Orlando Magic are seeing the real Markelle Fultz in the clutch

Markelle Fultz helped push the Orlando Magic to a big win over the Miami Heat. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Markelle Fultz helped push the Orlando Magic to a big win over the Miami Heat. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

Through three games, the Orlando Magic are watching Markelle Fultz develop and grow, stepping up in the game’s biggest moments.

Life on the road in the NBA is tough.

Even at this early stage and with all the COVID-19 restrictions, it is an endless string of hotel rooms and busses. The team spends a lot of time together — and that will be even more with players limited and restricted on the road from exploring the city.

Players will only have each other to rely on while on the road. And in this season, the Orlando Magic have already had to figure out who they could trust in the game’s biggest moments.

So what if he needed a little nap on the bus ride to the plane from Washington, D.C to Oklahoma City.

Markelle Fultz indeed carried a big burden in the fourth quarter in Sunday’s win over the Washington Wizards. After he entered the game for the final 5:08, Markelle Fultz scored 10 of his 26 points on 4-for-5 shooting. He amazingly had only one assist. but Fultz was on full-on attack mode.

He used his size and change of pace to get into the lane where his strength and craftiness took over.

After missing on a step-through move that cost the Magic a three-point lead (the Wizards would take the lead one possession later after Nikola Vucevic missed a hook shot), Markelle Fultz tried the move again. He lithely moved past Raul Neto off a slow-mo Euro step to lay it in.

His assist was the dish to Vucevic that proved to be the game-winner.

As if to drive this point home, Fultz has taken over at the end of games for the Magic. Sunday was not an aberration.

If fans are looking for who the real Markelle Fultz is — the guy that resembles the top overall pick from the 2017 Draft — they should look to his play late in games.

Fultz is still playing the role of the young player, deferring to older players throughout the game. But late in games, he has come alive, coming up with big plays as he manages the team and steps up at the most important part of the game.

Overall, his usage rate is up to 28.8-percent, suggesting his willingness to shoot and attack the basket. He is averaging 20.7 points per game. Although his assists are now down to 4.7 assists per game.

Fultz has stepped up his game even more when the game is on the line.

In clutch minutes this season, defined as any game within five points in the final five minutes, Fultz has scored 13 points in 10 minutes this season — all three of the Magic’s games have qualified for “clutch” minutes. He is shooting 5 for 6 in those minutes and leading the team not just in points but also in assists with four.

The one miss was a missed floater late in Sunday’s game. Otherwise, it is hard to call Fultz anything but perfect late in games.

In Saturday’s win over the Wizards, Fultz scored six points on 2-for-3 shooting with three assists in the fourth quarter. In the season opener against the Heat, he scored four points on 1-for-5 shooting in the fourth quarter but scored his only “clutch” basket.

His fourth-quarter shot chart has looked a lot like his only fourth-quarter make from that Miami Heat game in the season opener. An aggressive driver to the basket who is not afraid to take on contact and score over strong defense.

That is something that is necessary for players in the clutch. They need a certain amount of fearlessness and improvisation. Fultz is probably the best player off the dribble creating something out of nothing that becomes necessary late in games.

Evan Fournier deserves some mention for that too, although his effectiveness in that arena has been more inconsistent.

Fultz’s strength and deftness on the ball make him especially dangerous as an attacker off the dribble.

As Nekias Duncan pointed out recently for BasketballNews.com, Fultz put this on full display with many of his attacks at the paint. He has deceptive speed and changes his pace effectively to keep defenses off balance. This might also help him counteract how defenses still duck under screens and dare him to shoot.

He put all this on display at the end of Saturday and Sunday’s games for sure. His thrilling behind-the-back pass to Vucevic was an example of how Fultz freezes the defense and is able to execute high-level plays and reads in the game’s biggest moments.

Fultz was doing this all last year too.

Fultz led the team last year in clutch scoring with 55 points in 114 minutes across 30 games. He shot 53.7-percent on his field goals in clutch minutes, trailing only Aaron Gordon among rotation players. And he led the team in assists too with 20, going against just seven turnovers.

To normalize things to per-36 minutes for comparison’s sake, Fultz posted 17.4 points per 36 minutes and 6.3 assists per 36 minutes in clutch situations last year. Through the three games this year, Fultz is at 45.8 points per 36 minutes and 14.1 assists per 36 minutes.

This is obviously a very small sample size with very limited minutes. The returns are promising and Fultz is becoming the player the Magic are turning to if they want to generate points late in the game.

This is obviously not entirely new.

Fultz had several big moments last year. Most notably his closing kick against the Los Angeles Lakers when he took the ball right at LeBron James and finished over him to clinch the victory. That game, his previous career-high in scoring before Sunday’s 26-point performance, was the biggest flash of Fultz’s potential.

He used his change of pace and headiness to keep James off balance and when James gave him space, Fultz took it with explosion and finesse. That is a rare combination. One that Fultz has shown with more confidence to this point in the season.

Fultz making big shots is not something new. It has become more prominent in this early part of the season.

Fultz is a clutch player. That is the biggest thing the Magic have learned about him in the last year. And now fully empowering him to run the offense, the team is seeing him get unleashed.

The early season returns have been good. He has rewarded the buzz and faith the Magic put in him throughout the last year and in the preseason when they could do nothing but rave about the gains he was making.

They warned us we would see it on the court.

Clutch minutes are not the entire game. They are not the be-all, end-all of a player’s success. But seeing how players respond when the pressure is highest — at the end of games and in the Playoffs especially — is vital to a player’s growth from something more than a starter to a bit more.

Next. Orlando Magic's bench giving team new life. dark

The Magic are seeing Fultz step up in a major way. They can thank him for a lot of their early success.