Markelle Fultz’s return could not have been better for Orlando Magic

Markelle Fultz made an immediate impact as he return to the Amway Center court in an Orlando Magic win. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Markelle Fultz made an immediate impact as he return to the Amway Center court in an Orlando Magic win. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

100. 119. 38. Final. 103

Markelle Fultz checked into the game with about three minutes to play in the first quarter. With the Indiana Pacers taking a timeout while he was at the scorer’s table, the team opted to have him wait so that Cole Anthony could give a take foul and give Markelle Fultz the welcome back he deserved.

Fultz checked in to a standing ovation to the 13,014 listed in attendance. Even the sometimes subdued Magic crowd made some audible noise through the broadcast to welcome Fultz back to the court for the first time in nearly 14 months.

That would have been enough if things stopped there.

Just to see him on the floor playing with his teammates. It would have been enough to see Anthony give him that massive hug and Fultz raise his hand in appreciation just for stepping on the court.

Coach Jamahl Mosley did say, after all, the final 21 games of the season would be something like an extended training camp for the fifth-year guard trying to come back from a torn ACL. This lone baby step would have been enough. Certainly enough to sate a Magic fan base just eager for good news.

Instead, they and the team got to gorge themselves on what they had been missing for so long. Fultz stepped back onto the court and delivered an unforgettable debut game.

Welcome back, Markelle Fultz.

Markelle Fultz was stellar in his return game as the Orlando Magic rallied behind him on and off the court and picked up a win.

"“Just all that love, it really means a lot with everything I’ve been through just in life and especially with this injury,” Fultz said after Monday’s 119-103 win over the Pacers. “They helped me stay positive, continue to want to work hard and gave me even more motivation to come in and give it my all. To feel that when I checked in, it meant a lot. Just hearing that gave me a little bit more comfort and more energy to be myself.”"

Fultz scored 10 points, made five of seven shots and dished out six assists in his 16 minutes in his first game back. He was playing with the same rhythm and pace that made him such an enticing and strong player during the Magic’s 2020 Playoff run and hot start to the 2021 season.

Fultz reminded everyone quickly just what kind of impact he can bring. The fact he did this in his first game back was the surprising thing. The fact that he did not look like he missed a beat and made an impact immediately was stunning.

On his first touch of the game, Fultz got into the lane and threaded a pass to a cutting Franz Wagner for a lay-in. He attracted the defense and remained a threat but always had his eyes up. He had a few assists really quickly because the ball just moves so naturally with him on it.

As Wendell Carter put it after the game: The best piece of advice he got as a rolling big man is to have his hands ready because Fultz will get it to him. Everyone is going to have to learn that all over again. He finds guys who are open, even if they do not think he is.

"“I think it’s just the gravity of Markelle,” Mo Bamba said after Monday’s win. “When he has the ball and he is pushing in transition, he is so much of a rim threat that guys just gravitate toward him. He’s just so willing to pass and just so willing to make not only the pass to the score but the extra pass that leads to the score. It was just fun to get out there and just run.”"

He got his first points a few minutes later, isolating Jalen Smith after a pick and roll switch and then rocking him into a pull-up jumper from the free-throw line.

It was like staring at Fultz as if the injury had never happened.

And there were more of those moments throughout the game. Whether it was his ability to get passes and set other ups. Or the whirling layups and finishes at the rim that made him such a dangerous attacker. Fultz just kept finding ways to impact the game.

In his second-half stint, Fultz added to that legend. He drained a step-back jumper late in the third quarter. He made a heady play following a missed Mo Bamba dunk, collecting the rebound and finishing the easy layup.

Then his final basket came as he stole a rebound from a slow-moving Indiana Pacers team and got a free layup at the basket.

Fultz did not have to put his full arsenal on display. This was more than enough. Far more than enough.

Irrational expectations were set as he got a standing ovation exiting the game followed by a massive hug from Mosley. He received plenty of congratulations from opponents and a bottled water bath when he got back to the locker room.

"“I’m just so happy for him,” Mosley said after Monday’s win. “What he’s gone through and how patient he’s been. It was about the joy that he played with. That energy and that excitement and that togetherness that he brings to our team even more so. That was that hug. That kid, he’s just pure joy. That’s the way that he plays the game and that’s what he loves.”"

This was more than enough for his first game back. He gave fans a whole lot to digest and get excited about. He just reminded everyone of what he could do and what the team and they were missing.

And everyone is excited to see more. Everyone is just excited and happy to have a player like this back. The whole team knows how much easier their life is about to get.

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His teammates all donned his t-shirt jersey on their way into the building for the game. Everyone was in his corner and excited to see Fultz back on the floor. They all saw firsthand all the work he put in to get to this moment.

There is undoubtedly a lot more to come.

Defenses will adjust as much as his teammates adjust to having him around. The adrenaline of his debut game will give way to some of the mundanity of the season. He will have to build some stamina and get through the inevitable grind of the NBA season — even with how short of a time is left this season.

This was just Fultz dipping his toes in the water. Or, maybe, diving headfirst and surprising everyone with just how fast he was able to swim this quickly.

The biggest thing that was apparent was the joy Fultz had in playing. That was the most important thing. And that joy was shared by everyone associated with the Magic — either at the Amway Center or watching from home. Everyone wanted to see Fultz do well.

He blew away every expectation and hope for his return. He played without worry or concern.

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He just played. And he played brilliantly. And everyone cannot wait for more.