There's a little bit of irony in what we've seen out of Markelle Fultz over the last couple of games. For five months, his shooting form was our only focus. That's what was keeping him out of action, and it is what would dictate his return. It was the subject of the debates we had, and the videos we watched, and the questions we asked. Now that he's back, it's the thing that draws the loudest reaction from the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center. When he hit his first free-throw attempt against the Knicks on Wednesday night, the place erupted.
The irony lies in the fact that, in his first two games back, he has spent much of his time showing us all the ways he can impact a game outside of shooting a basketball. This includes the defensive end of the court, where Fultz's remarkably long frame and natural athleticism have a chance to make a real impact come playoff time.
You saw it in the Sixers' win over the Knicks. Shortly after checking into the game in the first quarter, he saw Trey Burke beat Robert Covington off the dribble and left his man to protect the rim, coming from the opposite side of the paint to block the layup. Later, he flicked the ball away from Burke as he was dribbling near the top of the arc for a steal.
There were also more subtle instances. In the closing minute of the first quarter, there was a Knicks possession in which Fultz funneled his man to the baseline help, where the ballhandler picked up his dribble and forced a pass into a thicket of arms, resulting in a Covington steal.
"He's better than I thought," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "He's got an amazing basketball body. His hips are somewhere near my shoulders. He uncoils and he's 7-foot-6; he's got size-15 feet. He just is long. What he misses at 19 years old and what he misses coming into an adults' league in Game 70 when the league is heating up against a really good Denver Nugget team that is desperate, what he sort of misses with the calendar and the fact that he hasn't played, he makes up for with those physical gifts that I've just said.
"For that reason, I say he's better than I thought he was gonna be, and I think that the more knowledge and just playing basketball and the speed of the game and the strength of the game, I think that he's gonna absorb those things and figure it out sooner than I anticipated."
The Sixers are a good defensive team, but they have some areas where they are vulnerable, particularly on the perimeter. Smaller, quicker guards have given them fits at times this season, a dynamic that is most noticeable when Joel Embiid is not on the court to protect the rim.
Look at the individual plus/minus ratings that have been posted against the Sixers and you'll find an abundance of second-unit guards near the top of the list. Jason Terry, who played a key role in their loss to the Bucks in Milwaukee at the beginning of March, is a combined +29 against them in three games this season. Mario Chalmers scored 17 points in 21 minutes in the Sixers' loss in Memphis on Jan. 22 and is +24 for the season. Pacers backup point guard Lance Stephenson is +24.
While T.J. McConnell is a feisty defender who has played an invaluable role as the backup point guard this season, he does not have the length or athleticism that Fultz brings to the court.
On Fultz's 29 defensive possessions Wednesday night, the Knicks scored just 22 points, shooting 8 for 26 from the field and committing four turnovers. Two days earlier, when the Sixers played the Nuggets, Denver scored 28 points in 31 possessions. Together, that's an average of 83.3 points allowed per 100 possessions. For the season, the Sixers are allowing 105.5 points per 100 possessions. In Fultz's two games since his return, opponents are shooting just 36 percent when he is on the court versus 41.9 percent when he is off it.
"He wants to compete on that end," backup center Richaun Holmes said. "He looks to deflect, looks to get his hands [on balls], looks to cover for teammates. I think he can be a great defender in the league."
At this point, the sample size is too small to draw any definitive conclusions. Still, the early returns support the notion that the Sixers will be a better team this postseason with Fultz in the rotation than they would be with him sitting on the bench in his warm-up pants.
Brown summed it up succinctly after the win over the Knicks.