Perhaps no player enters the 2018-19 season with more to prove than Philadelphia 76ers guard Markelle Fultz. The 2017 No. 1 overall pick was the first player the Sixers actually cashed in assets for, and his injury-plagued rookie season contrasted with flashes of stardom from Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum.
Fultz played a total of 17 games as a rookie, as a mysterious shoulder ailment sidelined him for much of the season. He returned late in the year to play the final 10 regular-season games—he even became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double—but the Miami Heat quickly played him off the floor in Philly’s first-round playoff matchup.
The biggest question surrounding Fultz will be his jump shot, which could charitably be described as horrendous last season.
After shooting 41.3 percent from three-point range during his lone season with the Washington Huskies and 6-of-16 from deep during his three summer-league appearances last July, Fultz came into training camp with an alarmingly different shooting stroke.
Interesting how dramatically different Markelle Fultz's FT stroke looks here compared to @ UW (65%). Has lowered release point considerably. pic.twitter.com/6REIFX0qtR
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) September 28, 2017
Multiple sources told Derek Bodner of The Athletic Fultz “made significant alterations to his shooting form in the months leading up to the start of the Sixers’ season,” which were “an effort to quicken his shot, shorten the dip in his shooting mechanics and bring his set point over to the right side of his body.”
That, um, didn’t quite work as intended.
Instead, Fultz looked hesitant to fire away on jumpers, preferring to drive to the basket and do his damage from inside the paint. In those first four games, he didn’t attempt a single shot from beyond 15 feet and went only 3-of-16 on shot attempts further than five feet away from the hoop. Without a functional jump shot, the Washington native was a shell of his highly touted self.
Conflicting accounts soon began to emerge regarding what was hampering Fultz, so the Sixers shut him down to allow him to recover behind the scenes. Even upon his late-season return, he operated from mostly within close range, taking only nine of his 84 shot attempts from 15 feet or further. Most of those were late-in-the-shot-clock last resorts, although he did drill two off-the-dribble mid-range jumpers that harked back to his Washington days.
To get his shooting mojo back, Fultz has spent the summer working with famed NBA trainer Drew Hanlen, whose other clients include Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, and Bradley Beal, among others. The reports trickling out about Fultz’s progress have been nothing but positive.
If things bode well, we can almost view Fultz as a marquee FA addition Philly – he can really score, he's great in P-R, he's an active/range defender. And, if Fultz boasts consistent jump shot, he will open up driving lanes for the arc-avoiding Simmons/be a kickout option. #76ers
— Jordan Schultz (@Schultz_Report) July 22, 2018
At Las Vegas Summer League, Sixers head coach and interim general manager Brett Brown expressed “tremendous optimism and confidence that [Fultz is] going to have a hell of a year next year,” according to Jake Fischer of Sports Illustrated.
“He is putting in work. That’s the first thing,” Brown added. “I have a gut feel that he feels good about himself, that he is confident. When I’m with him, he feels and looks confident. Then I start seeing the progression of his shot and I start listening to him talking about his shot, it confirms that he’s feeling good.”
On the Talking Schmidt podcast in June (via NBC Sports Philadelphia), Hanlen further stoked those encouraging flames. He described Fultz’s jumper as “way ahead of pace where I thought we were gonna be,” adding, “I thought it was gonna take me at least six weeks before we had kind of a serviceable jump shot. And we’ve already started to shoot with a jump in Week 2.”
Skepticism will abound until Fultz puts his refined shooting stroke on display, although almost anything would be an upgrade over his “hurl a watermelon at the general direction of the rim” strategy from last season. If Fultz’s jumper does improve to the point where it becomes an asset rather than a liability, that could drastically change the Sixers’ 2018-19 outlook.
Fresh off a 52-win season, the Sixers failed in their “star-hunting” quest this summer, as LeBron James signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, Paul George re-signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Toronto Raptors beat them to the punch on a trade for Kawhi Leonard. Instead, Philly brought the band back together from last season, swapping out Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli for Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala.
While Chandler and Muscala should help the Sixers hit the ground running—they were only a .500 team until Ilyasova and Belinelli provided a much-needed boost to their bench—neither of them profile as difference-makers. The same goes for raw rookie Zhaire Smith and late first-rounder Landry Shamet. Barring drastic internal improvement from All-Star center Joel Embiid and Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons, Fultz is Philly’s best hope for a marquee addition.
Hanlen believes he can be just that.
“I literally think that if he’s back to 100 percent, I think he’s immediately an All-Star,” he recently told Fox Sports’ Evan Daniels. “I know that’s a bold statement, but I work with a lot of other All-Stars, so I think I have the right to say that.”
Even if Fultz isn’t striping 40-plus percent of his triples right away, any semblance of a respectable jump shot would help unlock a higher ceiling for the Sixers as a whole. Their second-round playoff loss to the Boston Celtics exposed their lack of shot-creators outside of Simmons, as backup point guard T.J. McConnell wound up playing a significant role in the final two games of that series. The Sixers badly needed someone else capable of creating offense for both himself and others, which Fultz could provide in spades if healthy.
“Markelle had an elite package of offensive talents, shot creation, ability to get to the rim, finishing over length at the college level, shooting shots from really all over the court,” then-general manager Bryan Colangelo told reporters during his exit interview in May. “I think the only thing that he is lacking right now is perhaps the shooting aspect of things.”
Fultz did improve in areas outside of his shooting last season. Whereas he somewhat struggled to finish around length early in the year, he showed little hesitation driving to the basket upon his return in March. His impeccable body control allows him to contort his way into prime Derrick Rose-esque layups.
He also has some countermoves in his bag already, including a nasty spin move that often leaves opposing defenders flailing.
Pair those moves with a legitimate shooting stroke, and Fultz could wind up being a major contributor for Philadelphia this season.
To have any chance of knocking off the star-studded Celtics or the Leonard-led Raptors, the Sixers need him to be.