Nobody outside of Orlando quite believes in Markelle Fultz.
The narratives that took hold in his years in Philadelphia with a team that has been in the spotlight have taken pretty firm root. He is simply a nice story toiling away on a nondescript Orlando Magic team.
Everyone at this point thinks they know exactly what Fultz is.
He is the missed opportunity. A top overall pick who never lived up to the billing. He is the forever-injured player who had the yips and could never quite figure out his jumper.
That last part has become seemingly the defining characteristic of Fultz to the growing public. It is the one weakness that matters to anyone thinking about Fultz.
Markelle Fultz is still writing his own comeback story. The next big step for the Orlando Magic is Fultz becoming more confident as a 3-point shooter and focused on creating some shooting gravity.
The basketball nerds all know Fultz has grown beyond that. That he has started to find his footing again after having his return-to-court breakthrough in the 2020 season and bouncing back from his torn ACL in the 2021 season.
Those who have watched the Magic know the story is very different. They have seen a player who has slowly regained confidence, slowly regained his bounce and re-established his leadership and playmaking. They see a player whose growth and potential was only interrupted.
The end of the 2023 season was merely a resumption of what Fultz was always meant to be.
Well, there is still that one thing that Fultz’s talent promised. The one thing he still has to deliver. The one thing everyone wants and needs to see from Fultz before they declare he is back.
Shooting has always been the great question mark ever since TOS seemed to change the former top pick’s shooting form. The great mystery and the great thing hindering him.
Fultz has come a long way from those initial storylines. He has established himself as the team’s starting point guard and a player with promise once again.
Yet, the shooting questions persist. In the modern NBA and with the Magic’s lack of shooting, finding reliable 3-point shooting — or at least passable 3-point shooting — is essential to a team’s success.
As much as Magic fans know and understand how special Fultz can be, even they recognize how critical Fultz’s shooting will become to the team’s future. Especially its hopes of “leveling up” once again and reaching the postseason.
Especially considering Fultz’s contract expires after the 2024 season.
The funny thing is though, Fultz started to show some hints of becoming a better shooter. He was always a willing shooter. Ever since he returned to the court, he was never afraid to shoot when the timing was right and he was open. He proved himself increasingly as a solid mid-range shooter.
Fultz averaged a career-high 14.0 points per game last year. He had shooting splits of 51.4/31.0/78.3. His overall field goal percentage and 3-point percentage were career highs. As was his 54.4 percent 2-point field goal percentage — including 64.8 percent shooting in the restricted area and 42.6 percent shooting from mid-range.
If we take the belief that a player needs a full year playing to recover completely from an ACL tear, then his stats after the All-Star Break become much more significant.
In 22 games after the All-Star Break, he averaged 15.6 points per game (with 6.0 assists per game) on shooting splits of 53.3/32.4/81.1. In this part of the season, Fultz looked a lot more comfortable, aggressive and confident, even putting up some stunningly athletic dunks.
For the first time in a long time, Fultz started to look more like the hyper-athletic scorer he was at Washington. The player who became the number one pick.
But the funny thing was that in addition to the feats of athleticism came more of a willingness to shoot and more of an ability to make 3-pointers. That included pull-up 3-pointers off the dribble on some occasions.
Fultz had a 3-point improvement in him and that could be the most important piece for him to cement his spot as this team’s point guard for the future or a tipping point for this team to become very good very quickly.
"“I just think I decided to shoot more of them toward the end of the season,” Fultz said at the team’s exit interviews in April. “As the season went along, my only goal when I was on the court was to compete and help my team win in any way I can.“As the season got to the end, this is one of the barriers I needed to get over and shoot the shot that I wanted to shoot. Obviously, I could have taken pull-up 3s any time I wanted, I definitely felt I was more effective getting to the rim and my mid-range game. I was just doing what was best. I definitely wanted to showcase and show that I am capable of doing that.”"
Fultz averaged 1.5 3-pointers per game this season, a sign of his continued reticence and selection in taking 3-pointers. But after the All-Star Break, his averages jumped up to 1.7 per game.
That is not a huge increase. But considering he made more — 12 of his 27 3-point makes this year came after the All-Star Break — it became much more of a weapon.
To Fultz’s point, he made four of his eight pull-up 3-pointers according to NBA.com’s tracking data for the season. He made two of his three after the All-Star Break.
For the season, Fultz shot 19 for 67 (28.4 percent) on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers for the season. He made only 7 of 29 3-pointers (24.1 percent) in catch-and-shoot situations after the All-Star Break.
The problem with analyzing anything from Fultz is that the samples are so small. He just was not taking a ton of threes and that makes it hard to understand his potential to grow.
Among guards who played at least 1,000 total minutes this season, Fultz took the fourth-fewest total 3-point attempts this season. The three below him are New Orleans Pelicans rookie Dyson Daniels, Indiana Pacers defensive ace T.J. McConnell and Brooklyn Nets conundrum Ben Simmons.
Fultz has proven himself effective with his ability to get into the lane and dish the ball or finish at the rim or in the mid-range. But it is pretty clear that unlocking a 3-point shot and creating some gravity with it.
He knows it too. He said repeatedly at exit interviews in April that getting more comfortable taking 3-pointers and becoming a better 3-point shooter are keys to his growth and development. Everyone recognizes this as the biggest area of growth.
This is a potential ceiling raiser for him.
While his injury in Philadelphia certainly was not a mental block — TOS was a real thing he was working through — taking 3-pointers ever since has felt something like a mental block, especially in those catch-and-shoot situations.
His jumper off the dribble looks fluid while his jumper on catch-and-shoots can look stilted and jerky at times. It is the difference between playing on instinct and playing with some thought of what you are going to do.
Nobody would question Fultz’s instincts. And so his shot becomes simply about confidence.
"“Just the will of me going out there and shooting it and almost a sense of f*** it,” Fultz said during the team’s exit interviews in April. “That’s something I worked on this summer. I knocked down plenty of those shots.“When I step on the floor my mind goes straight to my habits and the things that I do consistently. When I’m out there playing I’m just out there doing whatever I can to win so I’m naturally trying to get downhill to create and naturally going to my midrange. That is something I’m going to continue to have to work on in the offseason and build up, it’s a habit thing.”"
That really might be what it comes down to for Fultz. Just having the confidence and comfort to add that shot to his arsenal. He has added so much else to his game in the process and his time in Orlando.
Nobody questions his work ethic. Only time will tell what he actually adds to his game.
But when it comes to preparing for the postseason — and that is clearly something the Magic are considering even in another season of development — Fultz’s 3-point shooting could very well be a tipping point for the team.
Orlando does not need Fultz to be a heavy 3-point shooter. But the team needs him to be respectable enough to make him a threat off the ball.
That is something Fultz knows he needs to keep working on and something he will need to prove again next season.