Markelle Fultz is ready to start, and Orlando Magic need it to start Playoffs

Markelle Fultz has had to be patient inside the campus as the Orlando Magic slowly bring him back again. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
Markelle Fultz has had to be patient inside the campus as the Orlando Magic slowly bring him back again. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images) /

Markelle Fultz had a slow return after entering the campus late. As he gets up to speed, the Orlando Magic need him more with the Playoffs approaching.

Markelle Fultz was rolling with confidence before the season went on hiatus. He had pushed through the rookie wall and had found his groove. He was pushing the pace and driving through the lane, finishing around the rim.

Markelle Fultz might have been essentially a rookie, but the Orlando Magic were following his lead. He was making the team better in so many ways.

Statistics might not have fully tracked this, but everyone from fans to players to even coaches openly recognized the difference Fultz made.

The hiatus halted a lot of this. It halted a lot of this for everyone.

But for Fultz it stopped things even more. He was unable to join the team in the campus when they first arrived. A personal family matter kept him from joining the team. And when he did return, it was just before the team’s first scrimmage.

He was playing catch up and the Magic were being extremely methodical in building back his conditioning and inserting him into play. He would play off the bench and on a minute restriction that would slowly grow. The team hoped it would grow fast enough to be ready for the critical games ahead.

It has been admittedly frustrating for Fultz. But as has been the case throughout his career, patience and hard work will eventually be rewarded.

"“It’s extremely frustrating,” Fultz said after Sunday’s game. “I’m doing everything in my power. I feel really good. It’s me communicating that and waiting for my opportunity.”"

That opportunity finally came Sunday when Fultz scored 16 points and dished out 10 assists. He pushed the pace with the depleted second unit and took command. His change of pace in attacking the paint and the basket were on full display as he kept Celtics defenders off balance.

This was a classic Fultz performance. After a rough shooting first half, Fultz dominated the rest of the game. It was impossible to keep him off the floor. He looked more ready than ever to resume his starting spot.

The one undeniable fact is everyone can feel his effects when he is on the floor.

"“It’s big to have ‘Kelle out there,” Gary Clark said after Sunday’s game. “He has two eyes on the front and two eyes on the back. You always have to be ready for him to make plays offensively and defensively. His arms are so long. You can never count him out from getting a steal and orchestrating things on both ends of the floor. As his conditioning gets up, he’ll be more active than he is now.”"

The Magic are now locked into the 8-seed and everything they are doing at this point has to be geared toward getting back into rhythm and staying fully healthy entering that playoff series.

That needs to include bringing Fultz back into the starting lineup. The Magic’s best chance to win and keep up the pace is by playing Fultz with the starting group.

Lineup balance

The numbers have not bared that out. The bench group has struggled more than the starters. The Orlando Magic have their second-best net rating with Markelle Fultz off the floor. The Magic have struggled when they break the lineup — injuries playing a major factor — specifically to Jonathan Isaac.

Some of that has to do with lineup inconsistency.

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The most-used lineup Fultz has been in since the team resumed its season was the 30 minutes he played with Terrence Ross, Michael Carter-Williams, Khem Birch and Jonathan Isaac — a +17.9 net rating. Three of the four players Fultz played with in that group are out for Tuesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets with Terrence Ross leaving the campus for medical treatment for a non-COVID, yet undisclosed, injury.

The next group is the 14 minutes he played with Gary Clark and Wesley Iwundu standing in for Jonathan Isaac and Michael Carter-Williams (+3.1 net rating).

Fultz’s impact was obviously still muted. He was still working his way back and still not 100-percent. The Magic could not use him fully, capping his minutes initially around 20.

He is averaging 11.5 points per game and 4.7 assists per game in 22.7 minutes per game, shooting 40.9 percent from the field. He averages 12.0 points per game and 5.2 assists per game in 27.8 minutes per game for the season.

Everyone one the team recognizes what Fultz can do. And a lot of it goes beyond those raw counting numbers.

"“When he gets back into his groove he becomes dangerous,” Ross said after Sunday’s game. “He does so many things for us. When he is out there, good things happen.”"

Fultz was still playing around 20 minutes entering Sunday’s game against the Boston Celtics. It felt like he was a kettle about to burst with steam.

The kettle bursts

Perhaps it was the desperation to win that game and stay in the fight for the 7-seed, but something clearly changed and something clearly clicked. It finally spouted.

He had his best game since the season resumed and was a dynamic offensive force. Steve Clifford manipulated his rotation to get Markelle Fultz in with the starters to finish the game. He played all of overtime clearing 30 minutes for the first time since the season resumed.

Fultz said he felt great and seemed ready for more.

"“I feel really great,” Fultz said after Sunday’s game. “I think it is me communicating that to the medical staff. I feel really good out there. I feel like my wind is really good. I’m just staying patient and being smart.”"

Clifford agreed that Fultz looked good. He said it was “by far his best game” and lauded his intensity, aggressiveness and defense throughout the game.

But Clifford was not ready to commit to him being a starter, although he revealed for what felt like the first time that he will regain his starting spot at some point.

Clifford said after Sunday’s game the team has a plan for ramping him back into the starting lineup. The team intends to stick to that plan. Whether that will carry over into the playoffs or not is still yet to be seen.

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  • It seems inevitable that Fultz will return to the starting lineup once he clears those benchmarks. The team is just waiting for him to get back to 100-percent.

    "“For him, it’s just getting back into 100-percent game shape,” Nikola Vucevic said after Sunday’s game. “He had to miss some time for family matters. It’s difficult when you don’t go through all the practices like we did and you have to play limited minutes in the first couple of games. It’s not always easy to find your rhythm. He has looked better each game. We know what he can do. Hopefully, he can use these next two games to get back to 100-percent. Hopefully, we can use him in the playoffs like we did in the regular season because he is a huge part of what we do.”"

    To be sure, for the Orlando Magic to have their chance to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs and get ready for the postseason, they will need Fultz in the starting lineup and playing his full minutes.

    Orlando has stuck to a plan to get him to that level. They clearly have more medical information than the public and Fultz has had to trust them to have him ready for the postseason and the games that really matter.

    As with other young players, the Magic have kept their long-term futures in mind as they work them back from various injuries — even Jonathan Isaac had to clear several benchmarks before returning to the court. The Magic maintain his torn ACL was unrelated to his previous injury to the left knee.

    Next. Orlando Magic turn attention toward playoffs. dark

    With the playoffs now on the horizon and fully crystallized, the Magic need to get ready. And they need Fultz to be back in the starting lineup soon.