Markelle Fultz's defense, Brett Brown's handling of his rookie will be tested early

Celtics 76ers Basketball
Sixers rookie Markelle Fultz (right) tries to block Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum during a summer league game.

One of the overarching themes of this upcoming Sixers season will be the way Brett Brown handles a team that is both young enough to start three players with a combined 31 games of NBA experience, and talented enough to prompt Vegas to set their over-under at 41.5 (and, thus, ignite playoff expectations).

Consider, for instance, the way in which Markelle Fultz will begin his NBA career, with matchups against two of the best ball handlers in the NBA. Fultz will be 19 years and 142 days old when he mans up against John Wall in the Sixers’ season opener on Oct. 18. Two nights later, he’ll square off against Kyrie Irving (it doesn’t get much easier, with a game against Kyle Lowry and two against Chris Paul before the end of October).

Most No. 1 overall picks have the relative luxury of acclimating themselves to the NBA while playing for a team that is not competing for a playoff spot. Throw the kid out there, let him learn as he goes. But Brett Brown is not shying away from the expectations many have for his team, and if he’s coaching first and foremost to win, rather than to develop his talent, he could face some interesting decisions in the early going. In Jerryd Bayless and T.J. McConnell, he has two players with significant experience defending NBA point guards as options to match up against opposing ball handlers, and with scoring options like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid already on the court (in theory, at least), how often will it make sense to err on the side of defense, particularly in late-and-close situations?

“Everybody in this room, Markelle the same, understands that we’re going to coach him hard defensively,” Brown said. “There’s always a question about how do you play that side of the ball. When I project out in the summertime how will I decide to use him, there’s a lot that’s going to be learned, but we all have preconceived ideas. I believe that the challenge of guarding NBA point guards is real. How is that going to transpire? How will that unfold as the season progresses?”

One notable thing about the way Brown and Bryan Colangelo talk about their team is that they always find a way to mention Bayless. At one point during the Sixers annual media luncheon on Wednesday afternoon, Brown referred to the veteran guard as “the forgotten man,” the implication being that he will not remain invisible once preparations for the 2017-18 season begin in earnest next week at training camp.

Bayless might not be on the list of reasons for the sense of anticipation surrounding this team, but his presence does warrant a mention as one of the many intriguing unknowns that will begin to reveal themselves during the next month or so. If anything, it offers a lens through which to consider the Sixers’ thought process with regard to Fultz’s playing time early on in his NBA career.

The Sixers suddenly have a lot of mouths to feed in the backcourt. Brown has remained consistent in his desire to use Simmons as his primary ball handler, reiterating the point as recently as Wednesday, saying, “When it’s a static situation and you are going to run a play at the start of the year, Ben Simmons will have the ball. While Brown said that it would be wrong to “think that doesn’t include Markelle in decision making and point guard type responsibilities,” it’s clear that the offense is going to run through Simmons, putting Fultz in a position he has not often been since emerging as one of the top young basketball players in the country.

Factor in Bayless and J.J. Redick and the Sixers have two veterans who’ve averaged 20-plus minutes throughout their careers to mix in with Simmons and Fultz in the backcourt.

The big question is how aggressive Brown will end up being in his utilization of Fultz as he accustoms himself to the NBA game.

“I feel like the city and the media has to recognize that he just turned 19 a few months ago, and we all get how unforgiving the NBA is,” Brown said, “and there are weaknesses obviously that we have to address in his game, and we really want to go hard at this defense, but I think when you ask what do we see at first glance, I see a person, a real person, I see somebody that is incredibly gifted and the game comes easy offensively, I see someone who will be challenged defensively, especially as it relates to NBA point guards, and then how does he navigate NBA seasons and the rhythm of an NBA season at 19 years old, we will all learn more about.”

On draft night, he was 19 years old and 29 days, the youngest player drafted at No. 1 overall since the Cavs took LeBron James when he was just 18 years old and 182 days. Simmons was nearly a full year older when the Sixers drafted him (314 days, to be exact).

There seems to be little concern in the organization about Fultz’s ability to quickly adapt his body and his style of play to the professional level. Brown has consistently raved about the rookie’s receptiveness to coaching. But the losses in October count the same as the ones in April. For a team that hopes to extend its season well into spring, Brown’s handling of Fultz in the early weeks of the season will be an interesting little subplot to monitor.