2020 Orlando Magic Evaluations: Markelle Fultz shows signs of encouragement for the future

Markelle Fultz entered the season with little promise or expectation. But he blew the Orlando Magic away. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images)
Markelle Fultz entered the season with little promise or expectation. But he blew the Orlando Magic away. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

Markelle Fultz joined the Orlando Magic in 2019 from the Philadelphia 76ers. In his first full season with the franchise, the point guard impressed.

Entering the NBA as a first pick in the draft comes with a special form of pressure, one a select few group of players have experienced during the history of the league.

Markelle Fultz is one of them. The young point guard was selected first by the Philadelphia 76ers back in 2017 after impressing in his one season at Washington.

But following a difficult start to his professional basketball career largely as a result of a mysterious shoulder injury, later diagnosed as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, which saw him struggle to make an impact at Philadelphia, Markelle Fultz was traded to the Orlando Magic in February 2019.

This season under head coach Steve Clifford gave Markelle Fultz a fresh chance to knuckle down and finally try and get to the level he was anticipated to reach coming out of college.

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On the whole, there is much to be positive about for the future based on what Fultz has shown this season. The 22-year-old averaged 12.1 points per game and 5.1 assists per game in almost 27.7 minutes per game across 72 regular-season games. This came after he managed to play just 14 times in his rookie season and 19 the next.

The numbers are not eye-popping for a guy picked first in the draft. But this is a marathon and not a sprint for Fultz. And for a first full-time run through the NBA, this was about as much as the team could hope for.

"“I don’t think anybody could have been around him last July when he wasn’t able to shoot free-throw line jumpers two days in a row could have ever envisioned he would be in the place that he is after 13 months,” Clifford said during a teleconference last week. “Having an opportunity to compete against a guy like Eric Bledsoe in a playoff series is good for him too. I thought he handled it well and responded to it well.”"

His previous injury problems seriously impacted his ability to shoot to the extent that he altered his shot technique and had to relearn several aspects of his game. But he became a fairly reliable shooter in the end. Fultz made 46.5-percent of his shots with a 48.8-percent effective field goal percentage. He seemed to get better as the season went on and he got more comfortable.

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  • This season saw Fultz take the first step toward realizing his potential. He may never get to the level he was expected to immediately after leaving college but this past season has been encouraging on many different levels, though it has also highlighted where his game must improve.

    More time on the floor

    One of the more obvious successes of Markelle Fultz’s season is the number of minutes and games he managed to play. After two injury-plagued seasons, seeing him play almost 28 minutes per game in the regular season across 72 games, including 60 starts, is an achievement by itself.

    The Magic knew they were getting a player who still had plenty of potential when they made the trade. But they were taking a risk given they did not know how many games Fultz would be able to manage in a season.

    Fultz was not even shooting jumpers on consecutive days a month before training camp. Steve Clifford said Markelle Fultz is still going through extensive rehab and prep before taking the floor for every game.

    Thankfully, this has not proven to be an issue.

    A proper diagnosis for his condition seems to have made a huge difference in how he can manage it. He has a greater understanding of his body than in his first two seasons and will know his limitations.

    "“My hope for Markelle is we are moving past the point with what he dealt with before he came here and we are starting to evaluate him as a player,” president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said during a teleconference last week. “That’s a credit to him that he has put himself in a position to be evaluated on his ability.”"

    Fultz needed to get away from Philadelphia and experience a fresh start. Everything associated with his struggles there would have been too difficult to shake off. Allowing him to develop at a team with less expectation and pressure has been excellent for his career.

    The point guard regularly managed 30 minutes or more in the second half of the shortened regular season, playing a season-high 40 in his 22-point return in February’s win over the Detroit Pistons.

    Staying injury-free has been key for Fultz, something he must hope continues to be the case as he tries to further develop his game. This season has been the most important of his short career and has allowed him to reach a level of consistency.

    Free-throw and shooting improvement

    Markelle Fultz’s struggles from the line at Philadelphia were well-publicized and clips of his misses were shared widely. He found it difficult to make the most of being fouled, shooting worse than 48-percent in his rookie season and worse than 57-percent in his second season.

    But this year saw real progress in that area, shooting 73-percent from the line in the regular season. While he remains a below-average free-throw shooter and must continue to develop that side of his game, his improvements have been a cause for encouragement.

    Related Story. 2020 Orlando Magic Player Outlook: Markelle Fultz. light

    That translated to his shooting.

    Fultz received criticism not only for his free-throw shooting but what that meant for his shooting as a whole. He was not a confident 3-point shooter, taking 15 total 3-pointers in his 33 games from his first two seasons.

    He still shot only 26.7 percent from deep, but he took 135 total (1.9 per game). But he quickly became a skilled jump shooter.

    According to NBA.com’s stats database, Fultz made 38.8-percent of his jumpers from 10-24 feet and 43.9-percent on jumpers from 10-20 feet. Those numbers are not blowing anyone away, but they are a sign of progress.

    Fultz got better as the season went on too. At least until the hiatus when he was late arriving to the campus and never found the consistency that made the second half of his season so promising.

    Fultz is at his most effective when he is being aggressive, driving to the basket and finishing with contact. His athleticism and dribbling with the ball make him a danger to any defense, meaning he will naturally draw fouls if he plays to his strengths. This makes his shooting from the line of high importance.

