Will We Ever Really Know What Caused Markelle Fultz to Miss 68 Games?

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistMarch 29, 2018

Philadelphia 76ers' Markelle Fultz in action during an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks, Wednesday, March 28, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — Jahlil Okafor saw videos trickling across his timeline on Twitter, accompanied by joke after joke, and grew concerned for his new teammate.

This was October, about three months removed from the Philadelphia 76ers' decision to orchestrate a pre-draft trade to select Markelle Fultz. An explosive 6'4" point guard out of the University of Washington, Fultz had spent the previous college season wowing scouts with his combination of physical gifts—he's big, strong and fast—and scoring prowess. He could get anywhere he wanted on the floor. He boasted both a soft touch near the rim and a fluid stroke (41.3 percent on three-point attempts) away from it. 

In June, the Sixers sent the Boston Celtics their first-round pick, third overall, along with a future (likely lottery) first-rounder in exchange for the top selection in the 2017 draft. In Fultz, they saw a player who could slide in perfectly alongside young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and complete their Process.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 25: Ben Simmons #25 Joel Embiid #21 and Markelle Fultz #20 pose for a portrait during 2017-18 NBA Media Day on September 25, 2017 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Then, in late September, as the Sixers gathered for training camp, things got weird. By now you're familiar with the story: the altered mechanics, vague injuries, cryptic press conferences and, of course, the videos, shot and posted by local Sixers reporters and made viral by Fultz's stiff shooting form. That smooth right-handed jumper that had helped propel him to success had been replaced by a robotic shot put.

For people in and around the NBA, the clips were jarring and impossible to miss. By then, Okafor had already noticed that Fultz had changed something about his shot. But now, others outside the Sixers' locker room were noticing, too. And poking fun.

Okafor pulled Fultz aside. 

"You straight?" he asked. 

The 19-year-old Fultz, who soon after would be pulled from the active roster by the Sixers, turned to Okafor and smiled. 

"He was like, 'I don't care about that stuff,'" Okafor, who was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in December, told Bleacher Report recently. "He just laughed. I felt like it was genuine."

Five months later, after missing 68 games, Fultz returned to the floor. As Philadelphia's suddenly warm and welcoming fans serenaded him with cheers, he scored 10 points and dished out eight assists in his first game back, a blowout victory over the Denver Nuggets.

"We all understand, and the fans clearly understand, that whatever injury he had with his shoulder, that there was a mental side in terms of him coming back from that. So the encouragement that the fans have shown him, that enthusiasm has been remarkable," Sixers guard J.J. Redick said Wednesday night following the team's 118-101 win over the New York Knicks, Fultz's second game back. 

"For me, it's like a proud moment. I think sports work best when there's a symbiotic relationship between the team, the fans, the organization, and the last two nights with Markelle and how fans have received him and encouraged him, it's been amazing to watch."

PHILADELPHIA,PA -  MARCH 26 : Markelle Fultz #20 of the Philadelphia 76ers runs into the locker room while shaking fans hands against the Denver Nuggets at Wells Fargo Center on March 26, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly ack
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

After the game, Fultz was asked about his shoulder injury. He declined to answer, instead allowing a long silence to speak for him.

So here's what we do know:

Sometime, toward the end of the summer, there was a shoulder injury. And sometime, also toward the end of summer, Fultz messed with his shooting mechanics. The order of these occurrences is unclear. The team noticed Fultz's jumper had been altered when he showed up for training camp in August. The Sixers, according to sources, believe that afterward, Fultz experienced some sort of mental short-circuiting that prevented him from reproducing the muscle memory of his previous jumper. 

"Obviously, we could tell the shoulder was bothering him, but he never really made the excuse like, 'Hey, my shoulder's bothering me.' He just tried to fight through it," said former Sixers guard Nik Stauskas, who was traded with Okafor to the Nets in December. "After that, they shut him down and he wasn't doing much during practices. 

"I think it definitely started with the shoulder, but I definitely think there's a chance that some of it was mental, especially with him being as young as he [is]. There's a chance he just got into his own head a bit."

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 22:  Markelle Fultz #20 of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on from the bench in the second quarter against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on February 22, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Sixers spent the next five months doing all they could to rebuild Fultz's confidence, and by proxy, his jumper. They initially kept him off the court, then they limited his shooting to one-handed reps from a foot away. After practices, Fultz could sometimes be seen launching left-handed triples. Fultz's rehab was placed in the hands of Sixers assistant coach Billy Lange. The two spent hours working together reconstructing his game. 

In mid-February during the All-Star break, Fultz returned to Washington's campus to watch the school retire Isaiah Thomas' jersey. There, he ran into his college coach, Lorenzo Romar. The two spoke about Fultz's season and laughed at Thomas needing to repeatedly instruct his kids to keep quiet during the ceremony.

"[Fultz] was, and still is, the same fun-loving kid he's always been," Romar told Bleacher Report.

One thing, though, was indeed irking Fultz.

"He hates sitting out," Romar said.

Soon after, he'd no longer have to.

PHILADELPHIA, PA -  MARCH 26: Markelle Fultz #20 of the Philadelphia 76ers guards an inbound pass against the Denver Nuggets at Wells Fargo Center on March 26, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
David Dow/Getty Images

After the All-Star break, Fultz's workouts began growing more intense. In turn, he grew more confident. Prior to a March 11 game in Brooklyn, Fultz spent nearly an hour on the floor with Lange working on crossovers and pull-ups and sprinkling in the occasional dunk. Lange, in the role of skills trainer and life coach, incessantly offered loud words of encouragement.

"His jump shot looked smooth, there was no hitch," said Stauskas, who watched from the sideline.

Two weeks later, Fultz was activated and coming off the bench for a soaring Sixers team climbing toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings. He's played 28 minutes in two games and scored 13 points, dished out 15 assists and turned the ball over just once. He's even drilled a few jumpers, though he has hit just six of his 18 shots and is yet to attempt anything outside of 17 feet. 

His play has been both electric and erratic, and enough of the former has left him feeling encouraged. 

"I felt like I had more of a rhythm," he said Wednesday night. "I felt like when I came in, I contributed on both ends of the floor, and that's all I could ask for."

A few minutes later, Fultz thanked reporters and stepped away from the scrum. A Sixers public relations staffer belted out an injury update on Joel Embiid, who had suffered a facial contusion during the game. An extended injury to the team's star big man could derail the Sixers' upswing. 

Fultz, no longer the primary story, walked past team officials and exited the locker room. 

      

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here, and sign up for his newsletter here.

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