AS I'M WRITING this column, there's a raging debate going on between the voices in my head. The Philly homer in me, which most often wins out, is losing ground to the Philly sports pessimist, a voice that has been cultivated by countless disappointments.
Like all Sixers fans, I was swept away by the enthusiasm that Thursday night's draft provoked. When you imagine Markelle Fultz with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, you couldn't help but think "Good Lord, the process worked, the process really worked." You even allowed yourself to think kind things about Sam Hinkie, such as: "Sam, we never lost faith. We trusted the process and now The Process has delivered us to the promised land." In this case, the promised land would be making the playoffs next year and going into at least the second round. In the long term it means that the 76ers and the Celtics will battle for the next decade for Eastern Conference supremacy and one day, we will all live to see Joel Embiid blocking a Steph Curry drive, the ball winding up in Fultz's hands as he races down the court for an awesome dunk to put Game 7 away.
I went to bed that night with the homer in me in full control of my emotions. However, when I woke up on Friday morning, the pessimist had somehow crept back into the equation, and I decided to take a look at why some analysts were not so convinced that Fultz was the Sixers' missing piece. I decided to leave aside the fact that he missed six games in last year's college season with a knee injury, reasoning that the Lord could not be so cruel as to makes us watch a third star miss significant time with injury after we suffered through Embiid missing two seasons and Simmons missing one. I had a gnawing feeling about the "Doubting Thomases" and their criticism of Fultz's season at the University of Washington. I happened to catch four of the Huskies' games late at night and came away a bit underwhelmed by Fultz's performances. I wasn't convinced he was a consistent outside shooter, and there were parts of each game where he seemed to not give maximum effort, particularly on defense.
But we are living in the age of analytics, so I decided to pore over his stats. When you do so, the first thing you find is that his team went 9-22 including losing the last 13 games. Now, I understand that Washington is not Kentucky or North Carolina, but the Huskies managed to win only Pac-12 games, and their other wins were against Cal Poly, Western Michigan, Western Kentucky, Northern Arizona, Cal State Fullerton, Seattle and Long Beach State. Not exactly college powerhouses. They also lost their opening game to Yale, allowing 98 points. That was the same Yale team that was knocked out of the Ivy League Tournament by our own Penn Quakers!
The No. 1 pick in the NBA draft should always be a player capable of being a game changer, of carrying his team on his back. I wasn't sure it looked as if Fultz fit the bill, so I dug a little deeper. How did he do against the top-flight competition he faced? After all, didn't people who boosted De'Aaron Fox's status as a top draft pick point out that he embarrassed Lonzo Ball when Kentucky played UCLA? So, let's examine how Fultz did against the very best of the best.
Against national runner-up, Gonzaga, the Huskies were crushed, 98-71. Fultz shot 10-for-26 and had only one assist. Against a good but not great California Bears team, the Huskies lost by 10 and Markelle shot 3-for-15 with only four assists. He played two games against the top-five ranked Arizona Wildcats. In the first, the Huskies hung in there and lost by 11, with Fultz shooting 8-for-23 with a paltry three assists. In the rematch, the Huskies lost, 76-68, with Fultz shooting 7-for-16 with six assists. Against the highly rated UCLA Bruins, Fultz missed one game because of injury but in the game he did play, the Bruins destroyed Washington, 107-66, and Markelle was 9-for-19 with five assists. All in all, not the prettiest picture.
When you watch him play, the thing you are most struck by is his athleticism. He is undoubtedly an incredible athlete who can create his own shot and drive to the basket with great success. That ability will help him get to the foul line a lot in the NBA, which is great, but Fultz certainly will have to improve on the 64.9 percent he shot from the charity stripe in college which won't get the job done at the next level.
The fact that he is only 19 certainly gives one hope that he will work with the Sixers staff to improve his shooting and a develop an even more complete game. His youth also raises the possibility that he might not have fully grown into his body yet and, with an NBA level training regimen, he will likely be able to build out his frame and become even more of a force.
The other ray of hope that makes me have second thoughts about my pessimism is simply that people who make their living scouting basketball talent seem to almost unanimously agree that Fultz will have a significant positive impact for the Sixers. He was the predominant choice of the experts and general managers to be the first overall pick.
If you have read any of my Eagles season prediction columns over the past few years, you know I am never afraid to predict wildly successful seasons, despite all of the local experts predicting mediocrity at best. So I'm hoping that fact alone should give Philly sports fans confidence in listening to their inner homers and continuing to Trust the Process.
If Markelle Fultz and this group of young and exciting players do win a championship, it will certainly go along way toward all of us finally silencing that damn pessimist inside.