ORLANDO – The chant started in the lower bowl on Monday, a handful of powder blue clad fans leading it.
M-V-P … M-V-P …
It picked up a few dozen more voices, enough to catch Markelle Fultz’s ear.
M-V-P … M-V-P … M-V-P …
“Oh I heard it,” Fultz said, smiling. “It was dope.”
There are good stories in the NBA this season. Luka Doncic’s rise in Dallas. Pascal Siakam’s leap in Toronto. And then there is Fultz. He’s a great story. Fultz’s career has been revived in Orlando. He’s averaging a career-high 11.3 points. He’s shooting a career-best 45.6% from the floor. He played 33 games in his first two seasons. He’s played 37 (and counting) in this one, improving by the game.
In 2017, Fultz was the No. 1 pick.
In 2020, he’s starting to play like one.
A year ago, Fultz was in Philadelphia. He had been diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome—loosely defined as a compression or irritation between the lower neck and upper chest—a relief, if only because Fultz finally figured out what was wrong with him.
For 18 months, he had no idea. He knew his shoulder hurt. He knew there was pain when he lifted his arms. Some didn’t believe him. Some believed it was psychological, that Fultz had the yips, that he was basketball’s Mark Wohler’s or Rick Ankiel. His funky, oft changing shot fed into those theories. Even those that believed he was injured questioned the severity of it.
Often, players won’t admit to reading any of the criticism.
Fultz, active on social media, read all of it.
“The thing is, it didn’t really bother me,” Fultz told SI.com. “If I saw something negative, most of the time I laughed at it. Because it’s just not true. People say some crazy stuff. I read somewhere that I got into a motorcycle accident. I cracked jokes with my friends about this stuff. People just don’t know. I was [injured]. That’s it.”
Last February, the Sixers ended the Fultz experiment, flipping Fultz to Orlando for a package headlined by Jonathan Simmons and a protected first round pick. Magic brass will tell you: They didn’t know what they were getting. They had the same questions about Fultz. Was it physical or psychological? How serious was the injury? But they had scouted Fultz in college. They knew his talent. They didn’t have a franchise point guard. They believed it was worth the risk.
“There was a lot of uncertainty,” admitted Magic GM John Hammond. “To be honest, I don’t know if anyone was comfortable at that time. I don’t know if Markelle was comfortable. He was going through his rehab. We just wanted to help him in any way.”
Orlando’s approach to rebuilding Fultz, 21, was methodical. The rehab came first—it was mid-summer before Fultz started playing. From there it was one-on-one. Then three-on-three. Hammond recalls watching those early three-on-three’s and being wowed by the things Fultz could do. Magic assistant coach Steve Hetzel became attached to Fultz’s hip. They ran pick-and-roll drills to sharpen Fultz’s skills. They used blocking pads to get Fultz’s shoulder used to contact. Hetzel, Fultz said, would whack away at him. He would bump him going to the basket. He would bang him in the post. Slowly, Fultz grew comfortable playing through contact.
“You build confidence with that,” Fultz said. “That's like with any injury. When you first come out of a cast with your foot and you walk, the first time you walk you'll limp. But once you realize you're okay, you're good. So, I think the summer, integrating the three on three, and stuff like that, one-on-one, I think that got me ready for the season.”
In Philadelphia, Fultz was the top pick, the point guard who was supposed to complement Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid and deliver the Sixers a championship. In Orlando, the expectations are considerably different. The Magic made the playoffs last season—ending a six season drought. They are a young team with modest expectations. They have a coach that excels at developing young talent. Kemba Walker was coming off a solid rookie season when Clifford took over in Charlotte, in 2013. Under Clifford, Walker developed into an All-NBA player.
Clifford, Walker said, “Got me to another level.”
Fultz offers a different challenge, a distressed asset in need of repair. Clifford loved Fultz’s game. “He’s a throwback player,” Clifford said. “He’s heady and wants to play for his teammates.” Fultz, Clifford said, could be hard on himself, could dwell too long on the negative. Early on, Clifford’s message was simple: You’re going to make mistakes. Play through them. You’re going to miss shots. Keep shooting them.
“The better he feels, the more confident he is,” Clifford said. “I watched a lot of his college games. This is a guy who shot [41%] in college. He’s used to quick dribble, move, pull. The shooting isn’t a confidence thing. It’s getting back to that point where is comfortable physically.”
And Fultz is getting there. He says he doesn’t think about his injury anymore. He tries to avoid heavy collisions on screens, but isn’t afraid of them. He runs into picks set by Khem Birch, Orlando’s backup center, in practice; earlier in the season he was nearly floored by Wendell Carter. He continues to rehab his shoulder with daily treatments, shoulder strengthening, massage, work that can take anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours. But he is no longer playing through pain.
“I stay on top of it,” Fultz said. “I want to make sure I don’t slip up. I don’t want to get comfortable just because I’m playing again. It’s something I’ll always keep an eye on because I know what can happen.”
Physically, Fultz says, he feels like a rookie. Mentally, though, he feels further along. “I'm three years in,” Fultz said. “I've learned a lot. I've seen a lot. You don't always have to learn by going through something. You can learn through somebody else's mistakes or somebody else's errors. That's what I've been learning from.”
First year, third year—Fultz is playing like a veteran. He scored 25 points in Orlando’s win over Brooklyn on Monday. He made a pair of three’s and shot 55% from the floor. With the game tied in the fourth quarter, Fultz re-entered the game. He made a pair of layups and a three, prompting the MVP chants. “I felt like I was playing career-mode in NBA2K,” Fultz said. He struggled with his shot against Washington on Wednesday, but dished out seven assists in a blowout win.
“He can get to every spot he wants to get to,” marveled Wizards coach Scott Brooks. “I don’t think he realizes how strong he is. When he bumps you, when he puts his shoulder on you, you feel it. You back off. He’s able to absorb contact and still keep his stride going to the basket. He’s going to be a handful.”
For Fultz, just playing means everything. For two years he watched Lonzo Ball emerge as a capable starter and Jayson Tatum—the player effectively swapped for him before the draft—develop into a star. He insists he was happy for them. But he was also motivated by their success. He never lost faith in his talent. Orlando has given him the opportunity to showcase it.
“I’m still the No. 1 pick,” Fultz said. “That will never change. But I took care of the injury. I can play freely. I can do what I want. I can do what I love most. Every game I’m improving. Every game I’m feeling better. It helps when you see the ball going in. That just makes it even better.”