Markelle Fultz went down with a torn ACL in the first quarter, leaving the Orlando Magic with another gaping hole in its future early in the season.
It was not even halfway through the first quarter of Wednesday’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Orlando Magic were trying to find their rhythm again and had the ball with their most trusted initiator. A player who was blossoming throughout the year and seemed poised to continue growing and breaking out.
Facing an 11-0 run that put them down 11-3 early on, the Magic needed a spark. They needed someone to force something to happen.
That is what Markelle Fultz does. And so he was pushing to get into the lane.
He got past rookie Isaac Okoro and went into the herky-jerky jump stop that so often pulls defenses off balance for Markelle Fultz to explode toward the rim.
Except, this time there was no explosion. Just the audible shouting of pain that cascaded up through the mostly empty Amway Center.
It might as well have been. Shortly after the game ended, the Magic announced a MRI revealed Fultz tor the ACL in his left knee and he will be out for the remainder of the season.
Just like when Isaac went down in the summer, a part of the Magic’s future dimmed. Things got harder and muddier to see. A big piece of the team was put on the shelf and left completely uncertain.
There was an incredible amount of sadness and pain.
Fultz went on social media after the game and thanked everyone for their prayers and thoughts in the aftermath of the injury, urging fans to stick with the team as he prepares for another long rehab process.
It undoubtedly shook the team and put a damper on a team that is off to such a hot start and looking toward its future optimistically. Now so much of that feels on hold.
"“It’s a huge blow for us,” Nikola Vucevic said after Wednesday’s game. “It really sucks for a guy like him who worked his way back. It’s a really difficult injury. For it to happen on a play like that, it’s unfortunate to see. I’m sure he is going to get back better from it and stronger. It’s part of what he has to go through in his career.”"
How far they’d go
The team will never just how far they could have gone. Markelle Fultz was having a true breakout season.
Entering Wednesday’s game, he was averaging 14.3 points per game and 6.1 assists per game. He put in some stellar performances early in the season too, including a career-high 26 points to help lead a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback against the Washington Wizards.
He was looping passes and controlling the game. Even with his inconsistent jumper, he was a high-assist player who could manipulate defenses and squeeze the ball to Nikola Vucevic going down the lane or back out to the perimeter. He sucked up space.
The young guard was still learning how to find his place in the league in what was essentially his second year in the NBA. The Orlando Magic were the first to get anything out of him after he missed his first two seasons with shoulder and knee injuries that caused the Philadelphia 76ers essentially to give up on the former No. 1 overall pick.
The Sixer Sense
Fultz became almost an instant starter last year, playing in 72 of 73 games for the team. He averaged 12.1 points and 5.1 assists per game to reclaim a place in the league.
The Magic saw enough to invest a three-year, $50-million extension in him before the season began. The Magic saw him as a key part of the team’s future.
They essentially turned the entire offense over to him to help them increase their pace and put constant pressure on the defense. He was the key piece to the Magic’s big improvement to start the season.
That hole will be difficult to fill in the meantime.
"“It sucks to see what happened to Markelle,” Terrence Ross said after Wednesday’s game. “It’s next man up. We know Markelle is a big part of our team. Right then and there, we knew we were going to face some tough adversity. We were either going to step up and meet the challenge or we were going to fold. A lot of guys stepped up. We’ve just got to find a way to carry that and have the mindset of next man up.”"
Playing for ‘Kelle
The team rallied after the slow start and the injury to dominate the Cleveland Cavaliers once again. The team took the lead by the middle of the second quarter and zoomed ahead in the third quarter to win easily for the second outing.
The team got another star performance from Nikola Vucevic. Another efficient shooting night from Terrence Ross. More all-around play from Aaron Gordon and surprising scoring and driving from Dwayne Bacon.
Everyone seemed to rally and find their place. Teammates said they were resolved to win this one for their fallen teammate.
"“When it first happened, everyone was kind of shaken up,” Cole Anthony said after Wednesday’s game. “We quickly picked it up and got back into the game. We realized we still had to win this game. The least could do was try to win this game for Markelle. He wouldn’t want us to go out there and lay an egg after seeing him get hurt.”"
Cole Anthony played a season-high 32 minutes in Markelle Fultz’s stead. He scored just eight points on 4-for-12 shooting. His defense continues to impress more than his offense at this point. But Anthony will have to gain confidence as a shooter quickly and start to play more effectively.
With Michael Carter-Williams out with a hamstring injury, two-way player Jordan Bone stepped in to play 12 minutes, scoring seven points on 3-for-4 shooting. It was hard to dislike the energy and composure he brought to the team in that moment.
Coach Steve Clifford said the situation was difficult. But he felt the team handled it well and rallied together, playing with more purpose. The result on this night was certainly one the Magic can favor. But there is still plenty to work on. And losing a player of Fultz’s caliber leaves an immediate hole that young players will have to fill.
But undoubtedly there will be work to replace a player of Markelle Fultz’s caliber. The team will have to change some to let Cole Anthony learn how to run the starting unit and get used to the new players he will play with. Not to mention he is a rookie who is still finding his own place in the league.
Anthony might be capable of filling those shoes, but this is still a major loss.
The Magic’s season, like it did last year when Jonathan Isaac went down, loses some of its meaning. The growth and development for the team’s future goes on hold instead of previewing what might be coming down the road.
There is still work to do and players to develop. But the Magic put their money into Fultz (and Isaac). And now both of those players will miss the majority of the 2021 season.
It will be hard to gauge what comes next. The only thing those players can do is work hard to come back. But all behind the scenes and not on the court. The Magic cannot even think about what kind of team they can ultimately be until 2023 now, giving both Isaac and Fultz the time to recover.
Road to recovery
Markelle Fultz has been down that road before. It was a long rehab process to come back from the thoracic outlet syndrome that cost him almost all of his first two years in the league. It looked like to some he may never play in the league again.
Fultz put in the work to give himself the chance to play again. And he reaped those rewards.
"“If anyone can handle this, it’s ‘Kelle,” Terrence Ross said after Wednesday’s game. “He has the heart of a lion. He’s super talented. He’s always positive. I know he will be able to handle this. We’ve all got his back. We’ll all be here for him. You hate to see this, especially for a guy who fought through so much and came back and was balling. It’s going to make him stronger. He’s going to come back from it, I have no doubt.”"
Fultz will have to do that all over again. He will have to put in the work, stay faithful to the grind and prove himself all over again.
And the Magic’s future will have to wait once again, leaving a hole in what this team could be as it tries to finish the season down a key player yet again.