It's good to have Markelle Fultz back, but he isn't the same yet

Markelle Fultz made his triumphant return to the court Sunday and was a welcomed sight for the Orlando Magic. But everyone knows he has to continue improving and he has to answer some big questions that his debut did not quiet.
Markelle Fultz made his return to the Orlando Magic's lineup. But there is still a long way for him to go to get all the way back.
Markelle Fultz made his return to the Orlando Magic's lineup. But there is still a long way for him to go to get all the way back. / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Midway through the first quarter of Sunday's game against the Atlanta Hawks, Markelle Fultz checked into the game for the first time to a standing ovation from Orlando Magic fans at Kia Center.

It felt like a long time coming through the ups and downs of his recovery from knee tendinitis in his left knee. He last played on Nov. 9 in Mexico City. His game Sunday marked just his second game of the season on the Magic's home floor. After the will-he, won't-he, and constant status updates that he was day-to-day, Fultz was back on the floor.

Everyone was happy for him. He has worked so hard to recover from numerous injuries. And this was just another roadblock for him to overcome.

The Magic and their players know how much Fultz can help the team with his ability to change the pace and tempo of the game and find others in transition. They know how much he can help.

It was a welcome sight to see Fultz back on the floor.

"I'm just extremely blessed to have the opportunity to step back out there with my teammates," Fultz said after Sunday's game. "That's all I care about is being able to be out there with my brothers, go out there and compete and try to get wins. That's what we did tonight. I'm just extremely healthy and glad I made it through the game healthy."

Fultz has never been one to take playing for granted. He has been through so many injuries -- from his shoulder to his knee -- and he understands how precious his time on the court has been. Fultz had played in just one game since Oct. 31 before stepping on the floor Sunday in the Magic's overtime win over the Hawks.

That is not something he was going to take for granted.

And so it was good just to have him out there. His impact and ability to get penetration and find teammates were more than clear. The Magic benefited from his presence in a lot of ways because he can push the tempo and find passes for teammates.

There is undoubtedly just a little extra flair Fultz brings to the table that no one else on the roster seems to have. And that is something Orlando is eager to integrate.

In his return game, Fultz failed to score, but still totaled four assists, a steal and a couple of rebounds in a little less than 15 minutes (coach Jamahl Mosley said he will be capped at 12-16 minutes per game for the time being). There is still a lot to work his way back into the fold, but it was a good start in a lot of ways.

"He played himself to exhaustion in his minutes," Mosley said after Sunday's win. "That is why being able to be on a minutes restriction in that moment is good because he can get his wind and get a rhythm for being back on the floor with the guys and they can feel the pace at which he plays at. Understanding they are going to have to push that ball even more."

The Magic are certainly eager to see Fultz add himself to the mix. They know he is one of the few players who can push the pace offensively and help control the tempo of the game.

They know it will take time for him to get fully up to speed. And Fultz was honest and said his first game left a lot for him to improve on defensively. No one should fully judge Fultz based off one game.

That still will not keep everyone from doing so however. The Magic are in the thick of a playoff chase -- seeds 4-8 are separated by a half game in the Eastern Conference with the Magic sitting in fourth for now -- and every game is important.

That has only increased the pressure and the attention on Fultz and his game. The Magic need a point guard to settle the team down and organize them -- two things Fultz is very good and showed he could be good at throughout even his short stint Sunday. But it is also clear they need more.

Fultz did miss both of his field goal attempts and all four of his free throws. Fans went through the tapes of his shot while he was working his way back and noted the hitch at the top of his jump. That was indeed prominent in Sunday's game too -- the hitch made it seem like he was shooting on the way down from his jump rather than at the peak of his jump.

Orlando knows the value Fultz can bring to the table. The team knows it will be a process to get him back fully up to speed. And so while questions remain, there is just joy knowing that he is back.

He has a lot of skill work to improve on, but he has been a positive presence for the team.

"[Mar]Kelle has been a key leader of this team since I got here," Paolo Banchero said after Sunday's win. "No matter if he has been on the court or off the court, he has been the same leader, same attitude, same approach. He is always a positive voice for the whole team. When you get to have him on the court, it just elevates all of that. To have him out there and see him run up and down and make plays, it was great for us and for him I'm sure."

Like with Wendell Carter and his slow return (he missed Sunday's game with right knee tendinitis that has had him in and out of the lineup since his return from his fractured bone in his left hand), Markelle Fultz will need time to get back up to speed fully. What will be important is that there is a progression and improvement as he gets up to speed. Fultz missed a lot of time.

But Magic fans are thinking about the team's long-term future and what this team will look like for the Playoffs. Fultz will undoubtedly help in some areas. But without a consistent jumper, he will hurt plenty of others.

The unfortunate thing is Fultz's future is in focus and is in question as the trade deadline approaches on Feb. 8. Fultz has a month to build his case before the first decision point for the Magic and then another four months to earn a new contract.

That is going to be out of mind for him. Fultz needs just to play and prove he can contribute to the team. He can do that even as he gets himself into shape. Everyone believes in him and is rooting for him to make this comeback.

"I've been through this enough times that I know how it goes," Fultz said after Sunday's game. "I know sometimes you put extra pressure to get everything back at once. I believe in our team. I believe in everything that we can do. I know they believe in me. I just go out there and try to make whatever winning plays I can make to help our team win."

Fultz has always been about the team first and foremost. He wants to do whatever he needs to help his team. That is going to be his mindset as he likely continues coming off the bench for now -- there will be a a lot of mixing and matching with the lineups considering the team's injuries right now. Fultz is certainly capable of dishing the ball and making an impact.

But everyone can see that the Magic are going to need a lot more from Fultz in the long run. This season, he has not played like the guy who finished last season and gave everyone hopes he was inching closer to first-overall pick Fultz.

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The Magic have to work with what they have for now and make the most of Fultz. But there is a lot riding on these moments.