Now that Joel Embiid and the NBA have both survived his all-star weekend experience – and if you think the 76ers weren’t holding their organizational breath about that, you’re wrong – it is time to return our attention to the team and its real prospects for not just making the playoffs but also making some noise once there.
If the season ended today, with the Sixers as the seventh seed heading into a matchup against the Boston Celtics, that wouldn’t seem promising. If they jumped a couple of teams and landed in a 4-5 series against the Washington Wizards, that could be very interesting.
But what if, in addition to their other roster pieces, they had a big, smooth combination guard who was terrific with the ball when Ben Simmons was facing a tough defensive matchup, could shoot from range to force defenses to play honestly, and was a very tenacious on-the-ball defender?
If you put that guy on the floor with the rest of the Sixers, I would take my chances that any playoff matchup would be far from one-sided.
That guy, of course, is Markelle Fultz, and that scenario is the reason the Sixers drafted him. You can argue, and I have, that the price of two first-round picks to obtain Fultz might have been a little high. The actual cost won’t really be known until the pick owed to Boston is conveyed, and it’s possible it might not be that good. We have to wait on that.
In any case, what you cannot argue is that if the Sixers felt he was the exact player to complete the puzzle they were constructing around a 6-foot-10 lead guard who isn’t a great shooter, then it had to be Fultz. If their judgment was correct, and Fultz could make all the tumblers fall into place, then the price didn’t matter.
Unfortunately, the wait continues for the 19-year-old to recover from whatever is wrong with him, be it a lingering muscular imbalance in his upper body from messing with his mechanics, or a crisis of confidence, or a need to recover a shooting stroke he discarded in favor of something else.
As the wait goes on, the Sixers, of course, are being criticized for their handling of the situation. This is a default position that they have earned, but in this case, it’s dead wrong. The Sixers are in a tough spot with Fultz, and they are trying to do the right thing by him and by the team.
If the Sixers hadn’t been as transparent as concrete about Nerlens Noel, Ben Simmons, Jahlil Okafor, and Embiid when they were going through injuries and rehabilitations, the team might have earned the benefit of the doubt with Fultz. That wasn’t the case, though, and now that the Sixers really do have a situation that needs to be handled delicately, their careful obfuscations echo from that past instead of resonate in the present.
It doesn’t help when Bryan Colangelo bolts the podium after being asked the time line for Fultz’s return for the fourth time. Sure, it’s frustrating to keep saying there is no time line for learning how to shoot a basketball. I can tell you that mine has stretched for decades.
Everyone should remember that two years ago today, Markelle Fultz was a senior at DeMatha High School and preparing for a conference game against Gonzaga. Two years ago. It was the 30th game of a 37-game season, and it went well, as did almost everything his senior year. The next season, he played 25 games for the University of Washington, and that went just fine, too. This season, he lasted four games with the Sixers before they yanked him to figure out what the heck was going on.
So that’s 36 basketball games he has played in two years. He went from a three-point arc of 19 feet, 9 inches; to one of 20 feet, 9 inches; to one of 23 feet, 9 inches. It would be natural as he made that second jump, from college to the NBA, to find a way to reliably add that extra yard of distance on his three-pointer. He has never really been a specialist from range. As a senior at DeMatha, he made 36 three-pointers in those 37 games. At Washington, he was a good three-point shooter, but those accounted for less than 30 percent of his attempts.
Here’s a kid, getting advice from all sides, about to enter the deep waters of the NBA with the expectation he would be the one to stretch the floor because he was playing next to a guy who can’t. That’s a fair amount of pressure, and if he did some hoodoo of weight-training and shot alteration during the summer that messed him up good, that wouldn’t be the biggest shock in the world.
But now the mess is in the laps of the 76ers and they are doing the best they can. They’ve been criticized for allowing the media to see him shoot at the end of practice, or for allowing him to do some drills during home game warm-ups with a few early birds in the stands.
Predictably, it’s not always pretty, but if the goal is to have him perform in front of 20,000 screaming people with a game on the line, this is how you start. You don’t put him in a cave and make him feel isolated from normality. You tell him it’s going to work out and, by the way, what’s the difference if people are watching? That’s normal. Fultz chose a profession in which people pay to watch.
How this finally turns out, however, is anybody’s guess. If the scale is from having the absolute perfect player for your roster or having no player at all, those are high stakes. In all probability, he’ll be somewhere in between. Exactly where will determine how the Sixers will be judged for their handling of the situation.
That’s not fair. This has been their most difficult balancing act, and they’ve done nothing wrong this time. I know. I’m surprised, too.