Markelle Fultz understands what it means to stay ready as Orlando Magic ramp back up

Markelle Fultz has done the work on his own to rehab his injury. As the Orlando Magic prepare to enter the bubble, Fultz knows what it means to be ready.

In the first days after the NBA season went on hiatus, Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz said he knew he had to get a basket. Anything to try to keep the rhythm he had going that had vaulted the Magic securely into the Playoff picture and set up a 17-game battle for the seventh-seed in the Eastern Conference.

He said within three days he was looking online to see if any local stores had basketball hoops in stock. He was not going to risk going out to a store and browsing but he needed the immediacy of installing a hoop, lest that rhythm and drive escape him.

A local Wal-Mart had what he was looking for. But then came the next problem — actually putting the thing together.

“I feel like the hardest part of that was putting the thing together,” Markelle Fultz said in a media ZOOM conference on Monday. “I never knew how hard it was to put a basketball hoop together. I figured it out and it was all uphill from there.”

These are the basic things everyone had to figure out — how do you work out on your own without access to the team’s training facility? How do you keep yourself in shape? Self-motivation is everything.

That is the way Fultz’s career has seemingly gone. One challenge after another. One moment of struggle and obstacle keeping him from playing and keeping him from realizing the talent that turned him into the No. 1 pick.

The coronavirus pandemic seemed like it came at the absolute worst time for Fultz. The team had turned more responsibility over to him and he was playing with confidence and swagger. The Magic seemed like they were turning a corner.

Turning a corner

Markelle Fultz was having a break out year in his first fully healthy season, getting some buzz for Most Improved Player or as the media-anointed Comeback Player of the Year.

Fultz was averaging 12.1 points and 5.2 assists per game on 49.6 percent effective field goal percentage. Modest numbers for sure but a huge step for a player who dealt with the mysterious thoracic outlet syndrome.

As the season neared its pause, Fultz was breaking through the rookie wall — he has played in 64 of 65 games, one of the few players to avoid injury this year — and helping lead the Orlando Magic to some of their best basketball of the season.

After the All-Star Break, Fultz was averaging 12.9 points and 6.6 assists per game on a 52.7-percent effective field goal percentage. In the extremely small five-game sample size leading into the season’s pause, Fultz was averaging 15.4 points per game and 6.4 assists per game on a 58.2-percent effective field goal percentage.

More importantly during that time, the Magic were winning — going 6-4 after the All-Star Break — and their offense had picked up its pace and speed. Not all of it can be attributed to Fultz — the Magic started using Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic more effectively.

But Fultz’s penchant and skill at pushing the pace in transition and creating pace in the half-court helped the team unlock some offensive mastery that had eluded them all season.

“I felt like I was getting into such a great rhythm,” Fultz said Monday. “During the whole season, I felt like I was steady, getting better just like our team. I was in a crazy rhythm.

“I had a routine down that I was doing every day and I just stuck to that routine. My mindset going back into it was to pick back up to it. I know I’m going to have to ramp it up slowly. But that’s something I’ve been doing since I got into the league once I got my injury is learning how to manage not playing and managing myself back into it.”

For Fultz that routine is ever important. His injury is one that does not simply go away.

Faithful to the grind

Markelle Fultz has had to carefully manage his injury throughout the season, going through treatment, rehab and monitoring. There have been no flare-ups, suggesting the work Fultz has put in to strengthen the area and rest when appropriate.

Returning from that injury has been the storyline for Fultz all year. Putting together an injury-free and solid “rookie” campaign is certainly a success.

But the coronavirus pandemic and the NBA’s shutdown put him back in that familiar zone — working on his own away from the world and his teammates, waiting for his opportunity to play.

“I feel like I have an advantage going back into this bubble because I have sat out for a long time and I have had to learn how to stay active in certain ways to make sure I can sharpen up the tools that I need to sharpen,” Fultz said Monday. “That is one thing I wish I could have been able to do is to go in and get treatment. I feel that is one of the disadvantages every team has had not being able to access all the training staff that we have.”

Fultz said he has still been in contact with the training staff, coaches and teammates via ZOOM and FaceTime. It has not been like he is completely alone. Everyone has tried to stay connected as best they can.

But the work of staying in shape and staying ready for the season has fallen on each individual’s shoulders. And the challenge of not knowing how long this hiatus would last has only added to the uncertainty of that work.

That is why the first step of buying that hoop was important. Not every player has had that kind of access. And while teams did a good job trying to communicate workout plans and provide equipment, players were largely left up to their own devices.

Falling back into the pattern

That kind of work is where Markelle Fultz has lived for much of his NBA career. It was easy to fall back into that pattern.

Fultz said he would get up and shoot around on his hoop when he woke up — shooting for anywhere between one and three hours, by his estimation.

He would work on his ball-handling in his driveway and lift using the equipment in his garage. He would add running two miles and riding his bike to try and keep some cardio shape.

The workouts were not necessarily completely focused. Fultz said he felt like he was a kid again doing these basic workouts, throwing on music and just trying to stay in a rhythm. But the grind — Fultz’s favorite hashtag is #F2G for “faithful to the grind” — provided some solace in the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“That’s like me meditating, just going out there and enjoying myself on the court,” Fultz said Monday. “But as we ramp back up and I found out the season was going back up, I started to work even harder. I started running four miles. I started working on game-like shots that I would have a chance to shoot in the game.”

Those intensified workouts included not only game shots but ball-handling drills and even practicing defensive slides. Returning to the Amway Center gave a bit more structure too. The end goal of a return to the season has caused him to ramp up his workouts.

Unlike his injury, the end is now in sight.

The challenge is undoubtedly going to go to the players to sharpen themselves up for the rest of the season. Nobody has experienced this kind of a pause or life in the bubble environment.

All anyone can do is prepare and take the steps to be ready when the time comes.

Next: Orlando Magic will get their chance to play their way in

This is the kind of grind Fultz has been on his entire career. About as much as anyone in the league, he knows the focus it takes to be ready.

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