Markelle Fultz is entering his second year with the Orlando Magic ready to silence new doubters and prove he is ready to reclaim his career again.
Markelle Fultz is used to being doubted. That has been the story of his basketball career.
He was a late riser in high school, ranked fifth at the end in his high school class of 2016. He stuck with Washington and starred on a team that struggled to gain much traction, failing to make the NCAA Tournament.
There was still even a chip on his shoulder as the top overall pick. The Boston Celtics traded off the pick. And when he arrived in Philadelphia with the Philadelphia 76ers, he immediately ran into problems playing with a team poised to take a leap and compete for the playoffs.
The fit was certainly a question. But then his struggles with a lingering knee issue from college followed by the onset and misdiagnosis of his shoulder issues — eventually learning a year later that it was thoracic outlet syndrome — buried him deep on the bench to the point that he either was the butt of jokes around the league (see the Game of Zones 2K episode) or simply forgotten.
When the Orlando Magic acquired him, it seemed like a smart move for a young team just looking to collect whatever talent it could. Especially considering how little the Magic gave up to take that risk. But even they could not be 100-percent sure if Markelle Fultz would play or how effective he would be.
Fultz had a lot of doubts surrounding him and a lot of people to prove wrong. He had a lot to prove to himself. And he took on that challenge in 2020, shedding a lot of doubters along the way.
Putting in the work
The Orlando Magic did not even know if Markelle Fultz would be available for training camp until a few weeks before. They were astonished by his progress and how quickly he seemed to catch up after he got the clearance to play again.
If there was any bright spot from a frustrating 33-40 season last year, it was Fultz. He averaged 12.1 points per game and 5.1 assists per game, playing 72 of the team’s 73 games. That durability was one of the points of pride Fultz had for last season.
"“Just from the beginning of last season to the end of it was just getting back comfortable being on the floor and getting used to it,” Fultz said in a teleconference Tuesday. “Having that experience being on the floor, it was my first year actually being able to play a full season. It was so much fun just to grow and learn from my mistakes. Now I’m at a place where I can keep growing. I think my ceiling is as high as I want it to be.”"
His shot still needed work, but improved as the season went on — he ended up shooting 41.6-percent on mid-range shots, putting him in the top-50 among players with at least 2.0 mid-range field goal attempts per game last season. Fultz grew in confidence.
If players make big leaps between their rookie and sophomore years in the NBA, the Magic are hoping Fultz can take a bigger leap this year. After all, last season was Fultz’s first full run-through the league (even if the pandemic gave it a brief pause in the middle).
Fultz said he spent his offseason working on his jumpers — pull-ups, 3-pointers off the dribble and just getting more comfortable with his shot — and his defensive technique. Both are still glaring weaknesses in his game.
He said his shoulder is largely healthy. There is routine maintenance and stretching he has to do and that will follow him the rest of his career. But this was truly the first offseason in Fultz’s career that he was not rehabbing an injury.
As short and strange as this offseason was, Fultz could put the time on his game.
"“I think he needs to take another step,” coach Steve Clifford said in a teleconference Tuesday. “Last year, he proved he is a solid NBA starter. I think this year he will take another step and put himself into that next category of point guards. He knows what he has to do. He’s bright. He’s working on things. He understands what we’re doing at both ends of the floor as well as anybody. I’m confident he is in a place where he can have a terrific year.”"
Silencing the doubters
Getting to that next step is where the doubts creep in again. He reached one level but that next level is where many believe Markelle Fultz will trip and fall.
He quieted a lot of people, establishing himself as a promising young starter in the league. But that did not quiet everything.
A common piece of analysis, especially when it came to the Draft, in figuring out this Orlando Magic team was whether the team needed to draft a point guard not to bolster depth with the likely departure of D.J. Augustin but because Markelle Fultz was not a long-term starter.
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Everyone might have been impressed with his first campaign for the Magic, but there seemed to be a healthy amount of skepticism of whether he could do it again.
That will be the challenge Fultz has to overcome and the doubt he has to push aside this year.
It is an opportunity he relishes to attack. It is no different than anything else in his career.
"“It’s actually my whole life,” Fultz said in a teleconference Tuesday. “I wasn’t the most ranked kid coming up. I wasn’t the most highly scouted kid. The one thing I’ve always had is my work ethic. I worked extremely hard. I’m always coachable and I’m always going to put myself in a position to be the best player on the floor and help my team win. That’s the most important thing. I’m really comfortable at this stage. I actually like being doubted. I like people not thinking I can do something. I love proving people wrong.”"
Fultz and the Magic will have a lot to prove this season. As will his team.
Back to the underdogs
Despite back-to-back playoff appearances, the Orlando Magic’s playoff chances are being dismissed pretty quickly. For some good reason with the improvements the Atlanta Hawks and now Washington Wizards have made. There are more teams that likely feel capable of making the playoff field.
The league’s play-in tournament is only increasing the field and the chances to make the postseason. It is the Magic’s spot, but a lot of teams are coming for their (tiny) throne.
If the Magic are going to get back to the playoffs and show any signs of progress, Markelle Fultz will play a large role in doing so. His improvement and all the doubts he continues to shed will be a big reason why.
The Magic, in letting a veteran like D.J. Augustin go, are clearly betting that Markelle Fultz will take that leap and establish himself as a starting point guard they can be confident in. They certainly set the table to sign him to an extension before he hits restricted free agency in the offseason.
One thing Fultz has though to help him shed these doubts is extreme confidence in himself.
"“I believe that is one of the great things I feel about myself,” Fultz said in a teleconference Tuesday. “I feel I am very talented and I have a lot to work on and a lot to improve. That is what makes me so excited to come into the gym and try to figure out what’s next and sharpen the next tool. I think this season you are going to see a lot of that — better playmaking, better decisions on the defensive end and helping my team win even more as a leader with more experience I get.”"
Fultz acknowledges he needs to be a more vocal leader as he takes over point guard duties more fully. That is part of the maturation process for a young point guard. But it is something he knows he has to do if the team is to take its next step.
It seems nobody is expecting him or the team to do it. And that is where Fultz thrives.