The Orlando Magic did not know what to expect when from Markelle Fultz. They have gotten not just a surprise, but a key part of their future.
The Orlando Magic’s practice gym was fairly empty back in late September. There were a few players working out and coaches watching them mindfully but there were no flashing lights or crowds to cheer them on. There was very little fanfare for what was turning out to be a monumental moment.
The media was present, sent an e-mail from Magic PR staff saying only they could watch a portion of the team’s preseason workouts.
The bombshell they expertly dropped seemed meant to blunt questions at media day the following week. They were ripping the band-aid off the most intriguing and interesting story that would follow the Magic the rest of the year.
There he was.
Like a rare sight gliding across the court, going through one-on-one workouts and drills, taking some contact in playful games with Michael Carter-Williams and, yes, shooting jumpers without any visible discomfort.
Markelle Fultz was on a basketball court in public for the first time. Markelle Fultz and the team announced that day he would be fully cleared to participate in the team’s training camp the following week. It seemed like all systems were a go for Fultz to return.
Back then, there was still plenty of uncertainty. Would he be under load management? Just how effective would he be?
It was not clear what Fultz would give the Magic at that time. Anything would have been a bonus.
More than 60 games into the season, Fultz brushed aside all injury concerns. He missed only one game — for something unrelated to his shoulder injury.
More than that, Fultz has been one of the most important players on the team. He became a starter five games into the season, and it was a no-brainer.
A season of uncertainty for Fultz has turned into something that feels extremely certain. The Magic know more about what they have in Fultz as much as any other player. If anything, they know they will get a whole lot more from him as he develops.
The brightest spot for the Magic in a season many would deem disappointing has been Fultz. He seems to have a place very clearly in the Magic’s future. And things could not have gone further beyond these expectations.
Fultz is averaging 12.1 points per game and 5.2 assists per game, shooting 47.3 percent from the floor and a 49.6-percent effective field goal percentage. He is still a struggling 3-point shooter at 25.4 percent, but his willingness to take those shots has shown improved confidence that will be necessary as he continues developing.
Essentially for a player who is a rookie going through his first full season, Fultz has provided a net positive to the team despite going through the typical ups and downs. He is someone the Magic fully expect to continue growing.
Look at Fultz at his best.
In his best games, he is a bulldozer going to the rim, even pushing opponents out of the way and finishing with finesse at the rim. At his best, he can stop and hit mid-range jumpers off the dribble before the defense can adjust. At his best, he changes pace and catches defenders off guard, cutting through defenses in transition and squeezing passes to cutters going to the rim.
This was not what everyone imagined when Fultz was taken first overall in 2017. But he has looked like that player in flashes enough times to breed confidence. Enough so that it is clear Fultz is an important part of the team’s future.
Discovering that was just as important as anything else the Magic could accomplish this season.
And Fultz still has a lot of things to improve upon.
His jumper is the biggest thing, of course. Defenses will still slack off him and dare him to shoot. While Fultz, when he is able to hit his shot consistently, becomes a very dangerous weapon, defenses can gamble (especially in the playoffs) that he will not have it every game.
Defensively, Fultz is still learning how to navigate screens effectively and consistently contain his man. Opponents score 0.81 points per possession against him in pick and roll situations, putting him in the 69th percentile. In isolation, opponents score 0.86 points per possession, putting him in the 57th percentile in the league.
That suggests he has potential defensively. Fultz is really good at picking up steals too and can make solid defensive plays. But he can lose focus, especially off the ball. Fultz can be a ball hawk defensively. That leads to some of his most exciting plays but also puts him in bad situations on occasion.
A lot of this is merely experience. the 82-game schedule takes a lot of attention to detail.
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He has gone through his ups and downs. He has hit the rookie wall and struggled to find his shot. Only to persevere and find it again.
Coming out at the end of it is the undeniable conclusion the Magic can run their offense through Fultz and trust him to make the right decision. His usage rate has settled at 20.7 percent with a 28.8 percent assist rate.
Usage rate measures where a possession ends — a shot, a turnover, etc. — and so Fultz does not have the ball in his hands a lot at the end of possessions. But he clearly uses a lot of his possessions to set others up. With his ability to get into the lane, that makes him a valuable weapon for the team.
He has been a big weapon for the Magic since the All-Star Break for sure — 12.9 points and 6.6 assists per game on 51.4-percent shooting while still on a light 20.6-percent usage rate. Fultz can do a lot with a little.
And whatever the Magic look like when they come out of the hiatus and moving forward to next season, they will look a lot better with Fultz on the ball and a big part of the team’s future.
Fultz still has a lot of room to grow. The only thing working against him is the potential the league will not give him a full summer to fully focus on developing his skills after spending his first two NBA summers focusing on getting healthy.
Fultz’s development might be the only major conclusion anyone can make off this season. The Magic have found a keeper in Fultz. One that nobody could have expected or seen coming in quite this way.