Markelle Fultz: Five Years Stuck In Basketball Purgatory


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Stanley Shivley

 When looking back on the, as of now, pretty productive 2017 NBA Draft Class, that year’s number one pick has been an outlier. Markelle Fultz was taken first in the 2017 Draft by The Philadelphia 76ers, in an, at the time, much-anticipated draft class. At Washington, Fultz showed signs of a typical athletic guard with extraordinary playmaking and defensive skills, drawing comparisons to players like Russell Westbrook. Team staff and media expected that Fultz would contribute heavily to a young Sixers squad led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and immediately impact the Eastern Conference, even if it would take a few years or trades. The opposite happened, however, as a slew of injuries led to Fultz playing a total of 33 regular season games in Philadelphia across two seasons before being traded to the Orlando Magic at the 2019 Trade Deadline, where he’s played ever since. Fultz won’t be the player analysts thought he would be in college; however, for a moment it was starting to look like he’d at least pan out as a productive pass-first point guard. For a brief moment in 2020, it seemed like Fultz was finally starting to adjust, as, for the first time in his career, he was able to play in more than half of the season and contributed very well. However, significant injuries have set Fultz back again, and since the 2020-21 Season, he has played 26 games. Fultz hasn’t played worse enough to be labeled as a bust by the media, however, he also hasn’t played enough, in general, to even be labeled as a prospect, even if he had a few bumps in the road. This year, Markelle is coming onto his sixth season in the NBA, yet he has spent a little over two-thirds of that time not playing basketball. How come?

What Went Wrong In Philadelphia?

If you asked me the definite root of why it took three years before Markelle Fultz would ever play at least half a season, to this day, I still could not give a concrete answer, just due to how shrouded in mystery the whole ordeal was. Out the gate, Fultz sustained an ankle injury in the second game of the 2017 Summer League and was sidelined throughout the tournament, leaving the Sixers unable to monitor him. When the season came, it was noticed by fans and Sixers staff that Fultz’s jump shot was completely different than what it was in college, and in a bad way. In his first few games played in 2017-18, Markelle Fultz took fewer three-pointers than he ever was and was now seemingly pump-faking free throws. Fans and analysts could not see the same player they watched at Washington. Philadelphia knew something was off with Markelle and benched him. At first, Fultz told reporters he had to change his shooting form after he began feeling random spurts of shoulder pains and recently had fluid drained from his shoulders. After he was benched to recover, he retracted his statement and said he was fine. Then it was later reported he was experiencing back spasms, had possibly hidden many more injuries from the Sixers, and altered his shot many more times. It was also allegedly rumored that Fultz had sustained an injury in a bike accident around the draft and hid the injury from the 76ers so that they wouldn’t void his contract due to contract obligations; however, this was never confirmed. At this point, the number one pick in the NBA Draft has practically lost the ability to shoot a basketball. However, since Fultz was not supposed to be the first, second, or even third option on a playoff team, most of the attention drawn to him months earlier was gone. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid suffered injuries that kept them out of their rookie season, so Sixers fans just “trusted the process.” More was going on behind the scenes, however. Fultz told his trainer in mid-2017 that he had felt like someone was holding his arms down when he shot and made him change his shot technique several times, which as result gave him a very awkward jumper. The injuries pursued into his sophomore season, and he was pushed to a bench role, as Philadelphia had just acquired All-Star Jimmy Butler and was now trying to make a full finals run. The 76ers traded Fultz to the Orlando Magic at the trade deadline that year for backup forward Jonathon Simmons, putting the final nail in the coffin for Philly’s young big three


Comeback Season & The Revert Back To Square One In Orlando

Markelle played his first game for the Magic in the fall of 2019. Immediately, Markelle Fultz looked like a completely different basketball player. His shot form was way more consistent, he was hitting more from mid-range, and for the first time since being drafted two years prior, he was able to stay free of injury, for the most part, only missing ten games. Markelle fought his way into the Magic rotation, where he would put up 12.1 PPG, 5.1 APG, and 3.3 RPG. Markelle Fultz, the number one pick of the 2017 NBA Draft, could finally play like a real basketball player without the setback of various shoulder injuries, constant trainer changes, and the pressure of being the starting point guard on a championship-caliber team. Fultz helped the Magic to an 8th seed and first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, in the bubble, and even though Orlando lost in five games, they were able to hold Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Bucks off in game one, where Fultz put up 15, 6, and 2. Eight games into the 2020-21 Season, Fultz tore his ACL minutes into the first quarter of Orlando’s matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers, once against stunting any potential growth he could make. Markelle returned to the NBA in February 2022, playing in 16 games. He was frequently benched by the Magic and sat out games to remove any potential of him getting injured again. In the 16 games he played last year, he averaged 10.8 PPG, 5.5 APG, and 2.7 RPG. Markelle injured a toe during practice this summer and has been listed as indefinitely out ever since. While it is reported that the injury is not severe and will not require surgery, time will only tell how this will affect Fultz. Since his draft, Fultz has sustained six total accounted injuries and has appeared in only 120 out of 395 possible games. Markelle Fultz has spent less than a third of his six-year career playing basketball. I, along with a majority of basketball fans, really hope for the utmost best for Markelle. While it would take intense training and retooling of his game for Fultz to live up to his 2017 Draft expectations, Markelle is only 24, and his career is still up for salvation. If and When Markelle returns and plays somewhat close to his 2019 Season, that would be 100% success on his part after missing almost two full seasons. However, with the number of injuries he’s sustained, all of those may eventually snowball and take an irreversible impact on his body.