
Fultz scored four points on 2-for-7 shooting (missing his lone three-pointer) and had three steals, one block and five fouls last Friday in Shanghai. Monday, Fultz finished with six points on 3-for-7 shooting, three rebounds and two assists in 19 minutes, 18 seconds in Shenzhen. He did not attempt a three-pointer.
Fultz was heckled by Mavs owner Mark Cuban during the game. Cuban yelled for him to shoot the ball while behind or near the three-point line, something the 20-year-old refused to do. The former University of Washington standout ended up fouling out on an offensive foul with 8 minutes, 52 seconds remaining. He made just 1 of 5 three-point attempts this preseason.
Monday’s game was far from the first time Fultz’s jumper was a hot topic among NBA types. On NBA TV’s Sixers season preview, Kevin McHale and Isiah Thomas talked about the video clip released of Fultz shooting three-pointers in late September.
“I saw that film, aye yi yi,” McHale said. “What a forced [shot]. … That’s a bad-looking jumper to me.”
Cuban, McHale, Thomas are fully aware that Fultz missed 68 games this past season because of what the team called a right shoulder injury. However, multiple sources have said he was battling the “yips” and “completely forgot how to shoot.” Sources also said the problem is mental.
His pull-up jumper from 10 feet and in and shots off spin moves to the basket often go in. He just struggles in consistently making stationary shots away from the basket.
While his shot wasn’t perfect, we were told it was serviceable when he returned to game action March 28 against the Denver Nuggets. Lacking confidence in it, Fultz came back and attempted one three-point shot in his 13 combined regular-season and postseason appearances last season.
According to sources, his shot had regressed during that time. So in stepped independent shooting coach Drew Hanlen, who has been training him since the offseason.
What are Brown’s expectations now heading into this season?
“I think realistically when he can play a season and we can all step back and watch his development [all around],” the coach said. “It’s hard. I’m not ducking and weaving on any of this.”
Brown predicted that, by season’s end, “I’ll be able to look at you, and you’ll be able to look at me and feel that he had a good season and improved. But as far as what should we expect, I think we should expect for him to be playing a lot of basketball, and I think the growth will be seen as it unfolds.”
However, Brown didn’t have the same wait-and-see approach in July while addressing the media at the NBA summer league. At that time, Brown was more optimistic. He even said Fultz was “doing great” while working on his shot this summer with Hanlen in Los Angeles.
“I feel just so excited to see him play NBA basketball and show why he was the first player chosen in the NBA draft,” Brown said at the time. “And I have tremendous optimism and confidence that he’s going to have a hell of a year next year.”
Sixers guard Markelle Fultz on the bench between teammates Dario Saric (left) and Ben Simmons during a game in January.
Fultz’s shot looks better on some days than it does on others. Brown believes that’s a result of not playing a lot of NBA basketball.
“It’s really that simple,” Brown said. “So there has to be some level of a tolerance, a patience. We get the expectation. We get the hope. But the facts are he hasn’t played a lot of NBA basketball and he’s extremely young. With that, there’s going to come excitement and some pain. We will make sure that we grow him, accordingly.”
Perhaps, but Simmons (who out his first season) and Joel Embiid (who missed his first two seasons) didn’t have those problems.
Some of the excitement that Brown talked about was visible in the first two preseason games, but was replaced by some pain in the second two.
Fultz wants to become the league’s most improved player this season. However, he added that his personal goal begins with staying healthy.
“Just help the team any way I can on both ends on the floor whether that’s defensively or offensively,” Fultz said. “Just help the team so we can go further” than last season.
Markelle Fultz, right, dribbles against Melbourne United.
His play might dictate if or when Redick replaces him in the starting lineup.
However, taking him out of the starting lineup altogether could be a blow to his confidence. The Sixers might be better off bringing Fultz off the bench as a way for him to slowly gain confidence. Then once he starts playing well, maybe they could work him into the lineup.
Fultz could struggle and hinder the team. And if the Sixers were to take him out then, it could kill his confidence.
However, there’s always a chance he’ll prove to be a viable starter. The Sixers haven’t given up hope.
“He has to continue to work hard and show what he’s been proving,” general manager Elton Brand said. “It’s definitely to be determined for sure. But let me add, too: The work that he’s put in, he definitely has a shot at a big improvement.”