Just over a year ago, the Philadelphia 76ers gave up on former No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz by trading him to the Orlando Magic for pennies on the dollar. Direly in need of a floor general who fit its timeline, Orlando bought in on a player that most people had written off despite being only 20 years old and one of the most dynamic athletes at his position.
Now in his third season, it seems like Fultz is figuring it out and returning to the role that had draft scouts salivating in 2017.
His season-long field goal percentage is up by 4.6 percent and his free throw percentage is up by a whopping 18.2 percent from last year. But much more importantly, he finally looks confident again.
Fultz was most exciting as a prospect when he was demoralizing his opponents with blistering speed and an uncanny leaping ability while setting peers up for easy buckets. The greatest appeal to drafting the freshman from the University of Washington was his innate ability to uplift teammates by creating open looks for others—a skill that is coming to fruition now that he’s taking over for the Magic.
Since the start of 2020, Fultz is averaging six assists to 2.2 turnovers per contest, giving him a 2.73 assist-to-turnover ratio. During his last 15 games, his 2.94 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks fourteenth amongst starting guards averaging at least 28 MPG. That places him ahead of players like Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry and former Sixers teammate Ben Simmons.
Now that he’s getting comfortable in a larger role, Fultz is showing off the full extent of his passing chops. He’s committing fewer lazy turnovers and has greater court awareness at the professional level. Though it hasn’t been the best all-around season for Magic forward Aaron Gordon, the duo has developed exceptional chemistry as the team’s best athletes and fastbreak scorers.
Fultz is the epitome of a two-way player, playing a disciplined brand of defense and subsequently turning it into buckets for himself or others on the opposite end of the floor.
— Dylan Hunter Carter (@DylanHCarter) February 18, 2020
In this play against the Atlanta Hawks, Fultz kept his head on a swivel while covering All-Star point guard Trae Young. That awareness helped him pick off a lost dribble by big man John Collins before dropping a bounce-pass to Gordon between two defenders in the paint. Plays like this are what enticed Philly into selecting Fultz with the first pic even at 19 years old.
Fultz played this one perfectly, sticking to Devonte’ Graham like glue and immediately corralling the loose ball off of Zeller. It’s a shame Gordon couldn’t finish because this was an extraordinary pass by Markelle. #MagicAboveAll #NBA pic.twitter.com/a9h60qoQPM
— Dylan Hunter Carter (@DylanHCarter) February 18, 2020
Gordon and Fultz link up again here, though the former isn’t able to finish the bucket. Still, Fultz immediately recognized the mistake by Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller before tossing a bounce pass from one 3-point line to the other. The degree of difficulty to split four defenders and two teammates all running to the opposite end of the court is immeasurable and requires intangible competence that most players could never dream of.
Opponents are taking notice of what Fultz is doing, and he’s drawing a ton more attention because of it. That might’ve bothered him a season or two ago when he didn’t appear confident in himself, but that’s just not the case anymore. He is taking every challenge in stride and thriving under the pressure—a development the Sixers were unwilling to wait for.
The last game before the All-Star break, (a 116-112 overtime victory against the Detroit Pistons), was arguably the best that Fultz has played as a pro.
Logging 40 minutes as the team’s lead guard, he scored 22 points on 57.1 percent shooting, including one triple and five free throw makes on six shots. For as impressive as he was scoring the ball, he was even more so as a passer. Markelle dished out 10 assists without committing a single turnover against a team that forces 14.1 of them per game.
He was in complete control of himself and elevated his teammates en route to a win:
Right out of the gate, Fultz scored his team’s opening bucket before hitting their first triple just a brief moment later. His aggressiveness and energy from the jump had the air of a big night, but what came next was spectacular.
Not even halfway through the first quarter (0:26), you can see Fultz recognize an errant pass by Reggie Jackson before acrobatically saving it from going out of bounds. He quickly regains his balance, runs up the court and puts Jackson in a spin cycle before softly dropping his basket in off the glass.
Fultz would use his strength and quickness to attack Jackson (2:04), as he did in the fourth quarter on a silky reverse layup while charging the Magic back into the game. Checking Fultz one-on-one is a tall task for most point guards, but sending help only ensures the possibility for him to smartly set up a teammate instead.
This was exemplified during the third quarter (1:01), when Fultz drew center Thon Maker’s attention coming off of a screen by center Nikola Vucevic. There’s a one-second window in which Maker steps up to help on Fultz, and the budding point guard immediately finds Gordon open in the paint for a two-handed slam. This is some veteran-level play recognition by the third-year point guard, especially given the small window he had to deliver the crisp bounce pass.
Now that he knows how wary other teams can be of his slashing abilities, Fultz manipulates defenders into creating open shots for his teammates (1:35). By faking a drive to the basket coming around another screen by Vucevic, Fultz drew three defenders toward the rim and dished the ball to forward Wes Iwundu for a wide-open triple.
The capacity to control gravity is one of the greatest traits a playmaker can have in the modern game. Floor spacing and 3-point shooting are essential to team success, so having a point guard who can command defensive attention to the mid-range and painted areas open up a world of opportunity for the rest of his group.
Fultz is nowhere close to an All-Star caliber talent yet, or even the player that many envisioned he’d be upon entering the NBA. He still isn’t much of a threat from 3-point range the way he was in college, but his improved free-throw shooting is a positive sign for his growth in that area.
While Fultz must prove that he can score in volume and lead his team in a playoff atmosphere, he’s still turning a corner.
Markelle got labeled as a bust without ever truly getting his chance to shine. The Magic are getting exactly what they dreamed of when they traded for him: a genuine, young floor general to navigate complex on-court scenarios while working through the kinks of his game en route to a prosperous playing career.
If he can remain in good health, both mentally and physically, Fultz can still be one of the star talents at his position.
*All stats courtesy of NBA.com
Dylan Hunter Carter is a freelance sports journalist contributing to The Basketball Writers. He also currently covers the Spurs for Air Alamo and is a digital reporter for Cronkite News: Phoenix Sports covering the Phoenix Suns, ASU athletics and other local topics.