2021 Orlando Magic Player Evaluations: Markelle Fultz almost had a breakout season before disaster struck

Jan 4, 2021; Orlando, Florida, USA; Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz (20) shoots over Cleveland Cavaliers guard Damyean Dotson (21) as forward Larry Nance Jr. (22) looks on during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 4, 2021; Orlando, Florida, USA; Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz (20) shoots over Cleveland Cavaliers guard Damyean Dotson (21) as forward Larry Nance Jr. (22) looks on during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

Markelle Fultz’s season embodies what the Orlando Magic’s 2021 season was.

It began with optimism as the Magic got out to a fast start. Fultz was a catalyst for this, showing an advanced ability to control the game and get the ball to the right players. Through the first six games of the season, the Magic’s usually woeful offense sat 18th in the league. It was falling but far from the abjectly terrible unit the team would become on that end.

But as Fultz suffered his season-ending ACL injury, Orlando’s season spiraled out of control. In just eight games, Fultz showed what he was going to be capable of. He never got to show just how far his game could take him or how he would adjust to the league discovering his ability to get into the lane and create passing lanes and tempo for others.

Now it is just about waiting for his return.

Markelle Fultz was having a breakout start to his season as the Orlando Magic were pushing to break through the first-round ceiling. His injury not only derailed those hopes but the team’s entire future.

Everything Fultz did in the small sample size of eight games has to be taken with a grain of salt, both the good and the bad.

In the eight games, Fultz slightly increased his scoring and assists numbers from 12.1 points to 12.9 points per game and 5.1 assists to 5.4 per game.

However, other than his free-throw percentage that increased from 73-percent to 89.5-percent, both his field goal percentage and his three-point percentage decreased. His field goal percentage dropped from 46.5-percent to 39.4-percent and shot a worse 25-percent from beyond the arc compared to 26.7-percent last season.

Some of that is volume and some of that is added confidence. Fultz’s shooting numbers were starting to slow down just before injury hit him. He never had the chance to adjust.

Those numbers are not the end of the story. But the impact Fultz had on the offense was clear.

To start the season the Magic’s offense became unpredictable with Fultz having the ball in his hands. At the end of the season, Markelle Fultz was tied for second in usage rate, with Evan Fournier at 26.2-percent, who was only behind Nikola Vucevic at 29.9-percent.

Once Fultz went down, the Magic’s offense was predictable struggled to score.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Not only was the offense different with Fultz, but it was also quicker.

Through both the eye test and by the numbers, Orlando played at a quicker pace with Fultz, which they played at a 100.4 pace with Fultz and a 97.8 pace without him. With Fultz pushing the ball up the floor, he was able to create easy shots for himself and others, such as Vucevic trailing for an open three.

Indeed, everything worked better with Fultz on the floor. Through Jan. 5 (the game before his injury), the Magic had 108.8 offensive rating with Fultz on the floor, the third-best mark on the team — and just a 102.5 offensive rating with him off the floor.

There were trouble signs already. The defense from that starting group was struggling early in the season. And it was clear the Magic’s incredible offensive start was not going to be able to sustain itself.

The team though had clearly defined roles and its bench thrived in that early part of the season. Coach Steve Clifford trusted Markelle Fultz to run the team and he surely would have been able to tinker with lineups to solve some of the problems that were emerging — and would eventually consume the team without him — before the injury.

Undoubtedly, the biggest question about Fultz’s future at point guard still begins and ends with his shot. That may be the one thing he can work on while rehabbing a torn ACL. Until then, the Magic are waiting.

C. . PG. Orlando Magic. MARKELLE FULTZ

They also seem to be planning and hedging their bets for the future.

Orlando drafted Cole Anthony and then acquired another young point guard in R.J. Hampton. Two of the top four prospects in the upcoming NBA Draft where the team has a little more than a 50-percent chance of landing a top-4 pick are point guards. Drafting one of them would surely change the Magic’s plans.

It is not clear when Fultz will return — he injured his knee in January and so that could put him back on the court before training camp or keep him out through Christmas. And there will be added pressure for Fultz with the final year of his three-year extension in the 2023 season non-guaranteed.

His 2021 season might be a rehab year. But the 2022 season is a contract year once again for the injury-riddled guard.

In the end, his season brings forward questions that need to be answered in the following season.

Fultz’s jump shot is still in question, but players tend to work on their shot once they are not able to move due to injury. His shooting numbers are not as important compared to that impact he had on the court because of the small sample size.

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His season would almost give him an incomplete grade, but to grade the small amount of tape we saw, he earns himself a C with the impact he had on the court with the struggles of shooting the ball.