Sixers Complete Promising Big 3 with Markelle Fultz, but Questions Still Remain

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 22, 2017

BROOKLYN, NY - JUNE 22:  Markelle Fultz selected number one overall by the Philadelphia 76ers talks with the media at the 2017 NBA Draft on June 22, 2017 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Michael J. Lebrecht II /NBAE via Getty Images)
Michael J. LeBrecht II/Getty Images

That's a wrap for the Philadelphia 76ers' "process."

Well, almost.

If they're lucky.

The Sixers completed their Big Three-in-training Thursday night, using the No. 1 pick to select Washington's Markelle Fultz—an arrival that became inevitable the moment they acquired the top slot from the Boston Celtics.

Fultz has been the consensus choice all year. Even the Celtics, a squad teeming with guards and known for reaching on prospects, weren't expected to pass on him if they held serve. The Sixers didn't have their point guard of the future and gave up the third pick and a top-end selection in 2018 or 2019 to grab the No. 1 spot. This non-decision was never in doubt, not for a minute, not for a fraction of a minute.

And now, the Sixers get to soldier on with the NBA's most promising trio.

Fultz joins fellow first overall pick Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, who might've also gone No. 1 in 2014 if not for a lingering foot injury. Embiid is the old head of this group, and he's only 23. Simmons turns 21 in July, while Fultz won't leave his teens until next May.

Play their cards right, and the Sixers set themselves up to be the envy of the league for the next seven to 10 years, perhaps longer. Mix 23-year-old Dario Saric into this cocktail, and they have the look of a homegrown beast worth comparing to the earlier Oklahoma City Thunder.

Barely a half-decade ago, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook were primed to define the Association's competitive landscape for the foreseeable and distant future. They earned a trip to the NBA Finals before any of them reached their age-24 season.

For all its warts, Philly has the talent to mimic Oklahoma City's fast and furious rise.
For all its warts, Philly has the talent to mimic Oklahoma City's fast and furious rise.Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

At the time, even during their five-game letdown against the Miami Heat, you could sense they were just getting started. Imagine that: The reigning Western Conference champions having another level, or five, to reach. 

Luxury-tax logistics tore that Thunder squad apart before their next go-round. Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets, and they never sniffed their predicted pinnacle. Freak injuries to Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook ruined promising postseason runs before their swan song in 2016—a squandered 3-1 Western Conference Finals lead that drove Durant to the team responsible for beating them, the Golden State Warriors, not two weeks after the Thunder shipped Ibaka to the Orlando Magic.

What if the baby Sixers are the version of that team with a happy ending? What if, a couple years from now, when LeBron James has met his twilight (or moved West), they're the squad tasked with upending the Warriors' dynasty?

This feels like a farce when talking about a collection of early 20-somethings, and yet, within Philadelphia, it's the expectation. It has to be. The Sixers don't fork over what should be a top-five pick in 2018 or top-seven selection in 2019 to move up two spots for a player they think is all right. He fills a need, yes, but they pull the trigger because his unproven talent is worth the hype its sired.

“The odds are in your favor at No. 1, more so than any other position in the draft, that the player chosen may end up being a franchise-level player,” general manager Bryan Colangelo told reporters, “and it’s a pretty significant spread.”

Some will still worry about the fit between Fultz and Simmons. Head coach Brett Brown, after all, billed Simmons as the official, not de facto, point guard back in April. Fultz will play off the rock in Philly more than he ever did with Washington, giving way to a steeper learning curve.

Fultz may have an easier time acclimating to his new surroundings than we think.
Fultz may have an easier time acclimating to his new surroundings than we think.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

But he also canned 41.3 percent of his treys as a freshman, most of which, according to Hoop-Math.com, came off assists. This lends hope to the idea that he can thrive in a hybrid on-to-off-action role, as The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor wrote:

"He isn’t a great off-ball shooter by any means. Per Synergy, he shot just 38.3 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, with most of his attempts toeing the college line. He needs to extend his range and speed up his release. But he’s at least projectable to effectively space the floor and be a threat to hit shots. Fultz’s versatile scoring ability also enables Brown to get creative: Simmons can be used as a screener as Embiid spaces the floor with Fultz at the controls."

