Orlando Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said at the beginning of the season that one of his team’s goals this season was to get Markelle Fultz back out there healthy on the NBA floor.
It was a long wait as Fultz passed a year since his surgery in January. As the Magic sunk in the standings and time started to tick down in the season, it became unclear if he would come back.
The Magic waited just one game after the All-Star Break in February before Fultz cleared that final hurdle. On a lazy Saturday ahead of a Monday game, Fultz proclaimed, “I’m back.”
He stepped onto the floor for the first time in the middle of the first quarter against the Indiana Pacers. Not only did Fultz return that day, he returned with absolutely no rust.
He truly looked like the pre-injury Fultz right from the get-go.
His first play in his return, he drove to the lane (something his numbers proved he is elite at) and found a cutting Franz Wagner with a no-look pass to showcase his wizardry and court awareness.
Coach Jamahl Mosley repeatedly said how much they need to be patient and go through with the process when talking about injuries and guys returning. In Fultz’s case, that truly paid off. His rehab seemed to have gone very well.
And he made an immediate impact on the floor.
This season was tough for the Orlando Magic as the insurmountable losses racked up, Markelle Fultz had to see his teammates go to battle without him and rehab his knee. He did that with a strong mindset and crushed his return.
Fultz appeared in only 18 games this season. His promise the team would play hard remained true for the majority of the 82 games. There were many games the Magic were losing by double digits and they fought and clawed their way back. That shows this team’s character in which Fultz is one of the young leaders.
In 18 games, Fultz played 20 minutes per game and put up 10.8 points and 5.5 assists per game. Those are very solid numbers. Way better than anyone, maybe even Fultz himself, could have envisioned.
He averaged 19.5 points per 36 minutes and 9.9 assists per 36 minutes. With a minute restriction, the Magic were putting a cap on what Fultz could do. But he was clearly racking up numbers.
He instantly provided the team with a calming effect. Everything just seemed to work. And while some of the lineups Fultz was in were not conducive to scoring, Fultz always seemed to be in his groove, getting to his kill spots and scoring at will.
In 20 minutes per game, Fultz averaged 10.8 potential assists per game. The league leader was a future hall of fame point guard in Chris Paul with 19.6 potential assists in 33 minutes per game. To put things into perspective, if Fultz played 33 minutes, he would average 17.8 potential assists per game.
That is simply elite. At 23 years of age, he is in the territory of a 17-year NBA veteran in Chris Paul. Of course, Fultz will have to ramp up to those kinds of minutes. And with a healthy offseason ahead of him, it seems like Fultz is due to make a leap that his injuries have robbed him of throughout his career.
This is not the only area where Fultz showed elite potential.
According to Basketball Index, the advanced metrics agreed with the eye test that Fultz was elite at getting to the rim and dropping dimes. His assists points per 75 possessions were at 24.5, which ranked in the 99th percentile. His potential assists per 100 passes were at 31.9 which also ranked in the 99th percentile. His passing creation volume was at 3.03 which also ranked in the 99th percentile.
This was with a team that finished with the second-worst record in the league and essentially tanked the final two weeks of the season.
He also drew defenders when he drove the ball which led to easier looks for his teammates. His box creation was at 7.6 which ranked at the 93rd percentile and scoring gravity was at 0.89 which was at the 83rd percentile.
The craziest part of this all is that Fultz is doing this after a year away from the NBA floor and knee surgery while only being 23 years old. Something that even he admitted on the Orlando Magic Pod Squad that he oftentimes forgets he is only 23.
Fultz still has plenty of areas to improve.
His shooting could still use some work. He made only 23.5-percent of his 3-pointers on less than 1.0 attempts per game. Fultz is not hesitant to take threes, but he knows this is not his game and it was not a major facet of his attack.
Fultz is a skilled mid-range shooter, but he made only 41.1-percent of his mid-range jumpers. Fultz is still best at getting to the basket. He still needs to fill out the rest of his offensive attack and become a well-rounded scorer.
Player Grade: A+
The saying “the sky is the limit” is at times overused. But with Markelle Fultz, it really is true.
There is a reason he was the consensus number 1 overall pick in a draft that had the likes of Jayson Tatum, Jonathan Isaac, Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo and Jarrett Allen. He has the talent to become a generational playmaker with the strength to finish in the paint over anybody.
The 3-point jump shot needs work, even Fultz will admit that. Unfortunately, due to the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, that part of his game is still needing recovery. But in due time, he is hopeful to get that back to a respectable level.
The one thing Fultz has never really had is a full healthy offseason. He has always been rehabbing or had to deal with the shortened offseason after the bubble. There is a lot to get excited about with that potential to improve.
Fultz in this season had parts in his game he could improve upon, but the A+ is given due to the expectations set on a guy returning from an ACL tear, he fully surpassed them.
With finally a fully healthy offseason, Fultz can gear his entire focus and training to next season, to which he can have a great year and solidify his place more so in the NBA. He has still not played enough to the point where people know what Fultz is like.
Fultz figures to have the starting point guard role. Hopefully, he can take advantage of it and have a great year. He will enter the second of his third year in his contract. If all goes well, the Magic have the option to extend Fultz in the 2023 offseason.