    But he was not regularly put to the line this season. Seven made free throws against the San Antonio Spurs in December was his season-high and he averaged just more than two free-throw attempts per game.

    His progression at making his free throws has been promising. Working on getting to the line more will help him improve his in-game free-throw shooting and could be a big factor in taking his points per game tally to the next level.

    Speed in transition and drives into the paint

    We have all seen Markelle Fultz’s college highlights with his speed, strength, agility and excellent transition play which often finished with an acrobatic layup or immense dunk. Having struggled to replicate this type of play on his entry into the league, this season saw him offer glimpses of what made him the number one pick in the draft.

    Orlando Magic fans were treated to many of these trademark Fultz plays this season. His combination of speed and ball-handling followed by a superb finish close to the basket was perfectly displayed in December’s game at the Utah Jazz in the first quarter, faking right before going left and floating the ball in.

    Fultz achieved a career-high 25 points against the Brooklyn Nets in January. His first basket again came from a similar move to the one against the Jazz, this time faking left to go right before completing a difficult layup. The Nets simply had no answer for Fultz, who continued to transition rapidly up the court to drive into the paint and make an often difficult finish.

    According to stats provided by Basketball Index, Fultz was among the best player in the league at getting to and finishing at the rim despite a high shot difficulty. He had a positive impact on getting to and around the rim.

    His driving ability is also vital to his playmaking game. Fultz has regularly shown his ability to stop and find a better option when close to the basket and averages five assists per game, something which certainly has the potential to rise over time.

    The 22-year-old has still experienced his fair share of shooting difficulties, as will soon be discussed, and is at his most effective when driving and taking people on to finish close to the basket.

    Fultz has done this much more often in his first full season with the Magic, largely thanks to him staying injury-free and being trusted to lead the team up the court by Steve Clifford.

    Shooting concerns

    Playing to your strengths is of huge importance but the focus on improving areas of your game that are lacking cannot be ignored. For Markelle Fultz, his shooting from beyond the arc continues to prove a problem.

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    He made just less than 27 percent of his threes this season and as teams continue to shoot from deep more than ever, this is something he must look to address.

    According To Basketball Index, 42.4-percent of his 3-point shots were considered open (putting him in the 92nd percentile among the entire league). Defenses left him open beyond the arc and dared Fultz to shoot them.

    Despite Fultz’s improvement as a shooter, he is still not a reliable 3-point shooter or floor spacer.

    Fultz does not always look confident shooting from beyond the arc. He often hesitates to shoot when open before either deciding against it or subsequently missing with his attempt. The catch and shoot game is something he has yet to master.

    Fultz has changed his shooting form considerably since his college days likely due to the shoulder issues which hindered his first two seasons in the league. His release in college was much more natural, letting the ball go higher up, compared to his release now which is lower and sees him push away from his chest.

    He shot well from three in his Washington days, making 41-percent of his attempts, but has been unable to make it past the 30-percent mark in the NBA.

    Much of this is of course as a result of his shoulder condition. Had he not developed this issue Fultz would not have had to adapt his shot and likely would not have struggled so much from three. He would also probably still be in Philadelphia.

    Only he knows what is right for him. If shooting the way he is at the moment is right for him given his condition then he should of course stick with it but Fultz must find a way of connecting with more of his threes. No one expects him to grow into Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson but a modern point guard has to shoot the three-ball at a good percentage.

    An encouraging sign was his success from three across the five playoff games against the Milwaukee Bucks. He shot 37.5-percent during the series, making 6 of his 16 tries, which would have been higher if it was not for a disappointing Game 5 where he went one-for-five from beyond the arc.

    What next for Fultz?

    . PG. Orlando Magic. MARKELLE FULTZ. B+

    Markelle Fultz enters the final year of his contract next season before becoming a restricted free agent in the offseason. For the Magic, the gamble has already been a success given the trade only took a first-round pick, a second-round pick and wing Jonathon Simmons to lure him away from Philadelphia.

    This has been the season Fultz needed.

    Getting back on the court and getting the game time he has done has been hugely beneficial and while there are still holes in his game that need addressing, at times he has shown what he could still be capable of in this league.

    It is important to stress that Fultz is still trying to adapt and improve his game following his disastrous first two injury-hit seasons. His jump shot is not there yet but is improving, as is his overall consistency. Patience is needed.

    Next season must be about trying to maximize his potential. Much will depend on his ability to stay healthy but his trade to the Magic is proving to have been worth it, allowing him to focus on trying to get back to his best and start to move on from his injury problems.

    His future with the franchise will depend on how well he does next season.

    "“You can tell somebody something as much as you want, he knows now and he knows what he needs,” Weltman said during a teleconference last week. “He knows now what those words mean and what he needs to do. He‘s a dedicated, committed guy. I think it will be a big summer for him.”"

    If he continues to develop the Magic should want to keep him around for longer but if his progress increases dramatically interest in him will rise and he may want to move on and pursue other opportunities.

    With performances like his triple-double (11 rebounds, 10 assists, 21 points) in the win over the Los Angeles Lakers in January, there is much to be hopeful about for the future.

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    Fultz has taken the first step toward getting his career back on track. The difference from where he was last season to where he is now is substantial. Now it is about taking the next step and establishing himself as a top point guard.