The 76ers’ regular season will close April 11, and Markelle Fultz’s season will have just started.
If he plays in every game left on the schedule, Fultz would have played in 14 total games, 10 since his shocking return Monday night. That is the sample size on which the Sixers will have to base their decision as to whether Fultz will have a role in the postseason.
“Time will tell in the next 10 games whether or not he’s going to be a factor for us in the playoffs,” Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo said Monday.
That Fultz was able to play, shoot the ball, and come away from his return seemingly confident is absolutely a good sign for the Sixers, but uncertainty still looms.
“I’m not even certain we can say he’s 100 percent,” Colangelo said. “But he’s 100 percent ready to get out there on the floor in his own mind.”
After Fultz spent five months away from the game, his return went just about as well as it could have. There was some rust, and some over-ambition at times, but it was better than being meek or reckless. He finished with 10 points, eight assists, four rebounds and just one turnover in his 14 minutes on the court.
His longest shot came on a 20-foot pull-up jumper late in the fourth quarter, and it was by far the best Fultz has looked in months — a reminder of what he was like when he was drafted No. 1 overall last June.
Still, Fultz did not make it to the free-throw line, and he has yet to take a three-point shot. Those are areas that will definitely be watched and scrutinized through the final nine games of the season.
It’s not going to be just about Fultz’s offensive ability, though. Sixers coach Brett Brown said he expects things will be challenging at first for Fultz on the defensive end. Additionally, integrating him into the team while preserving what the Sixers have been able to accomplish this season will take some time, time that the Sixers don’t have.
“I just took it day by day,” Fultz responded when asked if he knew whether he would play again this season.
That will be the Sixers’ approach moving forward. Day by day, they will see more of Fultz, and they hope he can adapt quickly and contribute in a meaningful way.
When asked if he’ll be ready for the playoffs, though, Fultz deflected and said he just wants to help the team win.
Brown has long said that no matter when Fultz returned, there would be a certain amount of risk with the potential for a reward and that he is willing to take the chance for the possible payoff.
Colangelo compared bringing Fultz back into the fold with the late additions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova to the Sixers, noting how the two were able to fit in quickly and strengthen the bench. He added that Fultz’s familiarity with the team and system could make things easier.
The other side of that argument is that Belinelli and Ilyasova are both veterans, with playoff experience, who already understand the pace and demands of the NBA, while Fultz is still a rookie, with only a handful of games under his belt.
If Fultz can provide what the Sixers have desperately been missing — a reliable shooter and shot creator who can handle the ball — there’s no doubt he can make the team better.
“I have great expectations, but I’m not certainly promising anything,” Colangelo said. “Everyone is a little uncertain of what we’re going to see.”
Monday’s performance was a good starting point. Nine more games to go.