2022 Orlando Magic Player Outlook: Markelle Fultz still has a lot of questions to answer

For a brief moment last season, it looked to be all coming together for the Orlando Magic.

Markelle Fultz had just led a comeback victory against the Washington Wizards, the second in as many nights, with a career-high 26 points. His increasingly promising partnership with Nikola Vucevic was generating plenty of optimism among the Magic fanbase.

But just a week later, the Magic’s season would be in tatters.

Fultz went down with a torn ACL four minutes into the 105-94 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, significantly hampering hopes of a third successive postseason finish. Just two more victories followed in the rest of January as the team was forced to battle a host of other injury issues too as they sank down the standings.

Fultz sat out the entire season, even after signing a three-year extension. And he had to go through the whole rehab process again.

Just like when he bounced back from his shoulder injury, Fultz has to prove himself all over again, whenever he gets back on the court.

Markelle Fultz was disrupted by another big injury last season. Now, he has to get back to making the progress he hinted at prior to his time out.

His injury was frustrating for two reasons.

The first was on a more personal level, a deep sympathy for a talented young player who has already had his career dismantled by injury problems and was now set for another long spell out. The second, and the bigger frustration, was a team that had started the season in fine form would now be without one of its best players.

Fultz was the heartbeat of a team that had won five of its first seven games, and it was no coincidence a dreadful run of results followed immediately after his injury.

The chemistry with his teammates, particularly Vucevic, was clear. The two were among the most effective partnerships in the NBA in the early stages of last season.

His driving to the basket was creating space for Vucevic to stretch the floor. A particularly strong source of offense for Orlando would see Fultz attract the attention of opposing defenses early in the shot clock by signaling he was ready to drive, only to turn and dish out a pass for Vucevic to hit a three.

And when he was not picking out a teammate, he was showing potential as a scorer.

His ability to finish at the rim during college was well documented coming into the NBA, as was his nimbleness and craftiness to get there in the first place. Last season saw Fultz show flashes of these skills at a high level — he made 20 for 33 (60.6-percent) within five feet of the basket last season.

Some of the finishes Fultz was able to pull off in those first seven games truly were elite-level stuff.

Take his late bucket in a tight opening game against the Miami Heat as an example.

Fultz was given the ball in space, drove to the basket but was met mid-air by Duncan Robinson, yet still somehow managed to hang above ground just long enough before showing a deft touch to bank in the layup.

There were signs he was ready to take a leap forward last year, but the narrative that formed immediately after the injury mostly focused on the idea it had come at a time when Fultz was finally getting back toward his college self.

That was not entirely accurate.

He shot just 39.4-percent from the floor across the eight games he played in last season, and there were some notable struggles leading up to the game where he was injured.

Fultz did not make more than 40-percent of his attempts in each of the four games prior to the injury game after starting strongly in his first three games.

These problems were most prevalent in the two games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he would go 4 for 16 and 5 for 16 from the floor. The Thunder had clearly watched Fultz tear apart the Wizards and put a plan in place to pack the paint when he was driving to meet him at the rim with several bodies.

It worked and completely threw him off his game.

There were plenty of things to like about Fultz’s shortened second season in a Magic uniform, after a successful first year which saw him manage to play 72 regular-season games, but based on what he has demonstrated in Orlando and his injury, there remain more questions than answers around his game.

The first big, obvious question that needs answering is whether he can stay healthy.

Fultz playing 72 games in the 2020 season for Orlando was way above expectations and suggested he can consistently play across a whole year. But his latest injury, albeit terrible luck, creates an element of doubt about whether he can stay free from being hurt.

For a player the Magic have committed $50-million to over the next three years, he has to get back playing regularly and contributing next season.

Unfortunately, there is only so much you can do to stop yourself getting injured without it impacting your performance. And right now, it is not even clear where Fultz is in his recovery and when he will return.

The Magic have always moved slowly with injury recoveries. Considering how much is invested in Fultz, it would be no surprise if Fultz takes his time returning.

There remain major concerns around his jump shot too.

Fultz’s effectiveness near the basket is clear and he is a confident finisher. but away from the basket, it is a different story. Fultz made only 24.5-percent of his shots outside of 10 feet last season.

The shoulder issues he has battled forced him to completely re-learn parts of his game. His jump shot has been completely altered from his college days.

It is not pretty. Fultz opts to push the ball up from his chest and let go at an unusual angle. It is worked on occasion but is not the type of shot that leans towards him becoming a solid shooter in the future.

Simply put, Fultz has to find a way to at least become respected away from the basket or he places severe limitations on himself and what he can be.

His time as a Magic player so far has been solid but not spectacular. The fact he could feasibly have been out of the league because of injury but went on to become an NBA starter should not be overlooked.

But while there have been glimpses of a player who can still get to a very good level in the NBA, there remain some obvious weaknesses that need addressing.

Fultz, first of all, has to take his time getting back into the swing of things and should not rush his return to action. The primary goal of next season has to be about getting back fit, healthy and ready.

If he can do that, then he has to start making those all-important strides forward.

Can he become a bigger contributor on the offensive end by growing into more of a scoring threat and being more efficient? Will his jump shot improve to the point where it has to be respected? Does he have enough talent to be the starting point guard on a good team further down the line?

These questions have to begin to be answered next year.

Another crushing injury has pushed back his timeline, and the competition at the guard spots is high, but getting back on the path to progress is a pivotal goal next year.