Markelle Fultz is entering a contract year for the Orlando Magic. After solidifying his role last season, he is ready to make another jump at the point guard position.
We all know the Markelle Fultz story by now. It has been rehearsed and rehashed countless times over the last three seasons.
The story of the disgruntled first-round pick is nothing new for the NBA, as we see many promising prospects turn into busts each season, buried by injuries or a lack of playing time. The part that makes Fultz so interesting is that the jury is still out.
Last season, Fultz played the best basketball of his career and more importantly was able to stay on the court. In 72 (out of 73) games with the Magic, he averaged 12.1 points per game, 5.1 assists per game and saw his shooting percentages rise closer to where they need to be.
It felt like Fultz put a lot of his injury history behind him. President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said after the season ended the hope was that now the team could talk about Fultz as a player rather than in the context of his injury.
This year they will get that proof.
That brings up the big question coming into this season: Is Markelle Fultz close to his ceiling a player or is there another jump to made?
Everyone with the Magic believes a big step is ahead.
"“I think you will see he feels so much better physically,” coach Steve Clifford said after practice Wednesday. “You’ll see it even in the way he is moving. If you go back to the beginning of last season and think about what he was going through when he started last year, none of us were even sure he could make it through the 82 games. He has worked so hard. . . . I know he feels better, he feels healthier, and also mentally he has the experience of having a successful full season under his belt. I think he is more confident and with that confidence more assertive on the floor. He’s really in camp here played really well.”"
Markelle Fultz passes the eye test almost immediately. This was shown most clearly in his impressive playoff showing in the bubble just a few months ago.
In the Orlando Magic’s five-game series with the Milwaukee Bucks, Fultz averaged 12.0 points and 5.2 assists per game while shooting 40.0 percent from the floor including 37.5-percent from beyond the arc.
When Fultz was on the floor, the Magic played with more energy, enthusiasm and pace. In the huge victory in Game 1 of the series versus the Bucks, Fultz looked like the best version of himself that we have seen so far.
Some may mistake Fultz’s energy for recklessness. I would argue the exact opposite. His quirky dribble drives can catch the defense off guard and is exactly the type of “active playmaker” the Magic have been looking for in a guard.
And certainly, playing in his first full season healthy, Fultz was going through the normal ups and downs you see for rookies. The season was spent improving slowly throughout the year. But Fultz clearly staked his place in the starting lineup early.
Fultz’s shooting also greatly improved, both aesthetically and statistically through the course of the season.
Although there is still a small hitch in his release, Fultz is looking much more comfortable and is knocking down jumpers at a much better rate.
He made 73-percent of his free throws last season, something that is always a great indicator of improved shooting. His three-point percentage improved to 37.0-percent in the playoffs, which is not a huge sample size, but proves that he is getting better under pressure.
Most impressively, Fultz has shown a great knack for hitting mid-range jumpers, shooting 41-percent on contested attempts.
Although the mid-range has largely been lost in the NBA, it is still important that a point guard can get his own shot off in the half-court. Fultz does well to get to his spots and create space to get his jumper off.
The overall improvement is encouraging, but Fultz knows he’s not nearly where he needs to be yet.
This is an area he worked on throughout the offseason. He said he spent his time focused on improving his pull-up jumpers and off-the-dribble 3-pointers. That was a major focus for him in the offseason.
According to coach Steve Clifford, those efforts are paying off. And they cannot wait for the public to see the changes. Clifford said his release point is getting back to where he was at Washington. There is palpable excitement to see him get out on the floor in a game.
"“He knows basketball,” Clifford said after practice Wednesday. “He has been taught how to run a team from a young age. He is very advanced to me in understanding things organizationally and how to play and help his teammates play better. There is a reason this guy was the number one pick. He’s also got toughness, competitive spirit and he has a boatload of talent. I think it’s going to come out here.”"
That is not the only place Fultz needs to get some work in.
One of the biggest holes last season was on perimeter defense. Fultz’s athleticism far exceeds his defensive IQ. In most of the games in the bubble, Fultz was getting blown by with ease, sometimes by a far inferior athlete.
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This is another area that Fultz said he hoped to improve, spending time working on his technique. With a year under his belt, he hopes to be a more vocal leader on the floor. The team is his to control and run now.
Despite these concerns, it is safe to say he turned his career around last season.
The improvement from near rock bottom to where Fultz is now is incredible. Now he faces an even bigger test, one that very few NBA players pass — making the jump from starter to impact player.
Steve Clifford said it himself. Markelle Fultz has established himself as a worthy NBA starter, now he just needs to elevate to the next level.
Fultz has also said he elevated his confidence last season and will look to build on that moving forward.
"“It was so much fun just to be able to grow and learn from my mistakes,” Fultz said at a media teleconference last week. “Now I’m at a place where I can keep growing. I don’t think I have a ceiling. My ceiling is as high as I want it to be. That’s one of the great things I feel about myself. I feel I am very talented but I have a lot to work on and improve.”"
Part of this improvement will involve Fultz being a more vocal leader. With the departure of D.J. Augustin, Markelle Fultz will be given full reigns to the offense, thus placing more leadership responsibility on his shoulders.
Coach Steve Clifford said Markelle Fultz has been more aggressive and confident in training camp and more vocal as a leader. The year of experience has indeed paid some dividends.
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The Magic hope they can one day play Anthony and Fultz together. Although that is not likely to happen immediately considering how fast the turnaround was from the draft to the start of training camp.
The playmaking potential of the duo is great, but they leave a lot to be desired on the defensive end.
This is where the importance of this season comes in. Fultz has the reigns to the team to start this year. The Magic believe he can be their point guard of the future.
Fultz has traveled a long way to get to this point. There has been a lot of work and rehab even to get on the court. This is his chance to put those doubts completely away and make his own path.
"“His shoulder is pain free,” Clifford said after practice Wednesday. “His wrist is better and his knee is better. He had significant injury issues which really held him back. He works very diligently with Steve Hetzel and Bruce Kreutzer. He does all of it. He’s a committed guy. I think he is ready to have a big year and take a big step in his career.”"
In a contract year, Fultz has a whole new set of doubters to prove wrong.
Can he be a starting point guard? Is he worth the next contract for the Magic? Did the Magic draft Cole Anthony as his replacement? Can he reach the next level?
Fultz is not a stranger to the questions swirling around him. He has been built by them.
He knows the best way to answer them is with his play on the court.
It is time to make another jump.