Orlando Magic point guard Markelle Fultz has enjoyed a fine start to the 2021 season, putting in some top performances to help his team get off to a strong start.
Last season was Markelle Fultz’s first fully healthy year in the NBA after an injury-ridden spell with the Philadelphia 76ers. His trade to the Orlando Magic presented him with a fresh start and he made important strides forward in his first season with the franchise.
The Magic spent much of their preseason priming Markelle Fultz for a big season. They said he should no longer be looked at in terms of the injuries that hampered him through the first two years of his career. They felt he was going to take the leap that players normally make after their rookie seasons.
This season’s early signs have been largely positive. And there is more and more evidence that Orlando should give Fultz a whole lot more control over the offense.
The 22-year-old is showing plenty of confidence and is being trusted at big moments in games, as was evident in the incredible comeback victory over the Washington Wizards when Fultz scored a career-high 26 points.
Despite this being his fourth year in the league, it really is only his second. There will no doubt be ups and downs this season due to his inexperience but it has been hugely encouraging to see Fultz play with lots of pace and aggression while consistently attacking the paint, even when it is not all going his way.
Fultz signed a new three-year, $50 million extension with the team prior to the start of the season as the Magic pledged their faith in the young point guard. The front office saw enough from him in his first year with the team to convince them that he can stay healthy and form a key part of the future.
We are still in the very early stages of the season but so far we have seen Fultz’s role on the team grow.
The former Washington Huskie said he and head coach Steve Clifford had discussed the point guard position becoming a bigger focus this season and his usage rate of 26.5 percent, according to Basketball-Reference, in the first five games certainly suggests that is the case.
Too often in recent times, Orlando has depended on the skillset of big man Nikola Vucevic for offense. When the team has been struggling or short of ideas, Vucevic would hit a big shot and he carried the team in the playoff series with the Milwaukee Bucks thanks to some big scoring performances.
The Magic still rely on Vucevic’s ability to shoot the basketball, something which the roster as a whole lacks considerably as the defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers proved. However, Fultz assuming increased responsibility and taking it upon himself to have the basketball in clutch moments means Orlando is becoming a more threatening team with more avenues of attack.
This is something Clifford has a lot of faith in Fultz and he wants to see Fultz take even more control over the team’s tempo as the season progresses.
"“I have been really pleased with his organizational skills,” Clifford said after Thursday’s loss. “He has a great feel for where guys need to get the ball. If anything, I think he worries too much about getting the other guys in rhythm. To me, we’re going to be better when he is more aggressive. That is part of it for any young point guard. He has a really good IQ and a really good idea organizationally what he have to do.”"
Fultz was the team’s primary ball-handler last season. But this year he is doing more with his touches, assuming a greater responsibility to create for himself and others. He has averaged 15.2 field goal attempts over five games compared to 10.7 last season and his assists are up from 5.1 to 5.4 per game.
This is a much smaller sample size, of course, but so far Fultz has looked more willing to drive into the paint and attempt difficult finishes. He has used his strength effectively to create space for himself inside and is more of a problem for opposing teams.
There will still be bumps in the road.
Thursday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was difficult for Fultz and the whole team. Without the scoring boost from Terrence Ross, the Magic struggled to get anything going offensively while giving up too many easy points on defense as they were beaten 116-92.
Fultz struggled in the first half but bounced back slightly in the second, though still only managed nine points off 4-for-11 shooting. His scoring also dipped in the victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder when he recorded 11 points, though he did contribute 10 assists.
Oklahoma City had clearly seen the joy Fultz had inside against Washington and ensured he was swamped whenever he got into the paint, leaving more opportunities for Vucevic. Even when Fultz is not scoring, his drives into the paint can create more opportunities for those around him.
The Sixer Sense
So far this season, Fultz averages 14.2 drives per game according to tracking statistics from Second Spectrum. That is the 15th-most in the league so far. He is shooting 55.3-percent on those drives, a mark only bested by four players who have at least 14.0 drives per game. And he scores 9.2 points per game off drives and dishes out 1.4 assists per game off those drives.
Fultz could certainly continue to improve as a passer off his drives. But he is creating pressure nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the lack of strong shooters on the team means the opposition can gamble more on leaving them open in order to stop Fultz scoring inside. The roster still lacks the flexibility that better shooting would provide.
This also includes Fultz.
He has been slightly more willing to take three-point attempts at 2.2 per game compared to 1.9 per game last season but his unorthodox shot technique is not proving effective, having knocked down just 27.3-percent of his efforts from beyond the arc during the first five games.
There have been signs his shot is improving. He went 2 for 3 from deep in the second victory over Washington and has been willing to take them when left open. But it is clear the shoulder problems he has battled during his time in the NBA have had a serious impact on his shot mechanics.
Shooting from deep is not his game. But if he could become even a respectable three-point shooter as well as continuing at working to improve his mid-range jumper, Fultz will a bigger problem for opposing teams.
There is still a ways to go for Fultz to become a true leader on offense but taking on more responsibility can only be a good thing for the Magic.
There will undoubtedly be more difficult moments to come this season but the young guard has given fans plenty of reasons to be positive for the future with his early performances.
Gradually, he is taking the pressure off Vucevic while also helping the center to flourish thanks to some great playmaking. The hope is that he will continue to become more potent offensively as he gains more experience in the league.
Despite the Magic’s fine start to the season, the team is still figuring out how to cope without Jonathan Isaac.
Shooting and defensive improvement will be the key going forward this year but with Fultz seemingly ready to make the next leap in his career, he could provide a big boost to Orlando’s hopes of once again qualifying for the playoffs.