Markelle Fultz gaining strength, finding new role with Orlando Magic

Markelle Fultz is constantly in the spotlight for the Orlando Magic as the playoffs approach. After some time off following the All-Star Break, he is showing signs of looking like himself again.

Markelle Fultz has returned from injury and is starting to show some strength as the Orlando Magic begin their playoff push.
Markelle Fultz has returned from injury and is starting to show some strength as the Orlando Magic begin their playoff push. / Rich Storry/GettyImages
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It has been a tough season for Markelle Fultz.

Every start has been followed by a false start and then a setback. That has been the way of his career, unfortunately. Fultz has never been able to shake off his injury issues to make good on the talent he tantalizes everyone with.

In some ways, it feels like time is running out. His free agency and the Orlando Magic's ascendancy have put a lot of pressure on him, even with a forgiving Magic fan base that wants him to succeed. The league's realities set in at some point for this team. And Fultz may be its first casualty.

But Fultz still has time. And he still has a chance. The Magic still need him.

As the Magic come to the end of their season, he and the team are gaining strength.

Just look at his showing Sunday against the Detroit Pistons when he scored a season-high 16 points on a perfect 8-for-8 shooting, becoming just the 10th player in Magic history to make eight-plus field goals in a game without a miss.

It was not just those stats or those numbers. It was the way he did it.

Fultz brought back the bounce and herky-jerky rhythm that helps him create space to get to the basket and finish around the rim. His strong post-game and ability to set up mid-range jumpers seemed to be back.

Then there was the pull-up jumper he hit to beat the first quarter buzzer. A one-dribble pull-up that looked as smooth as it ever has been.

Fultz's play all season has been uncertain. But he is building some track record of production as he regains strength after missing the first three games after the All-Star Break.

Fultz is still managing the left knee tendinitis that has kept him out all season. But he is gaining strength and looking more capable of making shots like these more regularly.

Regardless of what role he ends up playing for the Magic in their playoff push, Fultz will be important and whatever offense and scoring the team can get him for will prove to be a big boost.

"I feel good obviously, any time you can go without missing a shot," Fultz said after Sunday's game. "But I'm just going out there and playing hard. I'm not really worried about makes or misses. There are other areas I wish I could have been better tonight, especially with that second unit. Trying to control that but end-all-be-all, all I care about is a win. I'm happy we got the win."

Fultz has had a rough season. He is averaging 8.6 points per game, his lowest since joining the Magic in 2019. It is the same with his 3.3 assists per game.

Most of the focus with Fultz always falls on his shooting. And that has fallen off this year.

He is shooting 50.0 percent from the floor overall, boosted by his perfect performance Sunday. But he has made only one of nine 3-point attempts this season.

That alone has raised concerns about Fultz and questions about the extent of his injuries or whether his thoracic outlet syndrome has flared up again, limiting his ability to shoot. It has pushed ahead questions about the Magic's long-term answers at the position.

Those will be concerns for after the playoffs. Right now, the Magic are trying to figure out how to get the most out of Fultz in the present.

And they still see how valuable he can be as an organizer and point guard. They are finding lineups to put him in coming off the bench while controlling his minutes and workload.

To see an offensive and shooting breakthrough is vital.

"I thought he was great," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Sunday's win. "I thought he pushed the pace at the right time. He was able to get below the defense and guys found him for finishing around the basket. He just kept coming at them and I thought that was great for him with that unit."

It was not just Sunday's game either. Fultz had seven points on 5-for-6 shooting from the foul line against the Utah Jazz. He made one shot in that game.

He had 12 points on 6-for-12 shooting in the win over the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday. In that game, Fultz pulled out the turnaround fadeaway from the post that he hit with ease throughout his peak last year.

Fultz is not a traditional guard. He scores most of his points in the lane. That was true even with his hesitancy to shoot from distance.

Nearly 55 percent of his field goal attempts come within five feet of the basket and he shoots 63.5 percent from there. He scored 1.00 points per possession on his 14 post-up possessions, according to NBA.com's tracking data.

Even in Fultz's limited season -- he has played just 25 games this year -- he can still make a positive impact. Orlando is not worse for having Fultz out there even with his inconsistencies this season.

The Magic still have a +1.3 net rating with Fultz on the floor including a 107.0 defensive rating. The team has a +0.6 net rating since the All-Star Break with a 97.3 defensive rating.

The offense struggles with Fultz on the floor. And that is probably why he is going to be coming off the bench. If Fultz can become a bigger threat as a scorer as he has the last week, things could change for the Magic.

His focus is on helping the team win in whatever role he can. At this stage of the season, that is all that matters.

"All I care about is helping this team win," Fultz said after Sunday's game. "Any way that I can do that. If I'm on the bench cheering my guys on bringing them water, if I'm in the game playing as hard as I can. I don't really care about that [starting or not], all I care about is winning any way possible."

Orlando is carving a bench role for Fultz for now. It has helped control his minutes and allowed him to be aggressive and attack with fewer consequences. Defenses will still sag off him but are not as likely to make the team pay for any lulls in that sense coming off the bench.

The Magic still see him as a clear benefit to their team and roster. And they have been waiting to let him gain his strength so they can see what he can do. He just has not had that opportunity.

But it is time for the Magic to get serious. It is time for them to focus on the playoffs. And Fultz has 21 games left to find his fit and his role for that.

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This week was encouraging that he can pick up steam and find that role again.