Markelle Fultz turned career around with Orlando Magic

Markelle Fultz recorded his second career triple-double as the Orlando Magic defeated the Los Angeles Lakers. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Markelle Fultz recorded his second career triple-double as the Orlando Magic defeated the Los Angeles Lakers. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images) /

Markelle Fultz was abandoned when the Philadelphia 76ers pawned him off to the Orlando Magic. In 2020, he turned his career around.

On February 7, 2019, Markelle Fultz appeared to hit rock bottom.

The Philadelphia 76ers lost patience with him enough to warrant a trade with the Orlando Magic. The Magic, for their part, were working to find somebody to bolster their point guard depth and net a potential long-term starter in the process.

This seemed like a perfect risk for a young team that was still unsure whether it was centering itself on a rebuild or trying to push for the playoffs.

Markelle Fultz could play a part in either path. But with Orlando’s more low-key media environment, it felt like the kind of restart the young Fultz needed.

The compensation for Fultz was relatively paltry and consisted of the following: Jonathon Simmons, who went from starter to a mid-level bench player after a career year the previous season and is now out of the league; a future late first-rounder in 2020 that became Carsen Edwards; and, finally, a second-round pick via the Cleveland Cavaliers in the upcoming 2019 NBA draft.

This was cents on the dollar when you consider that just three years ago Fultz was the undisputed top player in the Draft. It was worth it for Philadelphia to jump from No. 3 to No. 1 to get him and complete The Process.

After all, Fultz was a can’t-miss prospect in his lone season with the Washington Huskies. The highly skilled point guard averaged 23 points per game, just less than six rebounds and six assists per game, made better than 47-percent of his shots and better than 40-percent from behind the arc.

He had been compared to James Harden and D’Angelo Russell during the draft process and considered to be unequivocally the best player in a stacked draft.

Fast forward to him on the court and his tenure in Philadelphia was calamitous. He only played 33 games during his two seasons there, with only 15 starts.

He battled a plethora of injuries during those years. Most notably scapular muscle imbalance and later thoracic outlet syndrome. His shot was broken, his confidence was broken and, worst of all, his relationship with the 76ers front office was no longer salvageable.

He spent almost no time in Philadelphia while trying to recuperate from his last injury. Eventually, the organization lost patience in him and he clearly yearned for a change of scenery.

Enter the Magic. There, Fultz has successfully restarted his career and is on the way to reclaim his lost potential.

A fresh start

To shake off the label of being a colossal bust entailed the Orlando Magic being circumspect in his development.

This explains why coach Steve Clifford said it was unlikely he would play after initially acquiring him and then followed through on it. The team sent its front office staff and medical personnel merely to observe his recovery in Los Angeles. They wanted Fultz to know they trusted him to work his way back and they would help in any way they could.

President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said the goal for the franchise was to wrap their arms around Fultz and understand what he was going through. They were going to give him a giant hug and support him in his rehab.

They had none of the baggage of trading up to get Fultz with the top pick nor the difficult injury road he had early in his career. Their goal was to help get the most out of him in this little risk they took.

Since Fultz still needed time to get his body and mind in the right place, Orlando had him sit out for the rest of that season, even though Orlando was trying to reach the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Fultz would rejoin the team for the end of that playoff run, a sign of his progress. But it was merely to observe.

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  • But they knew this low-risk, high-reward move required patience. He even spent his time rehabbing in Orlando with the Magic staff. He said all the right things in terms of remaining hopeful the organization had his best interests in mind and he could blend in with his new teammates.

    Slowly but surely, his confidence and shoulder issues dissipated. He even alluded to how much he felt at home with his new team, relishing a fresh start.

    This is all sounded great and resonated with the fans, but would it translate on the court? Only time would tell. Thankfully, his first year in Orlando went better than anyone could have hoped.

    Fultz found his fit

    Going into both training camp and the beginning of the season, Markelle Fultz had a full offseason to work with the Orlando Magic training staff and coaches. It paid dividends.

    The Magic cleared him to join the team in training camp about a week before camp opened. They would later say he was unable to shoot jumpers from beyond the free-throw line in consecutive days until August. His path to the court was a quick one and the Magic remained cautious.

    But Fultz kept playing well and kept earning a bigger and bigger role. It was hard to keep him off the floor.

    That is why Fultz went from suffering from an injured shoulder to playing with a chip on his shoulder. He finally developed a rhythm and confidence that he had been devoid of in Philadelphia.

    Keep in mind that was all during what was essentially his rookie year in his first full season.

    He did not disappoint, missing only one game and starting all but six in the 2020 season — the four games to start the season and then two games inside the campus where he was late arriving and reintegrating with the team.

    Orlando Magic
    Orlando Magic /

    Orlando Magic

    He proved to be an upgrade from the reliable veteran D.J. Augustin at point guard, averaging 12.1 points and 5.1 assists per game with a career-best 48.8-percent effective field goal percentage. His shot still needed work, but he was not afraid to shoot anymore.

    A young player incessantly mocked for an unconventional, feckless shooting routine now fixed his shot. Building up his confidence and getting healthy played a big role.

    Plus, no more awkward release where he alternated the ball from the fingertips on each of his hands before releasing it while at the charity stripe. Fultz made 73.0 percent of his free throws, suggesting his shot can still get better elsewhere on the floor. His shooting did not have a gawky look to it.

    Orlando was a much better fit for Fultz than Philadelphia. He was never going to reach his full potential playing alongside Ben Simmons, another point guard who struggled with his outside shot.

    From a spacing standpoint, it made zero sense to play him alongside Ben Simmons and to a lesser extent alongside Joel Embiid. Compound that with the fact the 76ers were in win-now mode, while Orlando did not need to go all-in with a rebuilding team that had much lower expectations. The 76ers had no more time to be patient with him.

    Meanwhile, Orlando had all the time in the world. And Fultz flourished.

    Fultz’s numbers speak for themselves

    Markelle Fultz’s production manifested itself on the court by averaging career highs in steals, assists, points, free throw percentage and shooting percentage.

    No game better epitomized this than his coming out party materialized in a road game at the Staples Center. Playing the top team in the Western Conference in the Los Angeles Lakers was not daunting for him. He had a triple-double with 21 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

    It was his second career triple-double and first in Orlando, leading them to an upset win.

    Even Lakers small forward LeBron James took notice, effusive in praising him when speaking postgame to reporters.

    His play improved as the season went on. He played his best basketball after the All-Star break. Orlando even won eight of its final 12 games and their last three before the coronavirus pandemic suspended play.

    Fultz’s play was instrumental in the Magic’s late-season surge.

    But he still has a long way to go, particularly with his outside shooting and defense.

    But the team believes in him and vice versa. He is only going to get better and the Magic deserve credit in his incremental development that is paying major dividends.

    If Fultz was a stock, they definitely bought low and the price continues to skyrocket. He is definitely making Philly pay every time he steps on the court. It was a rueful move for them to give up on him too soon.

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    He plans on keeping up his magical play for years to come in Orlando.