Markelle Fultz's return will be for the long haul

Markelle Fultz has been upgraded to questionable on the Orlando Magic's injury report, a sure sign that his return from left knee tendinitis is coming soon. His recovery has always been about preparing for the long haul.

Markelle Fultz had a slow start to the year but the Orlando Magic are eager to see him back on the floor and for the long haul after his injury knocked him out the last month.
Markelle Fultz had a slow start to the year but the Orlando Magic are eager to see him back on the floor and for the long haul after his injury knocked him out the last month. / Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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After the Orlando Magic's game against the LA Clippers on Oct. 31, Markelle Fultz felt a bit off. He realized pretty soon his knee was swollen and a bit stiff. There was not any pain at this point, but knowing he tore his ACL in that left knee, he knew the knee needed to be checked out.

The Magic discovered some tendinitis and pain soon followed, making it difficult for Fultz to do basketball activities, let alone play. Then the waiting began because tendinitis -- a bruising of the tendons, the part that attaches muscle to bones -- is not something so easily healed and worked on.

It was a lot of waiting for him to get back.

That time to return is almost here. Markelle Fultz -- along with Wendell Carter, recovering from a fractured metacarpal in his left hand -- participated in practice on both Wednesday and Thursday ahead of the team's trip to Boston for a weekend set with the Boston Celtics.

Carter is listed as OUT for Friday's game. Fultz, however, has been upgraded to QUESTIONABLE. While that does not guarantee that Fultz will return, it is a sure sign that his return is imminent.

The real aim now is to make sure Fultz is on the court to stay.

"I can't give you a timeline," Fultz said of his imminent return after practice Thursday. "I'm just taking it day by day and getting the best out of each day and seeing how my body responds. That's been the biggest part of what is going on. Just pushing it and making sure nothing goes wrong.

"I'm thinking the long game here. I don't want to come back in, play a few games and have to sit back out. When I'm back I want to stay back for the long run. We've just been doing a great job of taking it day by day and really pushing myself every day to getting better and stepping back out there."

That has been the difficult part about the injury Fultz has faced. The pain at a certain point did become unbearable for Fultz and he felt trying to play through it would hurt the team.

That perhaps explains why Fultz attempted a comeback in scoring 13 points in the Orlando Magic's loss to the Atlanta Hawks before promptly shutting down again. The focus at that point was no longer on just being on the floor to be on the floor. Fultz needed to think about the long-term needs and needed to think about being able to finish the race.

It certainly was a struggle for him to start the season. While Fultz said he did not note the issue with his knee until after the game against the Clippers, his stat line suggested he was missing a step.

That is why the Magic want to make sure they can get him back on the floor and keep him on the floor. They know ultimately they are playing for April and the postseason. So getting him on the floor for that extended time is vital to the team's success.

"The mindset is whatever gets our guys in the best position to be successful," coach Jamahl Mosley said after practice Thursday. "Being healthy for this group is so important. How they feel in this moment is important but also over the long haul what is going to be important for them this season and for their career."

It is undoubtedly an important year for Fultz's career with free agency on the horizon. The Magic also certainly realize that Fultz can make them a significantly better team in the long run.

Still, this year has been a struggle so far. And that might be why the Magic have been more cautious with bringing him back -- in addition to the fact the team has played so well overall.

Fultz averaged 11.4 points per game and 4.0 assists per game in his five appearances this season. The Magic had a 105.9 offensive rating and 104.6 defensive rating with Fultz on the floor -- through Fultz's last game on Nov. 9, the Magic had an offensive rating of 109.6 and 106.8. The sample size is too small to draw too many conclusions.

Last year, the Magic had a 110.3 offensive rating (about a point per 100 possessions worse than the team's average) and 114.0 defensive rating (0.3 points per 100 possessions worse than the team average) with Fultz on the floor.

But after the All-Star Break, the Magic had a 113.9 offensive rating with Fultz on the floor (the second-best mark on the team) and 113.0 defensive rating (slightly better than the team's average).

This is the Fultz the Magic are trying to get back and want to see. And that is why Fultz had to take a pause and make sure he was healthy. Getting back to this level is certainly the goal.

He cannot do that if he is feeling discomfort or pain.

"It's a tricky game but with the great staff we have here and the stuff that I've been through, I have a great understanding of my body and understanding of what I feel comfortable and what I know I need to be comfortable at in order to go out and play the game to the best of my abilities and help my teammates to the best of my abilities," Fultz said after practice Thursday. "Really I've just been focused on those and checking off those boxes. I'm getting closer every day. I'm super excited just for the last couple of days to go through practice and go up and down, some light contact with that and see how it feels recovering from that."

Like everyone else, Fultz has been excited with what he has seen from the team. He said he loves Anthony Black's fearlessness and how he has fit in with the team. There are just a lot of players who have stepped up to the plate for this team.

The trick soon will be figuring out how both he and Carter fit into the larger fold. That is what the past two days of practice helped clarify as Fultz and Carter got back into the swing of things. They at least got to get back in and work with some of the playing groups they will play with. Orlando has emphasized versatility and players being able to plug in play throughout the early part of the season.

"We're dogs," Fultz said after practice Thursday. "We're going to fight defensively and make it tough on teams offensively. We're really good when we share the ball with each other. Paolo [Banchero] and Franz [Wagner] are doing an unbelievable job playmaking for everyone and themselves. When I come back, it's the same. Letting them be comfortable. We're all interchangeable. That's one of our strengths. It's good to see it actually happening in full fold right now."

The Magic have built their identity in the last month with both Fultz and Cater out. Both players will have to find their fits with the team. But they are both very capable of doing so.

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The goal though will be for them to build toward the postseason in April. That remains the Magic's ultimate goal. And why the team wants to make sure a player like Fultz is ready for the long haul. They know how important he can be and what his return ultimately means.