First overall picks ordinarily arrive into the league rather well-equipped for the NBA landscape. Most have moments of vigor but still have a level of green to them that holds them back, merely using their rookie campaign as a stepping stool to what they will accomplish. Sometimes, players enter the league and dominate from the first tip. Less often are the ones who can’t seem to find their footing and drip out of the league. Whether it be due to health concerns or teams simply giving up on the young lad, busts happen every once in a while. And then you have Markelle Fultz.
The NBA is a league cemented in the national limelight and most fans wind up as analysts and reporters due to the widespread coverage of the league. By the might of Adrian Wojnarowski, the NBA announces injuries accurately and quickly, contracts and trade rumors go viral fluidly, and not a lot seems to be behind walls. The fact the NBA likes to keep their fans informed makes the Fultz situation all the more baffling.
After only a few contests, Fultz fell out of the lineup due to “shoulder soreness”. Not an abnormal rookie occurrence, little tweaks here and there happen. Abruptly it felt as if everything around him had begun to evaporate. He missed more and more games with no cause for the longevity of the ailment. His agent came out and explained he had fluid drained and that “(Fultz) literally cannot raise up his arms to shoot the basketball. He would go back on these words merely hours later, then citing a cortisone shot as the source of the troubles.
And finally, after months of will he-won’t he cryptic injury reports, mindset disparagement, and more shooting mechanic bloopers than middle school basketball, Fultz made his triumphant return to professional basketball in a contest against the Denver Nuggets. Appearing in only 14 minutes, he put up a surprisingly solid performance despite 68 straight missed games, going for ten points on an albeit rusty 5-13 shooting, eight assists, and four rebounds.
Though a tad underwhelming for a first overall pick, missing as many games as he did with the sheer severity and oddity of his “shoulder soreness” proves a near double-double incredibly encouraging. With the playoffs right on the horizon and single digit games remaining in the regular season, Fultz could not have timed his return better, giving himself some time to get up back up to speed right as the Sixers gear up for their first playoff appearance since 2012.
Coming out of Washington, fans and analysts alike widely considered Fultz to be the most NBA ready prospect in a historic draft flaunting names like Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and Lauri Markkanen. Flashing incredible scoring ability, gleaming versatility, and ironically great shooting touch, scouts saw generational talent in him. As the final piece of the process, the Sixers traded up to the first overall to nab Fultz, however, the deal hasn’t gone exactly to plan up to this point.
He stumbled out of the blocks to start his career, heaving up shots like a game of horse and had drastically changed his shooting mechanics during the offseason, despite being a sound if not a strong shooter in college. Fultz would end up averaging a meager 6.0 points per game, 2.6 rebounds, and 3.0 assists for four games until the *shudders* “shoulder soreness” attacked. He hasn’t seen NBA action since early October.
But even without Fultz in the lineup, the Sixers still pulled off their best season since 2002. Currently on pace for 48 wins, former top picks Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have proven to be dominant in almost every way and better yet, healthy. Simmons didn’t appear in a single contest his rookie year and Embiid only appeared in 31 games in his first two seasons. Up to this point, this season has all but buried those concerns, as they have missed a combined eleven games all season long.
And now with the playoffs nearing, a healthy Fultz could be a total asset if he finds his groove. Currently sitting at the fourth seed, the Sixers have quietly proven themselves to a top team in the East. And in the East, no team has a guaranteed run. The entire conference has been slippery and it seemed as if a new top team had emerged every week. The Celtics, Cavaliers, and Raptors took turns with the first seeds and only when the Celtics wound up slammed by injuries and the Cavs begun to swim in drama did the Raptors take the firmest grip over the conference.
The fact the Celtics got blasted by injuries, keeping Kyrie Irving out of the first round, Marcus Smart for the rest of the year, Jaylen Brown out for who knows how long with a concussion, not to mention losing Gordon Hayward in the early minutes of the season. Add in the Cavaliers’ family drama that they can’t work out leaving Tyronn Lue to drop out of and the East’s current shape should leave Philadelphia salivating.
Until Irving and Brown return, the Celtics simply lack the depth required for a deep playoff run. In the last ten games, facing and edging out competition like the Bulls, Suns, Kings, and Magic, the Celtics only muster up 103.5 points per game. While their defense continues to be the focus, they may not be able to hold on against the top teams in the East.
The Cavaliers have been the epitome of inconsistent, profiling a high win against the Raptors and a slightly lower profile win against Bucks but wind up getting whacked by the Lakers and Heat. LeBron James continues to be the cork on the sinking ship, albeit a highly effective cork. But without a legitimate head coach and a crumbling defense, whether or not the good Cavs show up really comes down to a coin toss. Either way, with the Sixers starting to pack heat, every team in the East should be very afraid of an any-round duel with the Sixers.
The Raptors still pose the greatest threat to the East, but slowly, as the Sixers gain steam right at the perfect time, going 11-3 over the course of March and receiving a spectacular secret weapon in Fultz, the pieces of the process begin to melt into place. Simmons continues to put up a historic rookie year and usually, when other rookies hit that pesky wall, he seems to only have gotten better. Since the All-star Break, he has put up an MVP-esque 14.1 points on 56.9 percent shooting, 10.1 assists, and 8.6 rebounds.
Embiid’s All-Star debut season has been dazzling, averaging 20.9 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks on top of draining a three-pointer every game. Factor in Fultz and while not championship caliber just yet, the Sixers are going to be a formidable matchup.
However, a lot does hinge on Fultz’s ability to shake off the rust. While the Rookie of the Year bandwagon has fallen off the tracks, all he will be required to do is efficiently make plays and productively contribute in the scoring department. The supremacy of Simmons and Embiid relieves a ton of pressure off of Fultz’s shoulders (pun intended) so that also means he has a very large margin of error, where whatever he brings to the table will be accepted with open arms.
But to be honest, his mere presence alone may be enough to spark a strong playoff run. During and after the game, the team and fans lost it over Fultz’s return. After taking an easy win over the Nuggets, the team poured water over his head and fans even mocked the Minnesota Vikings’ SKOL chant in his honor. Even with a turnover on his first possession and having his shot blocked more than he made, both fans and the Sixers ate his comeback up. Spirit is infectious and Fultz finally suiting up brought so much excitement to the stadium and locker room.
Young teams usually don’t have the chutzpah that the Sixers found in Fultz and that’s what separates them from even more proven teams. Couple that with Embiid and Simmons’ excellence and the Sixers have assembled a roster that could potentially contend already. Though probably not getting through the Rockets or even the Raptors for that matter, the Sixers have deservingly forced themselves in the conversation of playoff dark horses. The East has gradually tumbled and the Sixers peaked right on time, taking total advantage of the collapse.
Get excited, Philadelphia.