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Maybe Now Markelle Fultz Can Finally Just Play Some Basketball

Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The Orlando Magic are, at best, the third-worst team in the NBA this season. Because of this, you were probably not watching their Monday night home game against the Indiana Pacers. You didn’t miss a whole lot: For 32 of the game’s 48 minutes, this was a throwaway contest between two lousy Eastern Conference teams headed nowhere in particular. But for the other 16 minutes, this otherwise forgettable game marked the triumphant return to action of one Markelle Fultz. Remember Fultz? Yeah! That guy!

Perhaps it will shatter your respect for this website and its hard-working staff when I tell you that not too long ago too many of us spent too much time debating in Slack whether Fultz belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of NBA draft busts. Ultimately there was broad agreement among the not-wrong participants in this discussion that a top pick who plays 33 total games over two seasons for the team who drafted him is, in fact, a huge, historic bust, even if he resurrects his career elsewhere. And that resurrection is still a long way from complete. Fultz did show flashes of how he might succeed on an NBA floor during his third season as a pro, but on his second NBA team, and anyway it’s worth taking a step back and appreciating how sad this had by then become: Fultz, once hailed as a near-generational can’t-miss prospect, was working a steady rotation gig on the insanely cursed Orlando Magic, and this was considered a happy development.

And that was before Fultz suffered a torn ACL two weeks into the 2020–21 season, bringing to a close the longest stretch of consecutive games played of his NBA career, at a decidedly un-whopping 49. Between the busted shoulder and resulting absolute loss of confidence in his jumpshot that plagued him in Philadelphia and the knee injury that has now robbed him of most of the last two campaigns, Fultz has been limited to just 114 NBA games across most of five season as a pro. It’s sort of shocking to look back now and realize that Fultz has really never been closer to a career as a frontline starter in the NBA than he was several days before he was drafted to enter the league. Nowadays he gets a big emotional ovation for just moving under his own power onto an NBA floor.

Still, this will be a happy blog. Fultz played eight minutes in each half Monday night and looked very much like a solid NBA player. Confusion and horror over the unprecedented brain boomage that destroyed Fultz’s jumper tended to refocus examination of his skillset away from what he’s always been best at, which is dribbling his way to any spot on the floor with a kind of ease that few players in the sport can match. Thankfully, that ability seems more-or-less to have survived the ACL injury. Fultz pulled several cool looking moves Monday night and put up a very encouraging 10 points and six assists in his limited run:

The extremely cool reverse layup through traffic was eye-popping, but to me the best play in here came at the end of the third quarter, with the Magic up 13 points and feeling good. Fultz caught a pass on the wing and immediately drove right. When Duane Washington cut off his route to the cup, Fultz spun back to the left and into a slick step-back, and drained a lovely fading jumper. Fultz will probably need to show at least a willingness to attempt threes—he took zero Monday night—in order to hit anything close to his pre-draft potential, but he can partially make up for this deficit in the meantime by doing smart little things, like skipping baloney pump-fakes, catching the ball on the go, and reliably getting to his comfortable spots. And, anyway, it’s a lot cooler to look at than a clunky and halfhearted set shot, launched in the name of spacing.

Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley says Fultz will be limited, for now, to 16 to 20 minutes a night, but that there will be room to maneuver based on how Fultz is feeling out on the floor. He is, for now, no better than the third guard on the Orlando Magic, stuck behind two younger players taken by the Magic in the time since they traded for Fultz, back in 2019. Even if Fultz becomes good and sustains it, he will still have to claw his way to a bigger role, and his journey to a position of professional stability is probably a long way from complete. For now it’s just good to see him out on an NBA floor, playing basketball, with completely reset professional expectations, and whole chapters removed from a time when the form on his jumper was the difference between vindication or disaster for a controversial multiyear organizational overhaul. Fultz is now just a rotation player on a reasonable contract, making cool moves and trying to move the needle a few ticks for his team. After all he’s been through, that really is enough to make a person stand up and cheer.

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