There are a lot of things you could have been doing with your Monday night other than watching three-quarter-speed basketball with zero stakes attached. You could have been walking through the city on a pleasant Indian summer night, or watching Patrick Mahomes throw left-handed passes, or replaying that video of the horse stampeding through a French bar.
If you chose to do one of these things instead of paying close attention to the Sixers-Magic game, do not despair. Over the next thousand words or so, plus some moving pictures, you will find it distilled down to its essence.
For the first time since last year's summer league, Markelle Fultz looked like a player who can help the Sixers take a significant step toward title contention.
The box score is intriguing, but it does not tell the whole story. The headline is that Fultz attempted three legitimate shots from three-point range, plus a runner at the buzzer. The sub-headline is that he made one of those shots, a wide-open corner three in transition. But as far as the overall narrative arc of the Ballad of Markelle is concerned, the actionable plot points can be isolated to a couple of moments in the third quarter.
The first one occurred a couple of minutes into the second half, and is depicted in the visual reproduction below:
Now, one thing you might notice about the shot in question is that it does not end up going through the net. That's an accurate observation, but I'm not sure that it is pertinent, because this might be the single most encouraging shot Fultz has taken as a Sixer. First, it comes completely within the flow of the game. He and Joel Embiid have a little two-man action working in the left corner. Fultz tries to take his man off the dribble, then dribbles off Embiid, then passes to Embiid, then runs off a handoff and in one natural motion rises up and releases a 20-footer over his flat-footed defender.
Forget the fact that it did not go in. Everything you see here is what convinced the Sixers that Fultz was, by far, the best player available in the 2017 draft. As a ballhandler, he is completely under control, dictating the pace and flow on the court, playing off Embiid with perfect synergy, prodding the defense and, eventually, getting himself all the space he needs to rise up into a good look.
This was something we saw on several occasions during last night's game. Of Fultz's 12 field-goal attempts last night, 10 came from 10+ feet. In addition to the four three-point attempts, he was 4-for-6 on pull-up jumpers, including three makes from the foul-line/foul-line-extended neighborhood. When Brett Brown talks about Fultz's doing things on the court that nobody else on the roster does, he is probably talking mostly about his ability to dictate as a ballhandler, both in transition and in the halfcourt. But this mid-range game is another part of the equation.
No doubt, today's NBA is an increasingly binary game, and the Sixers are one of the league's evangelicals when it comes to the at-the-rim-or-behind-the-arc paradigm. But there's a big difference between a 21-footer and an elbow jumper, and that latter genre is one that could help the Sixers expand their offensive versatility this season. Last year, according to NBA.com, they shot just 38 percent on jumpers from 10-14 feet, the fourth-worst mark in the league. This, despite averaging 7.9 attempts per game, which ranked in the top 10. The Warriors, by comparison, attempted 9.7 shots per game from 10-to-14 and connected on a league-best 48.7 percent.
One thing we can say thus far is that Ben Simmons does not look any more inclined to take advantage of defenders' sagging into the paint against him. J.J. Redick is on point from pretty much anywhere on the court, but he also has to work his butt off to get an open look. Robert Covington is still a catch-and-shoot three-point specialist. There is a need on this team for a player who can create space for himself at will and take advantage of that space, particularly late in the shot clock or in end-of-quarter situations. Thus far this preseason, Fultz has looked like that kind of player.
Somewhere out there is an ideal universe where Fultz looks just as natural from three feet farther out. That's the universe where he's the player who can give the Sixers a superstar trifecta even before they spend their free-agent dollars. At this point, that universe still appears to be a hypothetical. For instance, take a gander at the clip below, in which Fultz takes a pass from Simmons on the left wing and faces up a defender.
Pause it here:
In the aforementioned ideal universe, Fultz is a player who takes a pass like this and steps naturally into a rhythm jumper. Robert Covington shoots this. Redick shoots this. Dario Saric shoots this. Landry Shamet probably shoots this. Moving forward, the big question with Fultz is whether he can get to a point at which his first thought in a situation like this is a shooter's thought: Shoot.
If he gets to that point, then it's time for everybody else to start thinking some big thoughts. Because, at that point, defenders would be forced to close out hard, and, at that point, Fultz would have the handle, body control and court awareness to break down a defense completely.
When we talk about potential acquisitions that have the ability to push the Sixers over the top, we're talking about the kind of player who can both knock down this shot and take advantage of any close-out off the dribble. This is the mental image to file away for recall whenever you want to project a hypothetical Player X into this lineup. Maybe that player ends up being Fultz. Watching his development in this regard will be a season-long endeavor.
He might not be in line for many minutes this season, but Shamet is an intriguing player.
Wilson Chandler's hamstring injury paved the way for the No. 26 pick to log some serious minutes in the rotation against the Magic.
Shamet shot 44 percent from three-point range in his last two seasons at Wichita State, and, thus far, he's shown promise in adapting his game to NBA range. Against the Magic, he knocked down 2-of-4 from behind the arc, hitting one from the right corner and one from the top of the arc. He also added a 17-footer to finish 3-for-6 from the floor.
One big question will be where he fits on defense, an area in which I think he acquitted himself well against the Magic. At 6-foot-4 with a 7-foot wingspan, Shamet has the length. Entering the draft, the question was whether he had the lateral quickness and/or bulk to match up on the perimeter. One thing that has been clear thus far is he has the kind of IQ, and the court awareness that could make up for whatever he lacks in athleticism.
Here's a video of his defensive possessions in his first shift off the bench:
Embiid could own the offensive paint this season.
Against an overmatched tandem of Nikola Vucevic and Mo Bamba, Embiid scored at will. Take away four missed three-pointers, and he was 7-for-8 from the floor, including five buckets at the rim on a variety of one-on-one moves. As I wrote last week, the Sixers were 16-5 in games in which Embiid scored at least five baskets at the rim, per Basketball Reference's shot data.
That's what I saw.