Golfers and batters fix swings. Quarterbacks tweak throwing motions. But No. 1 overall NBA draft picks rarely transform their shooting mechanics right before their rookie seasons.
Philadelphia 76ers guard Markelle Fultz is causing some panic with a new, unorthodox form that suddenly looks far less convincing than the one he used to average 23.2 points at Washington and build a case over Lonzo Ball and Jayson Tatum.
"Honestly, I don't know where to start," one NBA executive told Bleacher Report. "This is mind-boggling. Who in the world told him to do anything like that? In college, he just shot 65 percent [on free throws]. It needed minor adjustments. This new thing is crazy, and a few weeks ago, he had an entirely different technique. Why change every time for the worse?"
Multiple scouts we spoke with were confused by the drastic change, particularly given the success Fultz had as a perimeter scorer at Washington. His jumper was a dominant weapon in his arsenal last season. He shot 41.3 percent from three and 43.8 percent on two-point jumpers. His 1.021 points per dribble jump shot in the half court ranked in the 88th percentile among all college players, and his 1.133 points per catch-and-shoot jump shot in the half court was in the 93rd percentile, per Synergy Sports (via NBA.com). And only 25.5 percent of his field goals last season came at the rim, per Hoop-Math.com.
But through 47 preseason minutes with the Sixers, Fultz has yet to make a shot fully outside the paint and has only attempted three triples. His free-throw form looks radically different and uncomfortably awkward. A lack of confidence and comfort appears evident.
It's worth noting Fultz sat out his second preseason game with shoulder soreness, and he's said it's hurt "on and off," according to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Still, Sixers head coach Brett Brown recently admitted Fultz may have done too much to alter his shot, via David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News.
"All by himself, he pivoted out over the summer and tried to make it better and tweak it, and he's in a place right now where we are going to try to remind him where his shot was and try to bring that back into probably more a tighter shot, bring his release point down a little, bring the ball closer to his body."
Fultz said he's just experimenting, according to The Athletic's Derek Bodner. But such a dramatic change at such a pivotal time suggests his shoulder discomfort may be worse than he's acknowledging. Otherwise, why wait until this late to try something new?
"I think his shoulder is affecting him more than he lets on," Brown said Monday, per Pompey. "You can tell with his free throw, you know, trying to get that ball up."
'Tweaks Aren't Uncommon'
On September 28, ESPN's Mike Schmitz captured the new free-throw form in practice. On this shot, Fultz starts with the ball in his shooting pocket and then immediately extends his arms away from his body, instead of up, to push it out earlier and lower. It looks like an attempt to shoot in one, fluid motion to avoid a hitch or too much shoulder.
Mike Schmitz @Mike_Schmitz
Interesting how dramatically different Markelle Fultz's FT stroke looks here compared to @ UW (65%). Has lowered release point considerably. https://t.co/6REIFX0qtR2017-9-28 03:35:14
His mechanics again looked different during his second preseason game, when he missed three of his five free-throw attempts.
Here, Fultz eliminated the dip, starting the ball closer to his head. There was even less total arm movement (and more wrist), which is another sign he may be looking to avoid using his shoulder as much.
It will be difficult for Fultz to generate rhythm or touch when the starting point of his shot is also the release point.
Arguably the most encouraging play from Fultz this preseason came late in the game against the Boston Celtics on Monday, when he looked like his old self at Washington by stepping back into a short fallaway. Clearly, less thinking went into this shot. It came natural off improvisation. It shows Fultz still has the muscle memory to get into and convert the shots that have made him so dangerous as a scorer.
So far, the difference in shooting motion has been more pronounced at the free-throw line than on live jumpers. But his mechanics on pull-ups and spot-ups has been inconsistent.
Here is Fultz shooting in early July. His release is closer to his body.
This was his release during a recent scrimmage. Note that his shooting motion begins much further away from his body.
Christopher Kline @KlineNBA
From my understanding, this is the only mid-range jumper Fultz hit yesterday. https://t.co/cC7K0mfsq62017-10-2 15:08:57
Not every scout has hit the panic button. One didn't see the late modifications as a risky move long term. Another noted how "tweaks aren't uncommon" and he didn't view the changes as a "major overhaul," though he also didn't expect Fultz to stick with them.
But there is still something driving Fultz to change his shot before he even gets started in the NBA. The real concern is whether lingering pain is fueling his decision to revamp the most important tool in his bag.