What can history tell us about how the Sixers' Markelle Fultz will fare when he returns?

With the way the Sixers have played lately, the need for a crafty guard who can space the floor, dribble, and shoot has never been more glaring. The Sixers’ solution seems to be sitting courtside every night, bright-eyed and baby-faced.

The 2017 No. 1 overall draft selection, Markelle Fultz, who played in the first four games of the season, has not been on the court since Oct. 23 because of a scapular muscle imbalance in his right shoulder. The injury was even more perplexing because it seemed to be the reason Fultz’s shooting form went from smooth and fluid to resembling a dysfunctional toddler trying to throw a shot put.

On Dec. 9, after weeks of uncertainty, the Sixers released a statement saying that Fultz’s shoulder issues were resolved and that he would ramp up his on-court activity to ready himself for a return (date TBD). Re-evalution was slated for three weeks from that date, which means an update should come soon.

So when Fultz finally starts playing for the Sixers, what should be expected of him? What does history say about No. 1 picks who have started their careers on the bench? And, how have the top picks fared when compared with their level of production before being drafted?

We can’t know for certain what will happen when Fultz becomes a mainstay in the Sixers rotation, but we can definitely look back and hope that the past sheds some light on what’s to come.

No. 1 off the bench

At the start of the season, coach Brett Brown said a lack of playing time in the preseason was why Fultz would start the regular season coming off the bench. Using that logic, it’s fair to expect the same when he returns from the shoulder injury. He hasn’t played basketball. He’ll need time to adjust. Sure.

In his season debut, Fultz became just the third No. 1 overall pick — who was seemingly healthy — since 2003 to start his career on the bench. As far as history goes, top picks who start off with the reserve unit do not fare well in the NBA. Andrea Bargnani and Anthony Bennett are the other two. Bargnani, the No. 1 overall pick in 2006, had a very average career in Toronto and New York before being waived by the Brooklyn Nets, then playing with a Spanish club, Baskonia, before being waived again. Bennett, the No. 1 pick in 2013, had a less-than-average career that also landed him on the Nets, who waived him. He now plays for the Northern Arizona Suns of the G League.

Let’s say this: Bryan Colangelo and the Sixers front office did not trade up to take Fultz at No. 1 so that they could get a rotational backup. The only reason anyone is ever drafted at No. 1 is that he is expected to be a Hall of Fame-type player. That is the expectation. They don’t expect for him to be perfect from the get-go, but they absolutely expect him to be great.

So Brown will not be allowed to let Fultz linger for very long on the bench.

When Fultz returns

Incorporating Fultz into the starting lineup will no doubt cause a new wave of growing pains for the Sixers. There are already questions about whether Ben Simmons should be initiating the offense, and when Fultz returns, that question will become more critical.

How long Fultz spends with the second unit could end up dictating what his role will look like with the starting unit. If he is a two guard who plays next to T.J. McConnell and plays mostly off the ball, then you could easily infer that the Sixers would expect that kind of role with him next to Simmons.

It’s hard to imagine Brown bumping McConnell further down the bench, and it’s also hard to imagine Fultz playing off the ball when he was the one handling it in college.

Either way, some rearranging will be done. Most likely, Dario Saric will move to the bench and Robert Covington will slide over to the four spot. Joel Embiid will, of course, anchor as the five, and Fultz will join JJ Redick on the wings.

So after the dust settles, and the Sixers rotation is somewhat ironed out, the expectation is that Fultz will be able to replicate the kind of year he had in his lone season at the University of Washington.

Fultz averaged 23.2 points and shot 41.3 percent from three-point range. His shooting and ballhandling abilities are why the Sixers drafted him, and it’s what they are hoping he will be able to produce.

From college to the NBA

Here’s a look at the last five guards/small forwards taken No. 1 overall in the draft and how their stats in college compared with the numbers they produced in their rookie years in the NBA:

Player Draft year College PPG  College FG % College 3P% Rookie PPG Rookie FG% Rookie 3P%
Andrew Wiggins 2014 17.1 44.8 34.1 16.9 43.7 31.0
Kyrie Irving 2011 17.5 52.9 46.2 18.5 46.9 39.9
John Wall 2010 16.6 46.1 32.5 16.4 40.9 29.6
Derrick Rose 2008 14.9 47.7 33.7 16.8 47.5 22.2
Allen Iverson 1996 23 44.0 31.4 23.5 41.6 34.1

The table further demonstrates the expectation that a top pick will produce the numbers that lifted him to the No. 1 overall pick.

And, as far as using history to predict the future, this bodes well for Fultz. Given the opportunity and good health, he should be able to reclaim his shooting prowess and put up some good numbers.

The new James Harden

Remember when James Harden was used as the lead comparison for Fultz?

Nearly every draft expert, critic, analysis guru, writer, blogger, fan, and player compared Fultz to Harden leading up to the 2017 draft. Even No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum and No. 4 pick Josh Jackson used the comparison when talking about Fultz.

After going No. 3 overall in 2009, Harden spent the first three years of his career on the bench and then rocketed (pun intended) into superstardom. Harden’s college numbers and his numbers from his first year as an NBA starter are also in a similar realm.

Harden averaged 19 points and shot 50.6 percent from the floor and 37.6 percent on three-pointers in two years at Arizona State. In his fourth NBA season, as the lead man for the Houston Rockets, Harden averaged 25.9 points while shooting 43.8 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from three.

What it all means

There’s no crystal basketball, and we can’t predict Fultz’s future. But we can hope and speculate as much as we want.

In looking at the careers of Bargnani and Bennett, what’s clear is that coming off the bench did them no favors in the way of improvement. But since Fultz is not expected to stay in a reserve role, it’s reasonable to expect better.

With Fultz’s setbacks in his debut season, his numbers will most likely take a hit from what they were at Washington. But the past tells us that top-rated guards fare well in the NBA.

As Embiid and Simmons cement themselves as the faces of the Sixers franchise, it’s a bit lofty to think Fultz will run the show the way Harden does in Houston. But with a similar build and skills package, it’s reasonable to expect something that resembles what Harden does.

With an update on the horizon, we likely will soon know what Fultz will bring to the table. Here’s to hoping he fits right in with the No. 1 guards who showed they were worth the top pick.