Sixers rookie Markelle Fultz: Long absence 'hurt'

Nuggets 76ers Basketball
Markelle Fultz dribbling the ball during a game against the Nuggets.

Having his daily routine altered was perhaps the toughest part about missing 68 straight games for Markelle Fultz.

Playing basketball and hanging out on the court were what the 19-year-old had done daily from the time he was in elementary school. So the 76ers rookie concedes that it hurt to miss five months while relearning how to shoot. The team said that Fultz was relearning how to shoot because of “scapular muscle imbalance” in his right shoulder. However, the shooting woes were more mental than the organization was willing to say, according to sources.

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But he has worked through those problems. Now, the first overall pick in last June’s NBA draft says he wasn’t bothered by being labeled a bust or by seeing videos of himself missing shots go viral.

“It wasn’t anything about expectations or anything,” Fultz said. “I just felt like something I loved doing I couldn’t do anymore, and it hurt for a little while.”

Camera icon STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Markelle Fultz has yet to attempt a three-pointer in his eight games this season.

That motivated him to work harder and get back on the court this season.

Fortunately for him, those days are over.

Fultz returned to the court March 26 in a 123-104 victory over the Denver Nuggets. He finished with 10 points, eight assists, four rebounds and one turnover in 14 minutes, 24 seconds.  The rookie point guard became the first NBA player to have at least 10 points and at least eight assists in 15 minutes or less since Danny Ainge and Tom Garrick did so as opponents in Nov. 11, 1990.

In his first five games back, Fultz has averaged 7.4 points and 2.6 rebounds as the backup point guard. But perhaps the most impressive numbers are his 22 assists and three turnovers. His first turnover came on his first possession against the Nuggets. His second came in Sunday’s 119-102 victory against the Hornets in Charlotte. That was one of the few miscues he had in compiling four points on 2-for-5 shooting and four assists against the Hornets. His third came Tuesday night.

Coach Brett Brown raved Sunday about Fultz’s assists/turnovers ratio in the four games and marveled over his two baskets against Charlotte. Fultz stole the ball from Malik Monk with 1 minute, 48 seconds left in the first quarter. Six seconds later, Fultz used his length to put a layup over the raised arms of 6-foot-11 center Willy Hernangomez. Fultz later buried a 13-foot, fadeaway jumper with 28.3 seconds left in the third quarter.

“I think he’s trending in tremendous ways,” Brown said. “I really think he’s heading in the direction that we all hoped.

“The risk of bringing him back into a group that’s fairly tight was ever-present. It was real. But he fits in.”

Fultz hasn’t attempted a three-point shot since returning or in the four games he played early this season. He’s still trying to build enough confidence to attempt one.

Right now, Fultz is better suited for taking his pull-up jumper and driving the lane to find teammates or set up scoring opportunities for himself. Even without shooting threes, Fultz has provided a boost for the Sixers.

“I feel like I can help them hopefully by picking up the energy and, when they come out and feel down, just picking them up,” Fultz said. “And for me, when I’m not feeling good, they are doing the same thing for me.

“So it always feels good.”

However, being an off-the-bench spark plug wasn’t the role he or the Sixers envisioned when he was drafted. The plan was to start him in the backcourt alongside point guard Ben Simmons. However, the two had not played together until briefly in the third quarter Tuesday night.

Fultz has played with starters JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and several key reserves. He just had not been paired with Simmons, despite being someone who can play on and off the ball.

“I just want to help the team,” he said of his role. “That’s the same next year. When I come in, I feel like I’m in the position that’s best for me, screen and rolls, running the offense, being a point guard.”

He’s also elated just to be back on the court.

“It hurt,” Fultz said of his long absence. “It was hard not to be able to go on the court and do what I love.”