Orlando Magic: Is Markelle Fultz really showing signs of progress?

NBA Trade Rumors Philadelphia 76ers Markelle Fultz (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
NBA Trade Rumors Philadelphia 76ers Markelle Fultz (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic have played five preseason games, but have we seen any signs of improvement from Markelle Fultz

There is a growing belief around the league that Markelle Fultz is finally signs of progress from the right shoulder injury that he sustained before training camp of his rookie season. Josh Robbins of The Athletic (subscription required) wrote an article on October 13th, saying that Fultz was progressing because he had 12 points and five assists in a preseason game against his former team.

However, one can argue that Fultz hasn’t shown any improvement from last season in five preseason games with the Orlando Magic. The Philadelphia 76ers initially selected Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick because his shooting ability made him the perfect complimentary piece to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

76ers head coach Brett Brown told reporters after the draft that Markelle was the ideal costar for Embiid and Simmons:

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"“The thing I realized is that there was no other player that I saw that was a better fit for [Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons] than Markelle for a variety of reasons. When you look at his ability to shoot, when you look at his ability to create on a catch-go or off a live ball, certainly in the early offense, that he can co-exist with Ben and Joel the easiest out of all the people.”"

The 76ers’ decision to draft Fultz looked good early on as he shot 37.5 percent from behind the arc in three summer league games. Unfortunately, the initial success didn’t last long as Fultz curiously changed his shot after summer league, causing him to lose the ability to shoot.

According to Derek Bodner of The Athletic (subscription required), Fultz attempted to speed up his shot release by reducing the dip from his shooting form. Not only that, but he decided to bring his set point to the right side of his body.

Fultz’s experiment would end up backfiring as he missed a training camp practice on October 5th, 2017 because of soreness and scapular muscle imbalance in his right shoulder caused by the new shot. The injury lingered as it caused him to miss three out of the five preseason games during his rookie campaign.

Fultz was ineffective from behind the arc in both of his preseason games as he failed to make a single 3-pointer. The situation got worse once the season began as he didn’t attempt a 3-pointer through the first four games due to his right shoulder injury.

His inability to shoot meant that Fultz could only be an effective player with the basketball in his hands. According to DraftExpress, 30.4 percent of Markelle’s offense came via the pick and roll during his lone season with the Washington Huskies.

Philadelphia was aware that Fultz could still be a productive player with the ball in his hands. Brett Brown told reporters during training camp in 2017 that Fujltz looked great with the ball in his hands.

"“The stuff he did with the ball, getting to the rim, hitting some pull ups and his defense was impressive,”"

Unfortunately, Philadelphia wasn’t able to make Markelle Fultz the primary ball-handler because Ben Simmons didn’t have the 3-point shooting to be a real threat to opponents when playing off the ball. At the time, Simmons was known as a non-shooter because he attempted a total of three 3-pointers in his only season with the LSU Tigers.

Simmons’ lack of shooting would have given his defender the opportunity to leave him open at the 3-point line to provide help defense on Markelle Fultz. The combination of these factors led to Philadelphia pulling Markelle Fultz off the court after four games because of the soreness and scapular muscle imbalance in his right shoulder.

After being pulled off the court, Philadelphia put Fultz on a physiotherapy treatment in an attempt to cure his injury. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, physiotherapy is the treatment of problems of the muscles, joints, or nerves, especially using exercises or by rubbing or moving the affected body parts.

A month and a half into the treatment, Fultz announced his right shoulder was finally pain-free. Unfortunately, a pain-free shoulder didn’t help Fultz’s jumper as he spent another two months trying to work his shot with the 76ers coaching staff.

In fact. 76ers beat writer Keith Pompey took a video on January 28th, showing Markelle Fultz doing shooting drills four feet away from the basket. The attempt to fix his shot didn’t work as he failed to make a single 3 when he returned to action for the final 10 regular-season games.

The disappearance of his shot forced Philadelphia to alter the role of Fultz as he was given a greater on-ball presence the following season as he averaged 56.3 touches in the first 15 games. This was an increase of 12.7 touches from the previous season. The increase in touches led to more pick and roll opportunities as he averaged 3.5 per game. This was an increase of 0.9 pick and roll opportunities from the previous season.

He was able to generate 3.2 points per game from the 3.5 pick and roll possessions. This was an increase of 1.6 points from the previous season. The 3.2 points accounted for 39 percent of his total scoring output as he averaged 8.2 points per game in his second season as a professional.

Unfortunately, the greater on-ball presence was short-lived as the team acquired Jimmy Butler in November of last year. Butler is a player who likes to have the basketball in his hands. Butler told USA Today that his exit from the Chicago Bulls was partly due to a philosophical difference with Fred Hoiberg over the team’s offense:

"“Look, I iso-ed a little bit (smiles). Yeah, I iso a little bit. And that’s not the way that Fred plays the game. And that’s what I was saying, that it was either, ‘We’re going to build the team around me for a little bit and allow me to distribute the basketball, iso in pick and roll. Or you go with Fred – go up and down, shoot a lot of threes, that type of stuff. That spread type – kind of Golden State-esque, you know what I mean? They went that route, and that’s all I’m saying, and that’s fine. That’s what I was saying. Nothing’s wrong with that.”"

The arrival of Butler forced Fultz to spend more time off the ball as he averaged 39.3 touches in four games with Butter. This was a decrease of 17 touches from the previous 15 games. Unfortunately, he still wasn’t ready to be a real threat off the ball as Fultz didn’t make a 3 over the next four games which brought his season percentage down to 28.6 percent.

Consequently, all of his 3-point attempts were uncontested by defenders. The lack of a shot led to Brett Brown to tell reporters on November 20th that the backup point guard job was up for grabs between T.J. McConnell and Fultz. Brown’s comments led to Fultz removing himself from the rotation as his agent Raymond Brothers declared that Fultz was going to see a shoulder specialist the following week.

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A couple of weeks later, Fultz was ruled out indefinitely as he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome. During his rehab from the injury, he was traded to Orlando for Jonathon Simmons, a first-round pick (via the Thunder), and a second-round pick (via the Cavaliers).

Unfortunately, finding the source of his pain hasn’t improved his shooting as he has made zero 3’s in five preseason games with Orlando. Therefore, it is wrong to say he is showing signs of progress when we already knew that he could thrive with the ball in his hands.