At first glance, Markelle Fultz does not seem like much.
As Philadelphia 76ers fans seemed to be reminding him every time he went to the foul line or touched the ball Monday night, he did not live up to the lofty expectations of being the first overall pick and the final part of “The Process” with that team. While still beloved among his former teammates, injuries kept him from that potential in Philadelphia.
Even in the relatively quiet halls in Orlando, doubt can creep in.
Every missed jumper or hesitated 3-pointer or poor scoring performance gets everyone thinking again. Fultz has been a great floor leader and general, but the future is never too far.
Now that the Orlando Magic are quickly getting postseason expectations — even if premature — everyone is starting to think about what this team will look like when it reaches that promised land and is contending again.
And as good as Fultz is, there are still questions. Even if those questions are pretty far down the list.
Markelle Fultz’s numbers are encouraging but hardly impressive for the Orlando Magic. But he makes an impact that is unseen by the numbers and is still coming together.
If there ever was a case for someone to watch a player rather than rely on the numbers, it would be with Fultz.
Watch the moments he puts himself in the game aggressively. Watch how he pushes the pace and gets the team up the court quickly. Watch how he speeds the team up with an aggressive outlet pass up the court.
It is hard to quantify just what kind of impact Fultz has on the team, especially when he is locked in and aggressively attacking the paint. But it is easy to see what Fultz provides this team just by watching him.
It is plays like one of the key defensive plays that sparked the Magic in their 21-point comeback against the 76ers on Monday:
Down by 18 points in the second quarter, Markelle Fultz reads this pass to Joel Embiid and shoots into the lane sparking a fast break that ends with a Paolo Banchero dunk. That kind of play got the team its energy and sped its pace up to get back into the game. The Magic would need more plays like this one.
Monday’s game was a perfect example of Fultz’s overall impact.
He scored only 12 points and made just 4 of 14 shots. But he recorded four steals and had 10 assists to get the team going.
His +12 plus/minus for the game trailed only Banchero’s +15 (Banchero had 29 points for the game and was key in the third quarter to get the team back into the game). The Magic had a +15.2 net rating with Fultz on the floor for the game and a 120.8 offensive rating.
Fultz was a constant engine even when the offense was struggling getting to the basket. And that is what helped the Magic find some offense early and stay aggressive throughout. If there is anywhere Fultz has his fingerprints on the team, it is in the pace and energy he brings to the game.
Fultz averages 11.4 drives per game with 1.6 assists per game on drives this season according to data from Second Spectrum. In Monday’s game, he had 16 drives and three assists off those drives (ignore the 33.3 percent shooting for now, it was not his best scoring game).
But this gets into the general push and thrust that comes with Fultz’s game. When the Magic are operating on all cylinders, it is typically because Fultz is able to get downhill and going toward the basket. That is usually enough to collapse the defense and for him to find a way to get his team moving.
What is funny there is that Fultz’s assists do not quite capture all of his playmaking. He had seven of his 10 assists in the first half well before the Magic got the ball rolling completely downhill.
Fultz can be a catalyst who affects the game beyond his box score stats.
Fultz will always attract his detractors. His numbers are not exactly popping off the page either — 12.1 points per game, 5.7 assists per game and a career-best 49.0-percent shooting. Fultz is just out there trying to manage his team and put them in the best position
There have undoubtedly been some rough moments for sure. The Magic have a -7.1 net rating with Fultz on the floor (a 108.3/115.4 offensive/defensive rating split). That would suggest the Magic have been worse with Fultz on the floor.
In January, the numbers look a little better — a -4.2 net rating, the best among the team’s point guards unless you count Jalen Suggs (+2.2 net rating) as a point guard. The offensive numbers do not quite standout either with a 111.6 offensive rating compared to the team’s overall offensive rating of 115.4 points per 100 possessions for the month.
The one place where the Magic have caught up is in pace. Fultz consistently plays with a faster pace and the team is starting to reap the benefits of getting up to that speed more consistently.
But these numbers do not paint the picture of a player who is so consequential for the team. These numbers would support the questions at point guard that some have.
And even with Fultz’s improved defense — he had a team-high six deflections in Monday’s win to note his defensive activity which follows considering he ranks in the 97th percentile in steals per 75 possessions, 90th percentile in deflections per 75 possessions and even ranks in the 79th percentile in ball screen navigation according to numbers from Basketball-Index — his impact is not always captured on a box score. It is something you need to see.
Perhaps Fultz can and should be more consistent. Perhaps he needs to increase his aggression and look to take charge to make sure the team’s energy is up. He can set the tone with his ability to get into the lane and show the rest of the team how it needs to attack to be successful.
Perhaps the numbers are still catching up with Fultz — much like the team had to catch up with his style of play. Perhaps the Magic put Fultz in a ton of different lineups knowing the value he can bring and that ends up weighing these numbers down.
Perhaps Fultz is still a young player finding his way in the league and establishing the consistency that his team needs from him.
And when he has games like he had Monday night in Philadelphia, his spark is clear and how he can make this team is clear. But when he has pedestrian games, that effect may be more hidden. He, like so many players on this team, are still trying to clarify and embrace their roles.
The numbers though clearly do not show the kind of impact Fultz can have. They clearly do not show what happens when Fultz is at his aggressive best and is putting pressure on the defense.
And even that aggressive mindset can change everything for Orlando. it is a confidence that permeates to everyone else. That is something Fultz does not need a counting stat to do. And that may be his ultimate impact.