The 76ers will tell you Markelle Fultz’s return to game action isn’t as simple as excelling in pregame drills.
That’s the reason why coach Brett Brown responded Friday with “I truly don’t know” when asked about the first-overall pick’s availability the rest of the season.
There’s reason to believe that Fultz could return to action as soon as the coming weeks after already missing 64 games for what the team has called shoulder rehabilitation. However, he’s actually been sidelined because he’s learning how to shoot.
Brown acknowledged on Friday that “he’s truly getting better.”
His progress is obvious by watching him partake in the post shootaround and pregame drills with Billy Lange, the Sixers’ players development director and assistant coach. Fultz finishes off various spin moves with jumpers and dunks. He is also draining three-pointers.
— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) March 15, 2018
The release point of Fultz’s shot to getting closer to being at the same above-the-head location it was at the University of Washington and during the Utah Jazz Summer League in July. He had been pushing the ball from in front of his body since the start of training camp in September and up until a few weeks ago.
The Sixers have said Fultz looks good in the three-on-three scrimmages with the low-minute players and during the practices he’s participated in. He’s been described as someone who can get anywhere on the floor he wants to with the ball.
“With a live ball, he’s very different than any player that we have,” Brown said. “What I see at practice sometimes, you understand completely why he was the first player chosen in the NBA draft.”
But now that there’s just 14 regular-season games remaining, both sides want to make sure that Fultz’s return is the right thing to do.
Some will question his conditioning. How will Fultz manage in a game when he hasn’t competed in a real game since October?
The 19-year-old guard has not participated in a full practice since being sidelined. But that can be solved by just giving him low minutes in games at the start.
Brown said the decision for Fultz’s return will be a collaborative one led by Fultz himself.
The coach didn’t give a definitive timeline for making the decision, but said it would happen soon. He said the Sixers haven’t set a hard date or after a specific amount of games to make a decision. They’re just letting the situation play out, Brown said.
But why would you play him?
“My answer would be because he could make us better,” Brown said.
Able to create his own shot, Fultz possesses a skill set the Sixers desperately need in the postseason.
He could penetrate the lane, hit a pull-up jumper or attack the rim or dish to a teammate.
“This is the Holy Grail, the risk-reward of Markelle Fultz,” Brown said. “I’m tilting on reward. Maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m wrong. But that would be the answer that I give you.”
However, the Sixers obviously have some concerns about bringing Fultz back in March, in the middle of a playoff race.
They are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and are determined to get a top four playoff seed. The Sixers (38-30) are one game behind the fourth-place Washington Wizards.
The top four teams in each conference receive home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. So every game from here on out is important for the Sixers. This is also a time when NBA teams tighten up their rotation – not expand it.
The Sixers realize that Fultz would take minutes from some of their rotation players. Privately, this is their biggest concern because they would have to re-adjust the minutes.
The Sixers also know that Fultz would be basically learning in-game realities on the fly during pressure-packed games.
“We get that we’re at the stage where we are at,” Brown said. “He understands where the team is at, and he understands where the NBA is pretty tough in March and the race to the playoffs is real.
“I think whenever the decision comes out, we will act accordingly. I can tell you personally, I do look forward to coaching him.”
So if they’re going to play him, they better do it soon. That will enable him to get somewhat settled for the postseason.
All you are really hoping for is for him to get some buckets in a pinch when it starts getting rough.