One thing that is true across all sports, at all professional levels, and around the world is that it’s results-driven. Win or go home. Championship or bust. The end goal, no matter the league, the sport, or the country, is to win. That has a trickle-down effect that cascades into the minds of players, front-office executives, and coaches – that winning is everything. Winning as a team, individually, and most importantly, as an organization, above all else. Ultimately, though, that can have some negative effects on the way we analyze and digest development. In a results-driven environment, the process, and the journey can oftentimes not seem as rewarding as the end result of ‘winning’.
It also has created this need for instant gratification, instant vindication, and an instant ‘win’. Players receive the short end of the stick in this department, especially when they’ve been propped up to be highly touted prospects. Because if you don’t meet or exceed that expectation almost instantly, you are lost to the machine, a defect that somehow made its way through the factory’s vetting process.
It’s one of the worst aspects of professional sports fandom and Markelle Fultz, at one point, was one of its victims. The #1 pick out of Washington stumbled his way through his first couple of seasons in Philadelphia and dealt with multiple setbacks like injuries, the yips, and taunts from an all too results-driven Sixers fanbase who had started to grow tired of its own “process”.
Fultz played 33 games in his 2 seasons in Philly – never living up to the hype that comes with being a number 1 overall pick and ultimately, became lost to the machine. Forgotten, just as quickly as he was labeled a bust.
In his 4 seasons in Orlando since then, ‘Kelle has worked tooth-n-nail to shake off that label, dealing with his fair share of injuries, including a torn ACL, and having to fight his way through a jam-packed guard rotation to carve out a role for himself.
This season – it has seemingly come together. Fultz isn’t putting up the numbers expected with the title of #1 overall pick, so maybe to some, he’s still a bust, but to many who have watched this Orlando Magic team – he has been an essential cog and a clear core piece for an exciting, young group of players.
He’s not being asked to handle the task of being a #1 option, nor is he being asked to score in abundance or shoot the lights out. All he’s being asked to do is set the table for young scorers like Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner, and Wendell Carter Jr and set the pace and tone for a Magic team that is still trying to iron out its identity.
He’s averaging 12 points, 6 assists, and 4 rebounds on nearly 50% shooting from the field in 28 minutes a night. Again, nothing about that is sexy, nothing about that piques the interest of the results-driven folks at home, but when you watch the Magic, they hum because of him.
Markelle missed the first 21 games of the season for the Magic, in that time, they went 5-16. In the 30 games, since he’s returned, they’re 15-15.
Banchero’s growth as a rookie and Franz’s development in his sophomore year is crucial to that in-season turnaround but who do you think has made their lives easier? Fultz.
5 of the Magic’s 6 most commonly used lineups have negative net ratings, two of those lineups include Fultz, more specifically the only one with a positive net rating of +8.7. When all three of Banchero, Fultz, and Wagner are on the court, the Magic have an offensive rating of over 116 points per 100 possessions, which would be near the top of the league in efficiency,
In his return to Philadelphia earlier this week, the Magic rallied from down 21 against the scorching-hot Sixers to steal the game and snap Philly’s winning streak. Fultz, for his part, had a double-double of 12 points and 10 assists as well as 4 steals, including the dagger steal in the final 45 seconds, picking off a pass from Joel Embiid.
In fact, the defensive side of the ball is probably Fultz’s biggest area of growth in his time in Orlando. He’s one of the only positive defenders on the Magic and he is a pest that constantly gets deflections with his 6’10 wingspan. According to B-Ball index, he’s in the 97th percentile for steals per 75 possessions for his position and in the 86th percentile for deflections.
He’s become legit at the point of attack, hounding ball handlers with his length, disrupting passing lanes, and keeping guards on their toes when they’re handling the rock.
The defense is flat-out good and will only get better as the personnel around him improves defensively.
Offensively, he brings stability. I can’t stress this enough: watching the Magic with Fultz and the Magic without him is like watching two completely different teams.
Now, admittedly, that might tell us more about the Magic’s need for some guard creators but it shows the type of value Fultz can bring to a team. A pacemaker for a squad in dire need of offensive structure, the stabilizer for a group of young players, and a veteran presence in the locker room.
Don’t take my word for it? Fine, just listen to Banchero wax poetic about Fultz’s impact on the Old Man & The Three Pod.
As for his rough time in Philadelphia, and what that meant for him as a player, Fultz has put a rather positive spin on it:
“My time and experience there was very dope, especially with the city. I felt like they gave me a lot of love. Just living there for a little bit, being able to embrace the culture they have there is pretty dope. It was a positive thing. Everything happens for a reason, I’m a firm believer in that. I’m very thankful for everything that Philly’s done for me.”
Fultz and the Magic have another battle with the Sixers tonight in Philly where they’ll try for their 21st win of the season.
Their pre-season over-under win total was set at 27.5 and with 32 games left, it seems like there’s a very good chance they’ll hit the over on that bet.
A big reason for that will be Fultz and the stability he’s helped permeate throughout the team.
But he won’t get recognition for it. Even though he’s helping deliver positive results in a meaningful way and doing it despite a number of career setbacks.
Fultz is far from the star player he was meant to be — and in all likelihood, won’t ever become that star that Philly was seeking when they picked him 1st overall. Many fans have passed the point of looking for that instant gratification while watching Fultz hoop. They’ve left Fultz island.
And that’s FINE. Why? Because he’s still delivering results. Just not the ones you expected.
He’s found his way out of the machine, not being consumed by the talks of being a bust, or talks of his jump shot, but instead quietly and steadily learning what role he can best play in this game we call basketball.
And that in itself is a worthwhile result.