Orlando Magic 2022 4th Quarter MVP: Markelle Fultz gave end of the season meaning

Markelle Fultz's long-awaited return proved worth it for the Orlando Magic to end their season. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Markelle Fultz's long-awaited return proved worth it for the Orlando Magic to end their season. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

Markelle Fultz entered his first game of the season in the first quarter of the Orlando Magic’s Feb. 28 game against the Indiana Pacers, their second game after the All-Star Break.

Stepping onto that court represented 13 months of work and grind to get back to that moment. Fultz was returning to the spot where he terrifyingly tore his ACL just when he seemed to finally hit his stride. He was again forced to work in solitude recovering from a major injury, unsure of when he would return to the court.

Stepping back on the court was a victory in itself. Fultz would say his goal through the whole rest of the season was simply to enjoy the game. And so these first steps and doing something or anything would have been enough.

It truly would have.

Instead, Fultz went on a tour de force whirlwind for his first game back. The Magic’s plan to make sure he was 110-percent ready to play when he returned to the floor enabled him to hit the ground running.

It was more like he hit the ground sprinting in the end.

The Orlando Magic’s final quarter of the season quickly lost meaning as attention turned toward Lottery positioning. Markelle Fultz’s return changed that, giving the team something to look forward to and a spark to close the season.

Fultz scored 10 points and dished out six assists. He was already seemingly a blur, finding Franz Wagner cutting behind him as he drove the lane early in his tenure and then stepping back to his mid-range pull-up jumper.

This was a taste for Fultz. When he was finally able to dive headfirst into action, he just kept getting better and better and better.

The final quarter of the Magic’s season was characterized far more by the team’s positioning for the Lottery than by the progress the team was making. Orlando still had plenty of strong moments as a team, but the team started playing the game that every team at the bottom of the standings ends up playing.

Fultz though remained the one bright spot. He was the one engine driving toward the team’s future. And he put a clear stamp on the game, reigniting the excitement Magic fans had when the team acquired the former No. 1 overall pick.

Fultz was the most exciting thing of the last 20-plus games of the season. And for that reason, he is the MVP of the fourth quarter of the Magic’s season.

Orlando feels it has a starting point guard moving forward now. At least if Fultz takes this close to the season a launching pad into next season.

Fultz played the season under a minute restriction as he returned from his injury. He averaged 10.8 points per game and 5.5 assists per game in 20.0 minutes per game. He shot 47.4-percent from the floor overall as he put on a nice display to hit his mid-range jumper from his so-called “kill spots.”

The narrative on Fultz’s season quickly turned from: “What will this guy look like when he returns?” to “When can we get him off his minute restriction?”

Everything just came easy for Fultz. And he kept turning heads. This did not look like a guy who had missed so much time and was coming off a major knee injury.

Fultz was bursting at the seams to get more and his impact on the Magic was pretty clear.

The Magic had a breakneck 103.0 pace with Fultz on the floor (more than three possessions per 48 minutes than the team’s average). Orlando was already a pretty high-possession team anyway and the Magic put an emphasis on playing at a high pace.

Fultz sent that into overdrive.

But the Magic statistically were not a whole lot better with Fultz on the floor. A lot of that was because he largely played with bench groups and rarely played with starters. The idea with Fultz was just to get him out there playing. Orlando was not necessarily focused on playing Fultz with specific lineups for much of the time he played.

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But Orlando had a +9.4 net rating when Markelle Fultz played alongside Mo Bamba (114.1 offensive rating, 104.7 defensive rating in 109 minutes) and +3.4 net rating when played alongside Franz Wagner (111.8/108.4 in 71 minutes). He played just 74 minutes with Wendell Carter to a -7.8 net rating and 37 minutes with Jalen Suggs to a -8.2 net rating.

It is hard to draw too many conclusions from the numbers just how much Fultz helped. Fultz just did not play consistent minutes with anyone important for long periods of time. It was all just a taste.

But anecdotally, it was clear that Fultz was in complete control over the tempo of any game that he played. He was the one directing traffic and controlling the pace of the game. He found players and just had the offense humming at a different level.

Especially as he got more comfortable and the season closed.

Fultz had his early burst before struggling through a few games. Then he turned it on again, especially as the Magic seemed to be packing it in.

Fultz scored in double figures in his final eight games of the season. He had more than five assists in his final six games.

This was just Fultz filling up the stat sheet and putting up numbers. This was him just playing. That is all he wanted to do.

How much the end of this season means is still to be determined. That is the nature of things for a team at the bottom of the standings. Fultz was both individually brilliant and yet the lineups he played in were not really anything permanent.

But what Fultz provided at a time when the Magic’s season was drifting to the end was hope. He provided a glimpse into a future the team hopes comes to fruition. One where they have a guard who can tie things together and get a lot out of the players around him.

Fultz’s minutes stayed around 18 minutes for much of the season. In the final few games of the year, he popped up to above 20 minutes. He played 29.5 minutes in the team’s season finale when he recorded a career-high 15 assists.

The Magic have not fully unleashed Fultz yet. Yes, against the Miami Heat, Fultz played a lot but he was also slinging the ball around. There was a very relaxed air to the game as a whole.

Orlando has not seen Fultz at full capacity quite yet. and that will be the mystery as Fultz gets to work to improve — hopefully free from injury and COVID restrictions for the first offseason of his career.

This is an opportunity for growth for the young guard, as it is for everyone.

Fultz though gave the Magic a good jolt of good vibes and energy to close a difficult season. The team needed that more than anything.

Fultz surprised everyone with how easy things seemed to come for him. It left everyone wanting more from him and eager to see more. That part will have to wait.

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But it is hard to call Fultz’s return this year anything but a success. And it was the driving storyline of the final quarter of the season.