The clock stopped with 5 minutes, 8 seconds to play in the first quarter of Monday night's preseason game between the 76ers and the Orlando Magic. The game clock itself kept going, but the clock that waited for the first professional three-point basket by Markelle Fultz, and had been ticking louder all the time, finally came to a halt.
Fultz rose up in the left corner after a drive-and-kick pass from Ben Simmons and maybe it's still not the most fluid delivery you've ever seen, but the ball went through the net, Fultz pumped his fist, and the crowd let loose with a mixture of congratulations for the player and pent-up relief for itself.
In a front-row baseline seat, Drew Hanlen, the respected shooting coach who worked with Fultz all summer, shook both of his fists in the air and then clapped his hands together. It was just an exhibition game, and just one three-pointer – he would miss his other three-point attempts in a game during which he otherwise shot reasonably well – but it was more than just a start for Fultz. It was a destination.
"I'm just really happy that he's getting the results he's getting," said Hanlen, who went through an extensive pregame warmup and shooting session with Fultz. "He put in a ton of hard work and for him to be out there having fun again, and for the city to embrace him, I'm just really excited for him."
Hanlen, who is based in Los Angeles, said over the summer that Fultz had to overcome a bad case of the "yips," a crisis of confidence that injected several hitches into his shooting stroke. If he overcame that, which is yet to be confirmed, he did so with hard work.
"The number of shots that people were hearing was not an overstatement. In fact, it was actually more than that," Hanlen said. "He took somewhere around 160,000 shots from June on. He worked harder than anybody I've ever had. He was putting in four and five hours a day and, honestly, work is what got him back. He's in a great place right now and he's going to continue to get better and I think he's going to add a dynamic to the Sixers that's going to really make them exciting."
Fultz, a decent three-point shooter from the college distance, didn't make a three-pointer during his rookie preseason last year, or during the 14 games to which he was limited in the regular season. During the regular season, he only tried one out of his 111 attempts, and that was a wide-open April shot in Detroit that failed to get past the front rim. He didn't attempt a three-pointer in the preseason opener against Melbourne United last week and so the clock was still ticking when Monday's game started.
He missed his first three-point attempt, but came right back from the same corner just a few minutes later and, while he still has more three-pointers to make in his career, he no longer has to make the first one.
"Those are the shots I've been working on all summer and my confidence was fine," Fultz said. "If I had the shot, I was going to take it, and that's just what happened today."
For the game, he made five of 12 shots from the floor, four of eight on two-point attempts, and one of four on three-pointers. He added six rebounds and was active throughout more than 24 minutes on the floor.
"The thing I'm most pleased with is there's zero hesitation," coach Brett Brown said about Fultz's shooting. "It's been that way for a month. He may not have made them all, but he didn't back away from any of them. It's a statement. It's a real statement."
It was the last statement before the team flew Monday night to China for its last two exhibition games. Brown said he expects to extend the minutes of his regular players during the games on the trip as they begin to stretch out toward the regular season.
"I don't see a huge difference," Simmons said of Fultz. "He doesn't care what anybody thinks. That's how he needs to be, out there with a clear head, and he's doing that right now. He's doing great."
At times, Fultz still appears to be pushing his shot when he tries one from distance. Of course, that could be what works for him. At least it did on one shot Monday night.
"I get that question all the time and I tell people that nobody in the NBA has a perfect jump shot, maybe besides Klay Thompson," Hanlen said. "Every great shooter makes tweaks throughout his career so they continue to improve. We're happy with where Markelle is right now."