Despite a failed effort to claim the Eastern Conference crown in 2017–18, The Process was completed last season in Philadelphia. Behind a pair of phenoms in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Sixers stormed to the No. 3 seed in the East, winning 50 games for the first time since 2001. Sam Hinkie’s vision was vindicated through a pair of young superstars, each of whom were acquired through an extended tanking effort like nothing the NBA had ever before seen.
While Embiid and Simmons proved tanking is an effective measure toward relevance, Philly’s execution of The Process has been far from foolproof. Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel flopped with the Sixers, now scraping for relevance outside of Philadelphia. And then there’s there’s the curious case of Markelle Fultz.
The No. 1 pick in 2017 appeared in just 14 games last season, missing nearly the entire season with some combination of scapular muscle imbalance, shoulder soreness and the yips. Aside from the Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio, no absence perplexed the NBA more than Fultz’s. So after a reportedly healthy offseason and restored jumper, what can the Philly faithful expect from Fultz in 2018–19?
Fourteen months seems like an eternity in today’s NBA, with the cast of stars shifting franchises at a breakneck pace. But it was not long ago that Fultz was viewed as the NBA draft’s surest bet, a lanky scoring dynamo with a silky jumpshot.
Don’t forget that Boston dealt the No. 1 overall to Philly in exchange for the No. 3 selection in 2018 and a 2019 first rounder, and it was the Celtics who drew the healthiest share of skepticism for the deal. This was, of course, before Jayson Tatum morphed into Paul Pierce 2.0, yet prior to the draft Fultz ranked as a near-consensus top prospect.
To understand Fultz’s appeal, let’s take a look back to his draft profile after one season at Washington. Despite a disappointing record with the Huskies, Fultz shined throughout his lone collegiate campaign, shooting 41% from three while averaging 24 points per game in Pac–12 play. He looked the part of a future All-Star right throughout.
Fultz’s offensive game was as polished as any in the draft. His tape showed an offensive force explosive to the tin, utilizing his long arms to fight through traffic and finish against contact. There wasn’t a prettier eurostep in college basketball, and Fultz’s feel for the pick-and-roll was advanced from the get-go. Forget making the easy read to a rolling big man, Fultz looked comfortable slinging crosscourt passes with his off hand, even in transition. The questions surrounding Fultz heading into the draft often dealt with his mentality and motor, never his skillset.
After a wasted year, Fultz now has a second chance to become a key cog in the Sixers’ rotation. Philly reportedly didn’t include him in any Kawhi Leonard offers, keeping faith in making Fultz the third piece in its core. Much like Oklahoma City a decade ago, Philadelphia will aim to win its conference through a collection of homegrown stars. The OKC comparison isn’t perfect, but Philadelphia would be best served deploying Fultz in the James Harden role. The parallels are closer than you think.
Before becoming an MVP and step-back dynamo, Harden headed Oklahoma City’s second unit, providing instant offense and ball-handling duties when Russell Westbrook headed to the bench. Sporting a canny playmaking ability beyond his years, Harden provided a smoothness to OKC’s offense, comfortable both in a lead ball-handling role and secondary marksman position.
A healthy Fultz should oscillate well between the two roles. He showed flashes at point guard last year, especially in transition. Fultz strides like a gazelle between the three-point lines, sporting an array of moves to get to the rim. The 20-year-old was acrobatic near the basket at Washington, flicking in layups regardless of contact while adding a eurostep reminiscent of peak Manu Ginobili (if Ginobili also had a 6’10” wingspan).
Fultz was far too turnover prone in his abbreviated rookie season—his penchant for coughing up the ball kept him glued to the bench during the playoffs—though that comes with the territory for a rookie guard. Harden’s turnover rate outpaced his assist rate in his rookie year, giving away possessions at a higher rate than Fultz in their respective rookie seasons. Like Harden, expect Fultz to improve his turnover rate, even as the usage statistics rise.
Fultz will bring Philly a boost when Simmons heads to the bench, but that role will be secondary early in his Sixers’ tenure. Philadelphia’s offense centers around a non-shooting point guard and ball-dominant center. For now, Fultz will make his money off the ball, reliant on his slashing and shooting prowess.
The offseason departures of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova create a direct line for Fultz in the rotation. Both provided critical spacing for Simmons to bulldoze his way to the paint, leaving a platter of open triples for Robert Covington, Dario Saric and J.J. Reddick. Fultz will do the same.
One fun wrinkle the Sixers should implement: the Fultz-Simmons pick-and-roll, eyeing a Simmons lob or post-up on smaller defenders. Houston gobbed up points on Harden-Chris Paul action in 2017–18, providing a blueprint for the guard-to-guard dance Philly is equipped to pull off. Fultz and Embiid together can bring another terrifying scenario for defenses, given how adept Embiid has proven to be when bringing bigs out to the perimeter.
Despite the youth of its core, the 76ers can’t afford to be patient in their quest for a title. Championship windows can fade quickly, and the chances can evaporate sooner than assumed. The Shaq and Penny Magic collapsed due to bad health and the allure of Hollywood, and the young Thunder detonated itself with an ill-advised trade. Considering the shaky injury history of its core, Philadelphia should feel the need to capitalize sooner than later.
Philadelphia took a gamble on Fultz in its decision to withhold him from the Leonard sweepstakes. Now it’s up to him to prove his worth as a reliable cog in the Sixers’ attack. Once a league-wide joke not so long ago, the Sixers are expected to be a force in the East, and a competitor with Boston and Toronto for the conference title. For both Philly and Fultz, the future is now.