Markelle Fultz is falling behind; it's time for him to play

SIXR21
Sixers guard Markelle Fultz fouls Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown in October.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Markelle Fultz needs to play.

The first-overall pick in June’s NBA draft needs to be out there with his 76ers teammates. The combo guard needs to get the ball, dribble, step back and attempt three-pointers.  Fultz needs to drive to the basket and elevate his right shoulder while drawing contact.  He needs to attempt foul shots on the road in front of 18,000 hostile fans.

Right now, he’s far from doing those things on the floor.

His on-court work has mostly consisted of individual shooting-form drills with former NBA sharpshooter Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. It’s great that the Sixers plan to incorporate him in team drills this weekend. And it will be another step forward once the team allows him to participate in five-on-five scrimmages.

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Fultz’s biggest growth, however, will come in  game situations when things count. He needs to play.

It’s understandable where the Sixers are coming from. The last time Fultz played, he had a jacked-up shot that, depending on whom you believe, was the result of shoulder soreness or a mental thing. Coach Brett Brown said on Nov. 30 that Fultz wouldn’t play until his shot passes the eye test. And it doesn’t appear that the coach is ready to change his stance.

In addition to making sure his form is corrected, the Sixers want Fultz to go back to being that confident shooter he was at the University of Washington and DeMatha Catholic High in Maryland. The Sixers also want to make the playoffs.

From a competitive standpoint, it’s easy to see why the Sixers would prefer to bring him along slowly. After four seasons of tanking, the team’s goal is to the reach the playoffs. They’ve made that very public since media day in September.

Bringing in Fultz right now would kind of mess up the rotation that Brown is using. As the No.1 pick, the Sixers would feel obligated to play him. That would take some of the minutes from T.J. McConnell, Jerryd Bayless and to a lesser extent, JJ Redick.

As much potential Fultz has, he’s out of shape. He hasn’t jelled on the court with teammates. He’s behind.

Thursday night’s matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers marked the 30th consecutive game Fultz has missed due to right shoulder soreness, scapular muscle imbalance and now rehabilitation.

He spent time away from the team rehabilitating and getting checked out by surgeon Ben Kibler of the Shoulder Center at Kentucky in Lexington.  Fultz didn’t actually get cleared to resume team activities until Dec. 9, when the team announced in a statement that the shoulder soreness and muscle imbalance were gone.

However, Fultz hasn’t done much on-court work since then while with the team. His workouts mostly consisted of working out with Abdul-Raef and occasionally with a Sixers coach.

And what if he struggles upon returning?

First of all, that could derail the playoff plans. Secondly, the whispers about the Boston Celtics getting the best of the Sixers in the pre-draft trade will grow louder. But to be honest, no one would  know who won this trade until years from now.

That still won’t stop the talk about it, though.

The Sixers, who originally had the third pick in the draft, desperately wanted to draft Fultz, who was projected to go first.

So the Celtics sent the first pick to the Sixers for the No. 3 pick and the protected Los Angeles Lakers’ first-rounder in 2018, which the Sixers owned. The Celtics will get the pick if it falls in slots 2-5 in next summer’s NBA draft lottery. If it does not, Boston will receive the 2019 first-round pick of either the Sacramento Kings or the  Sixers. The Celtics would take whichever one is more favorable. But if either of those picks becomes the first overall, the Celtics will receive the other pick.

In addition to getting draft picks, Boston was able to draft Jayson Tatum at No. 3. The small forward took averages of 14.1 points and 5.6 rebounds and an NBA-best 48.7 percent three-point shooting into Thursday’s game against the Houston Rockets.

So the Sixers are going to get crucified if Fultz doesn’t play well.

But they have to play him at some point. They might as well make it this season. The Sixers have to find out what they have in him.

He’s been cleared to resume basketball activities three weeks ago. There’s really no benefit or medical reason for sitting him an entire season.

It’s not like he can become a second-year rookie next season and contend for the  2018-19 rookie-of-the-year award. He blew that opportunity by playing in the first three games.

Yes, he’s going to be behind. But Fultz prides himself on his work ethic and ability to overcome obstacles.

He needs to play.

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