Simmons will have a tougher time making the transition to off-ball work. He went 1-of-3 from beyond the arc during his lone season at LSU while putting down just 32.9 percent of his two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.com. The Sixers will need him to hone his spot-up touch for this connection to collide with its ceiling.

In the meantime, though, Philly can leverage him as a pick-and-roll diver and general cutter. He has the size to be a big-time screener and converted more than 75 percent of his looks at the rim as a freshman. That he racked up 10.3 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes suggests he'll have no trouble adapting to more physical coverages in these situations.

Embiid won't have an issue fitting in with these two alpha ball-handlers. He is the Sixers' surest bet, because he's already a star. He joins Tim Duncan as the only two rookies to clear 20 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two blocks per game, and Philly played like—get this—a 49-win team when he was on the floor, according to NBA Math's FATS projections. 

The Sixers will have to find post-up touches for Embiid, but he can be complementary to his sidekicks. He placed in the 72nd percentile of roll-man efficiency and drilled 37 percent of his catch-and-fire threes last season, all without a true lead facilitator running the show. And with his polished footwork and tighter-than-anticipated handles, Embiid can be the hub for inverted pick-and-rolls.

He's the unicorn the NBA didn't know it had—a top prospect that became a mystery during his two seasons on the shelf, before eventually starring as the version of Hakeem Olajuwon who entered the league three decades later.

So expectations for this trio should be lofty. And they climb higher when looking at the building blocks around them.

Saric. Justin Anderson. Robert Covington. Richaun Holmes. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. Nik Stauskas. As of now, the Sixers have at least one first-round pick in every future draft. Even with salary-cap projections falling to $99 million for next season, they can get around $50 million to spend by renouncing all their free agents and waiving Gerald Henderson's non-guaranteed deal.

Philly has set itself up to be really good, for a really long time. But that's only half the battle.
Philly has set itself up to be really good, for a really long time. But that's only half the battle.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Search for a team that's better set up to make a ruckus now and knock on the championship window for the next seven-plus years. Go ahead.

The Warriors? Maybe. The San Antonio Spurs? Obligatory maybe.

Another option doesn't exist.

There's only one hangup threatening to unravel the Sixers' reinvention: They haven't done anything yet. 

New contenders are prematurely crowned all the time. Anointing Philly the next great superpower, however far down the line, is just plain reckless.

Embiid, Fultz and Simmons have 31 NBA appearances between them. Saddling them with a championship outlook is unfair. Most of the supporting cast is more experienced, but the Sixers aren't overrun with proven contributors.

Stauskas' 226 career games are more than any core piece. Covington is the only other one to crack the 200 mark. Embiid and Simmons, two of Philly's three most important parts, missed their entire rookie campaigns. Through three seasons, Embiid has sat for 215 of a possible 246 contests—or 87.4 percent of his career.

Dealing with the uncertainty of injuries and prospect development is tricky enough. It's even more complicated for the Sixers because defining decisions are on the horizon.

Letting Stauskas walk in restricted free agency next summer might be easy, but how much is Covington, an unrestricted mercenary in 2018, worth to them? Anderson and Holmes will need new deals by 2019. Ditto for Jahlil Okafor. And what's the skinny with him anyway? He's a goner, but when? And how?

As promising as they look, the Sixers are no sure thing.
As promising as they look, the Sixers are no sure thing.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Most importantly: What do the Sixers do with Embiid? He's extension-eligible this summer. Do they pay him now if he's offering a slight discount, even though he has less than 800 minutes of court time on his resume? Or do they ride out the situation into restricted free agency next summer, ensuring he remains healthy but also opening themselves up to max-money overtures from aggressive rivals even if he's not? 

These are not knocks against the Sixers. Nor is it to imply they will fail. They are in a better position than most, and their Big Three, now completed by Fultz, could be their ticket to a handful of NBA Finals and a couple of banners.

Or this could be a rush to judge what remains an incomplete project. We don't know. 

For all they've done, for all they looked poised to do, the Sixers' future remains a process. 

And drafting Fultz is the next step, not the end.

          

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

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