On March 26, Markelle Fultz suited up for the Philadelphia 76ers for the first time since October 23rd. The 2018 number one pick missed five months of play with a scapular muscle imbalance in his right shoulder and had to relearn the lauded shooting mechanics that made him last year’s most sought-after NCAA player. In the 123-104 win over the Denver Nuggets, Fultz reminded Sixers fans why they learned to “trust the process” in the first place.
Fultz missed no time hustling on the court, taking thirteen shots in his fourteen minutes of play. He had a slow start to the first half, turning the ball over on his first possession and airballing his first jump shot. For a player whose shot has been dissected and criticized so closely, this miss reverberated across the entire basketball community. Fultz made up for his poor shooting by scoring on multiple imposing layups, and in the second half successfully made a few hesitation jumpers, the signature shot that gained him recognition in this past Summer League.
But in the months since that Summer League showing, fans and media pundits alike were quick to call Fultz a bust, or at least question the Sixers’ decision to trade up to the number one pick in order to draft him. Though his passing, ball handling, and inside scoring capabilities were compared to the likes of James Harden, Fultz was chosen primarily for his ability to shoot. The 76ers had the sixth worst three-point percentage the year they drafted him, so Fultz’s hesitation to shoot (and pitiful results when he did) were a major concern for the team going forward. For many, Fultz was considered a bust with a broken jumper; a wasted draft pick and a mark against the 76ers’ rebuild process.
So after months of reporting Fultz as “two to three weeks away” from reevaluation and multiple trips to Kentucky’s Shoulder Center for rehabilitation, Fultz sat on the bench for 61 games while he “re-learned his shot.” Fultz was restricted from major practices. The media struggled to gain access to his shooting drills and fans relied on speculation to stay informed about his improvement. Finally, videos appeared of him practicing his jumper, but the worst was revealed: his shot had deteriorated. The combo guard who hit 41 percent from three in his one year at Washington missed enough in practice to shoot a brick wall around the entire city of Philadelphia. It appeared, at least for a moment, that the rumors were true: Fultz had busted.
But as the nation turned their back on Fultz, Philadelphia beat reporters continued to post videos of his pregame warm-ups. Though in early February, General Manager Bryan Colangelo claimed Fultz’s shooting range was limited to the paint, as the months progressed his shot became more fluid. Eventually, his territory extended to the midrange and beyond, but the mechanics of his jumper still looked crooked and disjointed. Soon enough he began shooting against the staggered defense of the team’s trainers, launching turnaround trick shots and hesitation fakeouts. Something seemed to click. Washington’s Fultz reappeared, if only for a glimpse, and the shooter who earned the first pick in the draft seemed ready to take it to the next step.
Fast forward a few weeks and Coach Brett Brown revealed that Fultz was leading meetings about his recovery, that the decision was his own on whether to return before season’s end. It became clear that his shoulder injury had healed, but his shot mechanics were still in question. In a gymnasium where even Ben Simmons could knock down three-pointers, Fultz’s in-game shot was still a variable. Whether it be the physical yips or a mental block, he was in doubt no matter how good he looked off the court.
As a player, Fultz is still going to be criticized, but his decision to return after the Sixers clinched the playoffs speaks miles to his confidence as a person. Despite the negativity he faced, he returned to the court of the Wells Fargo Center to a standing ovation from 76ers fans. Although starting 1-4 from the field, due in part by his unsettling airball, the arena shook with cheers of “We want Fultz” when he was on the bench in the fourth quarter. It would have been hard for Brown not to hear the thunderous chanting, but still, he listened, substituting Fultz for Simmons with less than three minutes left in an apparent blowout.
Philadelphia fans responded in suit, mocking the “Skol” chants of Minnesota Vikings fans by clapping in rhythm and chanting “Fultz” instead. This was a not-so-subtle nod to the Eagles’ victory over the Vikings en route to the Super Bowl, in which fans chanted “Foles.” Like the quarterback, Philly fans were ready for the point guard to make a comeback of his own. Finally, Fultz made two jump shots that sent the arena spinning, one from fourteen feet from the basket and one from twenty.
As the clock wound down, Fultz held the ball for the final seconds, launching it from half court as the buzzer sang. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid came off the bench to hug him and Robert Covington spilled water on his head during a post-game interview. All in all, Fultz scored ten points along with four rebounds, all offensive. He passed for eight assists with only one turnover and showed defensive potential after a leaping chase down block.
Though his first game of 2018 was good, if not brief, Fultz still has a long way to go. He shot only 38 percent on thirteen attempts and didn’t attempt a single three. With the 76ers playoff bound and on a seven-game win streak, we can expect to see Fultz play more often, but we still need to see what he could do beyond the arc and in more than fourteen minutes. If the Sixers can work Fultz back in without sacrificing team chemistry, he could be the final puzzle piece that could send them far in their first playoff appearance in eight years. But putting the future aside, this game was a good sign and only a stepping stone in the story to come. For now, you can trust the process, indeed, Sixers fans.