Markelle Fultz adapted to new role for Orlando Magic, but was it enough?

Markelle Fultz dealt with injuries throughout the 2024 season and had to adapt to a new role off the bench. He had a fine Playoffs. But does his future include staying with the Orlando Magic?
Everyone suspects Markelle Fultz has played his last game with the Orlando Magic. But his adaptability could give him a lifeline.
Everyone suspects Markelle Fultz has played his last game with the Orlando Magic. But his adaptability could give him a lifeline. / Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Markelle Fultz started his 2024 season with a ton of optimism.

He reached a point at the end of the 2023 season where he was willing to go past his perceived limitations. He was hitting pull-up 3-pointers and willing to shoot more and more. Fultz was playing with a sense of confidence that had Orlando Magic fans ready to go to bat for him.

In an offseason where everyone was calling for the Magic to shore up their point guard depth, Magic fans shouted that Fultz had earned a chance to prove himself.

That plan was quickly thrown out the window. Fultz started the season slow. Teams still sagged off him, testing Fultz's newfound confidence. It simply was not there. Four games into the season, Fultz began sitting with left knee tendinitis, missing 30 of 31 games to deal with the issue.

He never looked completely right, averaging 7.8 points per game and 2.8 assists per game on 47.2 percent shooting in what became a bench role.

But there is a reason Fultz was nominated for the league's teammate of the year.

It is not just that he is so respected in the locker room, and everyone appreciates the work he has put in to be back on the floor after his injuries early in his career; it is that he is willing to accept and play any role the Magic throw at him. His malleability and flexibility to play without any ego is meaningful to the team.

It is in moments like in the Orlando Magic's late-season win over the Chicago Bulls when Jalen Suggs said Markelle Fultz gathered the team together when emotions were high to take their attention off the officials and focus on what they needed to do to close that game out. He brought everyone's attention back to what mattered.

Fultz had 17 points in that game, helping the Magic get a critical win on their way to clinching a Playoff spot. That was part of a string of games where he had 15 points against the Charlotte Hornets the previous game and a season-high 18 points in the next game in Houston against the Rockets.

Fultz was willing to do whatever his team needed him to do. It was about winning. All the while he was starting to round himself into form and finally look healthy.

"My confidence never really went anywhere," Fultz said during the team's exit interviews. "Being able to get chemistry with guys, being able to play with guys and be around your teammates all year round and see what they go through on and off the court. Being able to have those tough conversations where you come out the other side feeling better about one another is huge. We all understand the unique chemistry that this group had. It's very rare."

In the Magic's last 10 games (Fultz played in nine of them, sitting out a back-to-back during the homestand), he averaged 8.8 points per game and 2.3 assists per game while shooting 47.9 percent from the floor. He shot 3 for 7 on threes during that stretch.

Fultz looked fresher during the Playoffs. He averaged 6.4 points per game and 1.1 assists per game in 15.1 minutes per game. He shot 58.8 percent from the floor on 4.9 field goal attempts per game. He had 11 and 12 points in Games 3 and 4 of the series. He found his footing to contribute in the final three games of the series, scoring 21 total points, including eight in the Game 7 loss.

The Magic had a +16.2 net rating with Fultz on the floor in the Playoffs, with a 106.2 offensive rating and 90.0 defensive rating. Some of that is a product of the bench's dominance in Game 4. His minutes were limited, as Jamahl Mosley began tightening his bench rotation and particularly flawed players like Markelle Fultz and Joe Ingles.

Fultz seemed like he was putting the injuries behind him at the end of the season and showing hints of that player who brought so much optimism to end the 2023 season.

"I feel better and better," Fultz said after the April 7 win over the Bulls. "If anybody knows, I'm never going to stop. I love this game too much. I worked too hard at it. It's going to keep getting better. You haven't seen the best yet. It's going to continue to go. I give it all to my teammates and to the work I've put in."

That is what characterized Fultz throughout his season. There was no doubting his desire. It was his ability to contribute and whether the team could cover for his shortcomings.

There were plenty of debates about adjustments to the lineups and rotations the Magic had to make. There were calls to add Anthony Black to the rotation.

And they may have been legitimate. Fultz did not have the season everyone needed to see from him. And Black was a more effective outside shooter and also a stronger defender.

Ultimately, it came down to trust. Coach Jamahl Mosley trusted the veteran Markelle Fultz on both ends to make the right plays and right decisions even if Anthony Black might end up being the better player. In the end, Fultz had a strong Playoff showing, and Mosley was likely justified in that decision.

But Fultz still presents a few questions for the Magic to answer. And those answers seem inevitable.

Fultz’s time with the Magic might be over soon

Fultz is a free agent this offseason. The expectation is the Magic will let him walk and try to fill that point guard spot with a starting-level free agent. They should be aiming to allow Black to fill the role Fultz is leaving vacant.

Certainly, Fultz is not coming back on the $17 million he received last year. Fultz may yet still find a home, but he is looking more like a mid-level or lower player than anything else. If the Magic plan on bringing him back, it is likely an end-of-summer move—an afterthought in a busy summer.

Fultz still hopes he has a place, though. The Magic have given him a lot.

"I definitely want to be a part of it," Fultz said during the team's exit interviews. "They welcomed me with open arms here. They have been very supportive of me through all the ups and downs that I have had on and off the court. Of course, you want to be part of a young group who is doing great things. Just the culture here. They've got a lot of good people. I've built a lot of relationships not only with the staff but with the organization. I'm excited for what the future holds. I'm open to everything and very excited."

Quite simply, Fultz was a good player for the team's development. He was someone who was able to nurture the team and give them stability at point guard and a level head decisionmaker even with his shortcomings.

Now that the team is winning and competing, Fultz has seemingly been left behind. His skill set no longer matches what the team needs from the position. Orlando saw in the Playoffs how important shooting will be.

That is simply something Fultz has not proven he can provide.

Still, Fultz fits in wherever he is needed. If he does come back, he is going to be willing to play whatever role the Magic have for him without complaint. That is part of who he is and why he is admired in the locker room.

If Orlando can find a place for him on this team, it probably would try.

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But that place looks far more unlikely. Fultz should be looking for a place where he can play and continue to reclaim his career. He has always been thankful to Orlando for giving him that space.